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Breaking the Ice for Indigenous Voices on the World Stage

August 2, 2017


Malina Dumas

Feature Series

The Arctic Council: A unique institution in 21st century international relations

Arctic in Context - World Policy Institute

“Inuit with our fellow Indigenous Peoples are not stakeholders. We are the main players.” This is how J. Okalik Eegeesiak, current chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, ended her February 2016 speech titled “An Inuit Vision of the Arctic in 2045” in front of the Wilton Park international forum in London. Unfortunately, her description of indigenous peoples’ roles is not reflected in state policies anywhere in the world. Today, indigenous representatives continue to struggle to make their voices heard in a system that favors state-centric forms of governance and Westphalian concepts of nationhood and sovereignty. The creation of the Arctic Council, however, may have broken the ice for indigenous groups by promoting a higher level of participation in both regional and international institutions.

The Arctic Model

The Arctic Council, established in September 1996, is unique as an intergovernmental body in that it provides Permanent Participant status to indigenous peoples’ organizations. Permanent Participants have full consultation rights in connection with the Arctic Council’s negotiations and decisions. Although indigenous organizations are not allowed to vote, they participate in the same manner as Arctic Council member states in most other respects and can present proposals for cooperative activities directly to state representatives.

The document that paved the way for the creation of the Arctic Council was the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, adopted in June 1991. The drafting of the AEPS was the first time indigenous peoples in the region participated in the preparatory process of an international declaration. Although the Arctic Council is an informal organization—not an official international organization like the United Nations, recognized under international law—it is still an example of effective communication with indigenous groups on issues that directly impact their communities and livelihoods.

Progress at the U.N. General Assembly

Back in 2005, Arctic scholars Timo Koivurova and Leena Heinämäki wrote a paper advocating for the Arctic Council model to be applied in other regions. They were skeptical, however, as to whether this model could ever be used at the highest level of international decision-making. In reference to institutions like the United Nations, they stated, “it is always possible that indigenous peoples will be able to participate with a status other than that of NGO, but in the current international law-making process, this is very unlikely.” Just over a decade after Koivurova and Heinämäki offered a fairly skeptical view on indigenous participation at the international level, the U.N. began consultations on this very topic.

Over the past year, the U.N. General Assembly has hosted consultations to create a new status for “indigenous representative institutions.” Although the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that indigenous peoples are entitled to participate in all decisions affecting them, they are currently not allowed to actively participate or even attend certain U.N. meetings where their interests are at stake. For example, indigenous governing institutions cannot so much as observe sessions of the Human Rights Council or Third Committee of the General Assembly without a special invitation, even though these bodies adopt annual resolutions on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Merely allowing indigenous governments NGO status does not show respect for their right to self-determination and sovereignty. Thus, consultations to create an independent status are a step in the right direction. Although there are many disagreements between indigenous representatives and U.N. member states regarding the terms of this status, there is consensus that it should be at least a notch above that for accredited NGOs. A decision to enhance their status at General Assembly meetings could cause other forums within the organization to follow suit, bolstering indigenous participation in critical areas of interest.

United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

The only forum within the U.N. that currently reflects a power dynamic similar to that in the Arctic Council is the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), established in 2002 within the Economic and Social Council. Since the U.N. is a state-centric body, the workaround to allow this kind of structure was to establish the UNPFII as an “expert body” rather than a “government body.” It is comprised of 16 independent experts representing their own views and functioning autonomously rather than under member states. They each serve for three-year terms and may be re-elected or re-appointed for one additional term. U.N. member states and indigenous organizations nominate eight experts each. The members nominated by the indigenous organizations represent seven socio-cultural regions, one of which is the Arctic. Still, what distinguishes the UNPFII from the Arctic Council is that in the U.N. body, indigenous groups don’t play a role in the decision-making process or have any kind of veto power. In the UNPFII, indigenous experts are limited to submit recommendations that are passed through a hierarchy of other U.N. bodies, and the decision to adopt any recommendations is still left solely to member states.

According to indigenous scholar Gordon Christie, the conversation on indigenous representation “cannot just be about the Inuit arguing for power within the nation-state structure or for nation-state status, but rather it has to be about the extension of sensibility out to an acknowledgment of the Inuit exercising their power in speaking of how they would structure decision-making over land.” But while Christie considers a “move toward challenging the dominant narrative” as perhaps the only way to ensure the security of indigenous peoples across the Arctic region, this kind of dramatic shift of the international decision-making paradigm is exactly what U.N. member states are keen to avoid. Consequently, significant limitations have been imposed on the power of UNPFII, and many state representatives have voiced concerns about how a new status for indigenous peoples would be implemented in the General Assembly.

Although the Arctic Council and the U.N. take quite different approaches in listening to the voices of indigenous peoples and supporting their sovereign rights, each institution’s progress reinforces that of the other. Despite its shortcomings, the U.N. puts forth standards for human rights and indigenous rights that are legally binding and shape the relationships between states and indigenous peoples around the world, including those in the Arctic.

Institutions that do not have the force of law behind most of their actions, like the Arctic Council, tend to have more flexibility in how they operate and can set higher aspirations for collaboration with indigenous groups. By setting this precedent, they may influence more rigid international institutions like the U.N., which can pick out key ideas and give them teeth. In turn, the U.N. and other high-level bodies can put pressure on national governments to enact meaningful changes to their domestic policies, which will improve the level of consultation with indigenous peoples within their borders. Indigenous peoples still face a long journey toward becoming main players on the world stage, but at least the ice has been broken. Now is the time to push forward.



By Malina Dumas

Malina Dumas is a J.D. candidate at the University of Washington School of Law. She also holds a 2016–17 Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship in Inuktitut from the Canadian Studies Center, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. Malina is also a FLAS Fellow (2016-2018) (Canadian Studies, Inuktitut).

Find the introductory article for this series here.

[Photo courtesy of Broddi Sigurðarson]

*This article was originally published by World Policy Institute.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.