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Establishing the role of Permanent Participants on the Arctic Council: How Arctic Indigenous groups gained recognition on the Arctic Council

January 31, 2019


Elizabeth Mayer

Rising temperatures due to climate change disproportionately impact the Arctic by opening up the Arctic Ocean to mineral exploitation and increased shipping traffic, resulting in increased global attention on the area. The Arctic Council is one of the few organizations with political clout in the region, representing the interests of the eight Arctic states, Canada, Iceland, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Sweden, Finland, the United States, and the Russian Federation. Also on the Council are six groups representing various Indigenous peoples of the Arctic known as Permanent Participants, who are able to speak and provide input at meetings, though they cannot vote in Ministerial meetings. In my paper I discuss how the establishment of this novel role is due to three key things: Mikhail Gorbachev’s Murmansk speech, Indigenous activism, and the non-legally binding structure of the Arctic Council.

Gorbachev’s Murmansk speech in 1987 provided the impetus to create the Arctic Council’s precursor organization, the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, and identified the importance of Arctic Indigenous peoples and cultures to the region. Building off of the larger Indigenous rights movement, Arctic Indigenous activists within and outside the Soviet Union took the principles established in Gorbachev’s speech and applied them to the Indigenous context. Activists within the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, and the Saami Council worked to both establish and strengthen the role of Permanent Participants as actors within the newly formed Arctic Council. These efforts were bolstered by the Arctic Council’s non-legally binding structure, which encouraged Arctic states to join by lowering the stakes of participation, as they would not be held legally accountable to the Council’s regulations and declarations. Together, these three elements allowed for the creation of the Permanent Participant position within an international decision-making body of the Arctic Council.

What are the policy implications? Policy development in the Arctic is particularly tricky, given the conflicting rights landscape and the increased pressure of climate change on an ecologically delicate area, but it also represents an important place to develop Indigenous rights. This pressure was revealed during the University of Washington’s Greenland and Denmark exploration seminar, where students from UW were able to examine both the science of climate change and how Greenland and Denmark were trying to respond to these challenges, experiencing firsthand the difficulties that arise when governing the Arctic. My paper, written after my return from Greenland, argues that Indigenous activism and the lack of a legally binding structure enabled the Arctic Council, an Arctic-based decision-making and governing body, to incorporate Indigenous voices in an unprecedented way. As we experienced in Greenland, Indigenous people live closely with the land, and are intimately impacted by climate change more deeply and sooner than people in mainstream society. Therefore, Indigenous inclusion on international decision-making bodies can help create more socially just policies, as the most heavily impacted are represented and will encourage more equitable changes to international norms. The close relationship between Indigenous peoples and their ancestral lands often means that these groups are fighting against pollution, resource exploitation, and other activities that contribute to or worsen the impacts of climate change, which will increasingly threaten the livelihoods and daily functions of all people. Because of this, it is in everyone’s best interest to hear Indigenous voices and give them space to influence international policies.

However, the challenge is not simply providing Indigenous peoples a ‘seat at the table’ but also allowing them opportunities to be meaningfully heard. The Arctic Council is not ideal, but it does accomplish this by including Indigenous peoples as Permanent Participants who can speak during meetings, even though they cannot vote on procedural matters. As other countries and international decision-making bodies seek to incorporate Indigenous voices, they should look to the Arctic Council’s model of meaningful inclusion as it provides a comprehensive case example of both the successes and limitations of incorporating Indigenous peoples in the decision-making process. Furthermore, countries should continue respecting the recommendations and limitations imposed by non-legally binding groups like the Arctic Council. Increasingly, these decisions are viewed as general norms that countries follow, even without legal enforcement, which gives all decision making parties the flexibility to listen to other opinions and voices before making policy decisions. What the Arctic Council’s inclusion represents is an alternative way of thinking through foreign policy, challenging Western ideas of science by including traditional knowledge, and pushing concepts of sustainable development and Indigenous cultural survival as ways to respond to climate change responsibly. As policy makers respond to climate change’s many challenges, they should emulate and exceed this level of inclusion of Indigenous inclusion seen in the Arctic Council. Furthermore, policy makers should extend this level of inclusion to non-Indigenous community members as well to ensure that all members of the community who want to participate can have their voices heard. Perhaps with these changes, effective policy can be created and meaningfully enforced.

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