On May 11th, 2017 in Fairbanks, Alaska, delegates from the Arctic Council met for their biennial Ministerial Meeting, where they discussed the work of the past two years and transitioned the Chairmanship of the organization from the United States to Finland.
The Arctic Council is an international governance organization provides a forum for interested actors to discuss issues of pertinence to the Arctic. It is made up of eight Member States, six Permanent Participants, and 39 Observers, including non-Arctic states, international governance organizations, and non-governmental organizations. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council is on a two-year cycle that rotates between each of the Member States and has a stated theme or focus for the biennium. The United States has presided over the Arctic Council since 2015 under the theme of “One Arctic,” and on May 11, 2017 power was handed over to Finland to lead the Council’s next term.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson headed the U.S. delegation and acted as the Chairman of the Ministerial Meeting. To begin the meeting, he reiterated the United States’ commitment to “advancing the welfare and living conditions of those who call the Arctic home; recognizing that each country has a strategic interest in being part of the Arctic’s future; and making sure that we continue to be vigilant in protecting the fragile environment” before wishing Finland well during their tenure as chair.
It is fitting, in this time of transition, to reflect on the many ways in which the proceedings of the Ministerial Meeting highlight the unique nature of the Arctic Council as an international governance organization. First, the Arctic Council is a power-sharing organization, which is evidenced by the rotating Chairmanship, where each Member State is provided equal time and responsibility in leading the Council.
Second, even though the Chairmanship exists, this is largely a role of facilitation and goal setting. All decisions are reached through consensus and there is often collaboration between the chairs to promote continuity. For example, the United States and Finland were in communication to coordinate their agendas for their respective leadership roles, even before United States became chair in 2015.
Third, the Arctic Council is unique in its inclusion of Indigenous peoples at the table. As part of the transition process, Tillerson called on representatives from each country and Permanent Participant to make a statement on the accomplishments of the Council during the U.S. Chairmanship and share their hopes for the coming term. Furthermore, the Permanent Participants are literally seated at the same table as state representatives, which visually represents the value given to the voices of Indigenous peoples in a way they are not in any other international organizations.
Finally, the Arctic Council incorporates many levels of governance – state, Indigenous organizations, and non-governmental organizations. While these actors have different relative amounts of influence in the Arctic Council, they all shape the work and vision of the Council.
Important steps were taken during the United States’ tenure as chair. Playing into their theme of One Arctic, the United States focused on encouraging cooperation between Member States and Permanent Participants to recognize shared problems and create shared goals. Some notable accomplishments during the U.S. Chairmanship include the adoption of the Polar Code, signing an agreement on scientific cooperation, and a telecommunications assessment.
The Polar Code, which entered into force January 1, 2017, places stricter regulations on ships and crews operating in the Arctic in order to prevent accidents that could lead to environmental damage or endanger crews. The signing of the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation, the Council’s third legally binding agreement, allows scientists to move more freely about the circumpolar north to conduct research, permits increased access to research facilities, and facilitates the sharing of data with colleagues to increase scientific knowledge about the Arctic. And finally, an assessment from the Taskforce on Telecommunications Infrastructure in the Arctic mapped out the current infrastructure and made recommendations to enhance and expand connectivity for northern peoples. The U.S. Chairmanship culminated in the Fairbanks Declaration, the formal document that summed up the work of the Arctic Council during the Chairmanship, which are always named after the city in which the Ministerial Meeting was held.
Looking forward to the Finnish Chairmanship, we expect to see the continuation and implementation of many of the projects begun under the U.S. Chairmanship and the creation of some original ones as well. The stated goals of the Finnish Chairmanship, as shared by delegate Timo Soini, include maintaining Arctic cooperation despite international tensions that may exist among Member States and other participants, appropriate stewardship of the environment based on international law, and improving the economic and living conditions of Arctic peoples.
To achieve these goals, the Finns will prioritize environmental protection, connectivity, meteorological cooperation, and education. These are expected to begin through continued scientific research on the changing Arctic climate, the implementation of the telecommunications assessment conducted under the U.S. Chairmanship, and the creation of assessments to evaluate the current state of meteorological cooperation and education in the Arctic.
The Finns have chosen “Exploring Common Solutions” as the theme for their Chairmanship. While the United States’ “One Arctic” asserted the unique character of the Arctic as a region that shares common cultural characteristics and faces common problems, the Finnish theme shows a commitment to take the next step and emphasizes that the Arctic Council must be a forum where common solutions to these problems can continue be negotiated and implemented. Maintaining cooperation in the face of political tensions will be especially important for international relations and the future of the Arctic. Here’s to continued cooperation in the Arctic, and here’s to the next two years.
This publication is part of the blog series, “Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience: Arctic Council Ministerial Meetings 2017.” View the introductory article and the listing of the 14 blogs that make up this series.