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Short history of the Arctic Council

Arctic Council logoThrough times the unknown has always fascinated people. New cultures and undiscovered lands have allured adventurers of all sorts and great stories are told about people who have courageously travelled through landscapes that traditionally have been thought  inaccessible. For many centuries, the Arctic was remote and pristine region left outside of scientific exploration as well as world politics. It was not before after second world war with technical advancement and ever increasing need for resources and space that world's eyes turned to the Arctic. But instead of becoming a new scientific playground furthering our understanding on world's ecology, the Arctic became militarized region of both the east and the west for four long decades or until the emergence of the perestroika in the Soviet Union which gradually brought the cold war enemies closer and eventually to the same table in 1989.

The first purely Arctic oriented meeting of the eight Arctic countries - Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the U.S. - took place in Rovaniemi Finland in september 1989. The topic of the meeting was the fragile Arctic environment and a potential for joint effort in tackeling the very delicate but urgent issue. After intensive cooperation for the next two years, the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy was initiated in 1991. The AEPS concentrated on cooperation in scientific research and sharing of data on effects of pollution as well as assessing the potential environmental impacts of development activities in the Arctic through its four specific measures, namely Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, Protection of the Marine Environment in the Arctic, Emergency Prevention,Preparedness and Response in the Arctic and Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna.  The cooperation around the AEPS was quite untraditional for many reasons. First, it was one of the first venues where the cold war parties cooperated together to reach a common goal and secondly it became one of the very few inter-governmental institutions including indigenous peoples of the region in the work from the beginning.

Arctic sea ice polar bearsIt became, however, soon clear that the Arctic issues and the change happening in the Arctic environment would have such an immense impact globally that it was decided that the AEPS would step aside and new inter-governmental high level forum would be created to deal Arctic environmental issues. In 1996, the Arctic Council, with membership of all eight Arctic states and permanent participation of regional indigenous peoples associations, was established to promote cooperation, coordination and interaction in issues of sustainable development and environmental protection.

Arctic Council and its Working Groups

CAFF logoThe Arctic Council consists of eight Arctic states; Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the U.S and six permanent participants; Aleut International Association,Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC), Gwich'in Council International (GCI), Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), Russian Arctic Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) and Saami Council. The Arctic Council is governed by Senior Arctic Official (SAO) meetings, which are held twice a year and biennial Ministerial meetings. The chairmanship of the Council rotates between the eights states, each state holding the positition for two years at a time. The chair state establishes a secretariat for the period to deal with administrative matters.

PAME logoDuring the past fourteen years the Arctic Council has advanced knowledge about the Arctic environment through its working groups CAFF, PAME, EPPR, SDWG, AMAP and ACAP. In 2009, PAME published a comprehensive assessment on Arctic Marine Shipping pointing out both possibilities as well as downsides of Arctic shipping. CAFF has conducted various large researches and reviews on Arctic biodiversity, latest being the Arctic Biodiversity Trends 2010. ACAP, EPPR and SDWG have as well all introduced valuable material conserning various urgent issues facing the Arctic and AMAP releases regularly assessments on various issues relating to contaminants.

Contemporary challenges of the Arctic Council

Icebreaker in the arcticSince the end of the cold war the Arctic has been changing in ever increasing speed. Not only does the international community face immense environmental challenges that will influence every part of the world, but also will the Arctic states face territorial claims, issues concerning maritime transportation and infrastructure, natural resource exploitation and a whole new political setting. The Arctic is becoming a lively international region rich of natural resources and high economic potential. The fact is, however, that there is lacking a common political agenda for the future in the Arctic and a legal framework for the emerging maritime activities. Infrastructure on the Arctic coastline is not ready to welcome the incipient economical activities and the participation procedure of the indigenous peoples in developing the area has not yet been fully established. Most of these activities must be undertaken jointly by all the Arctic nations for them to have real impact. The shortage of the Arctic Council mandate to deal with issues other than environment has led to a situation where decicions are made in isolation creating thus incomplete and fragmented framework for the Arctic region.

This situation has been understood in the Arctic states and in every established national Arctic Policy the need for stronger Arctic Council is recognized. In the next few years then, the states have a challenge of reforming the Arctic Council to better correspond to the contemporary challenges. The mandate must be broadened to cover issues other than environment as well and the restructured Council must be presented with a higher level image to equal other international actors in the Arctic region.