India, China, Brazil, Japan, other countries want a voice on Arctic Council

With an eye on rapid changes in the resource-rich Arctic, countries like China, India and Brazil, which have no Arctic territories, are nonetheless knocking on the door of the increasingly influential Arctic Council looking for admission as permanent observers.

The issue has divided existing members, with Russia and Canada most strongly opposed. It is among the major questions with which Canada will have to grapple as it prepares to chair the Council next year.

It will also feature prominently on the agenda of a two-day meeting on the future of the Arctic Council, January 17-18 in Toronto: The 2nd annual Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Conference, which has attracted the participation of several experts, national ambassadors and indigenous leaders — more than 100 participants from 15 nations in all.

Full members of the Arctic Council are Canada, Russia, the United States, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark (Greenland) – the eight countries with Arctic territory. Six northern indigenous groups – the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Arctic Athabaska Council, Gwich’in Council International, Sami Council, Russian Association of the Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) and Aleut International Association – wield strong influence as permanent participants. The Arctic Council is the only international organization that gives indigenous peoples a formal place at the table. Another six non-Arctic nations sit in as observers today: the U.K., France, Germany, Spain, Poland and the Netherlands.

However, many more non-Arctic countries, which in addition to China, India and Brazil, include Japan, South Korea, the European Union and several individual European states, now want “observer” status, a step that some fear would significantly increase the influence of non-Arctic participants.

Many non-Arctic countries are interested in the Arctic as the “canary in the coal mine” that can teach them about how climate change will impact their own states. They are also interested in the potential access to the vast hydrocarbons and resources in the region and the cost-savings of using shorter Arctic shipping routes.

China has a research station in Norway’s northern Svalbard Islands and is building an 8,000 tonne icebreaker.

A survey last year by the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program found that Arctic residents view China as the least attractive potential partner in the region.

Canada and Russia are the strongest opponents of expansion. Some fear a greatly enlarged contingent of observers would overwhelm the current members, particularly the indigenous groups. Others, however, warn that if the non-Arctic states aren’t allowed at the table, they’ll take Arctic concerns to other international bodies such as the United Nations General Assembly, and the Council’s influence would diminish. On the other hand, membership fees charged to additional observers could help support the participation of the indigenous groups.

“The Council is struggling with this question,” says Tony Penikett, Special Advisor to the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program and former Premier of the Yukon. “The non-Arctic states’ interest is not just a fleeting fancy. For the Council to remain relevant, must it give them a larger role or remain an exclusive club?”

Another divisive issue: Should the Council, originally intended to make recommendations to member governments with a focus on environmental and sustainable development issues, expand its mandate to matters such as security, and aim to become a source of legally binding decisions? Scandinavian countries are the strongest supporters of such changes but others, particularly the United States, do not wish to see the Council enlarge its scope.

The forum in Toronto will recommend the issues Canada should pursue as Council chair.

Mr. Penikett says Canada has a great opportunity to become an influential Arctic power, and to ensure the resource-rich but fragile region doesn’t become a “Wild West” where the views of long-standing residents are ignored.

The door to leadership opens wide in 2013 when Canada begins a two-year term as chair of the 16year-old Council, a governmental forum originally created to promote international co-operation in the North.

And it has proven its value, resolving territorial and other disputes. Council members, for example, have negotiated an agreement on search and rescue operations with another to deal with responses to oil spills under development. Boundary issues are being successfully managed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

As for the future, says University of Toronto historian John English, currently writing a history of the Council: “With rapidly growing global interest in Arctic resources, transportation and science, Canada will become Council chair at a strategic time. It has a golden opportunity to show leadership and shape the Arctic agenda.”

“For Canada to be an Arctic leader and an Arctic power, we need to go beyond protecting our region through the purchase of jets, ships and satellites,” says Madeleine Redfern, Mayor of Iqaluit, the capital of Canada’s Arctic territory of Nunavut. “Canada needs to be a leader in science, research and development, governance and innovative solutions for our region. Despite our great challenges, including vast distances and climate, we also have immense opportunities in terms of resources and human potential. We northerners and Canadians all benefit from having strong, healthy and vibrant Arctic communities that contribute positively towards our nation’s economy and security.”

Tom Axworthy, President & CEO, Walter & Duncan Gordon Foundation, notes that, while counterpart entities in other Arctic states flourished, Canada has let its Canadian Polar Commission flounder. “While the Canadian Government has appointed a new board, adequate funding needs to follow these appointments for the Commission to be truly back in business,” he says.

Entitled “The Arctic Council: Its place in the future of Arctic governance,” the Toronto conference is a rare opportunity for representatives from all circumpolar states to meet policymakers and academics to examine the future of the Council and Canada’s role within it.

A crucial question is how to ensure current structures are kept strong and effective enough to confront the pressures that will arise as the Arctic is opened to fossil-fuel and mineral exploration, international shipping, tourism and other developments.

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