Canada's Arctic Council chairmanship a substantial success
by Natalia Loukacheva
April 15, 2015
Canada’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council from 2013 to 2015 has met many challenges. It marked the beginning of the second round of two-year chairmanships of the eight-member body at a time of unprecedented interest in the Arctic, along with increased collaboration among Arctic states.
The council’s further ambitions in this collaboration were reflected in the 2013 Kiruna Ministerial “Vision for the Arctic.” One of the obstacles Canada had to overcome was its harsh criticism of Russian actions in Ukraine. However, despite tensions with Russia that risked affecting multilateral Arctic diplomacy, Canada and other Arctic nations have been able to compromise and work together to reaffirm their substantial common interests in the Arctic.
Canada has been faced with the delicate task of balancing the unique role of its Northern indigenous peoples with interests of its other Arctic Council partners who tend to view the region from a geo-economic and geopolitical perspective. Controversy over Arctic continental shelf claims also pose a challenge to relations with Denmark, Russia, and possibly the United States. Hopefully, these discussions will be eased by the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration, which obliges these states to sort out possible overlapping claims “in an orderly way.”
While these challenges have made Canada’s leadership of the council an uneasy task, its obvious positive accomplishments made its chairmanship an even more substantial success.
The establishment of the Arctic Economic Council is by far its greatest achievement. With the promise of bringing new business opportunities to companies and the northern regions of Arctic States, the AEC will help harmonize the interests of big business such as oil and gas along with traditional indigenous peoples' businesses.
It will also bring new weight to the work of the Arctic Council and provide better practical opportunities for co-operation among Arctic nations and businesses. While the AEC is still a work in progress, hopefully it will prove itself to be an efficient and productive institution.
A special Arctic Council task force is due to deliver a set of concrete measures to curb the release of black carbon and methane. But without the additional support of major non-Arctic states in the future, this will only partially address this key climate change factor.
New arrangements are also expected to strengthen international scientific co-operation in the Arctic, which will boost information sharing and Arctic programs, such as the International Polar Program initiative—initially International Polar Decade—that will build on the achievements of the International Polar Year (2007/08).
Work is underway in the area of environmental protection and a concrete action plan is expected to prevent marine oil spills in the Arctic. It will be addressed by the council as part of its Arctic environmental protection efforts, and will reinforce the 2013 Arctic Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response Agreement signed by all Arctic states. Current decline in world oil prices and the consequent slowdown of Arctic oil exploration do not at all diminish the significance of these efforts.
Proposals to enhance the role of permanent participants in the Arctic Council are expected to be worked out, as well as the evaluation of implementation of the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, reports on adaptation measures to the changing Arctic and other deliverables.
Last year Canada successfully negotiated a compromise on trade in seal products with the EU that provided an exemption for Canadian indigenous peoples. This was instrumental to eliminating controversy over the provision of the EU’s Arctic Council observer status. However, this status will not be automatically ensured due to increased tensions between Russia and the EU over the Ukraine situation. This status will be considered at the upcoming 2015 Arctic Council ministerial meeting.
Overall, Canada has maintained its position as a leader of Arctic co-operation and assured an excellent foundation for the United States to take over chairmanship of the council later this month.
Natalia Loukacheva is a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Governance and Law at the University of Northern British Columbia's Department of Political Science.