The Unfortunate State of Arctic Governance



Posted on 26 April 2010  | 
At the end of Monday’s Arctic Summit near Ottawa, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had harsh words for Canada’s decision to exclude aboriginal leaders and three non-coastal Arctic nations -- Iceland, Finland and Sweden -- from the gathering. Secretary Clinton’s remarks captured what climate change is making obvious: we cannot govern the new Arctic the way we governed the old Arctic.

Secretary Clinton’s remarks did not surprise the Canadian government or the other ministers in Chelsea, Quebec this week. For over a month, she has been signalling her reluctance to meet outside the auspices of the Arctic Council. The Council is an international forum where all eight Arctic nations can meet together and with indigenous peoples to discuss a range of Arctic issues in a non-binding manner.

The surprise was the extent to which a sudden division opened up between coastal states like Russia, Denmark and Norway who clearly believe a venue outside the Arctic Council is needed, and the U.S., which doesn’t. Canada, a key backer of the Council, is caught in between.

The heart of the matter is that climate change is transforming the Arctic, and possibly the world, by melting permafrost and sea ice and opening up potentially vast stores of resources. With indigenous peoples affronted by their exclusion, with Finland and Sweden crying foul and a set of coastal states clearly divided, the status quo is not working. A cohesive approach to governing the Arctic simply does not exist. The Arctic Council, while a key building block, is not yet sufficient.

Arctic nations like Canada now have a time-limited opportunity to lead the discussion on how to sustainably develop the Arctic and its resources. In WWF’s view, this involves recognizing the need for cooperative stewardship among states and institutions as the basis for an inevitably multilateral governance regime. It involves building on, not splintering or ignoring, the Arctic Council which needs a permanent secretariat to function properly. Given the fragility of the Arctic, the region requires a clearly articulated and cohesive agreement(s) that covers everything from administration of protected areas in the Arctic High Seas to regulation of fisheries expanding into international waters to collaboration over search and rescue.

In reality, the Arctic is already an arena of economic interdependence. Forty Norwegian companies operate in Murmansk. Japanese fleets fish Norwegian waters. British Petroleum owns the largest offshore lease in Canadian Arctic waters and when they strike oil, it will likely be Chinese vessels that will carry it out. Non-Arctic countries, like China, are asserting that Arctic resources are a common property resource to be shared among all nations. And it will be Tuvalu that will be inundated, when Greenland’s ice caps melt.

And how have the Arctic nations responded? Two years ago in Illulisaat, Greenland, foreign ministers of the five coastal states issued a Declaration that, given the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and complementary measures under the International Maritime Organization, little else was needed to administer growing industrial development and protection of the Arctic in the face of climate change. Ministers downplayed the importance of the Arctic Council, declaring only that they would continue to contribute to its work and that of other international fora. They were satisfied with a patchwork of governance mechanisms and a patchwork of efforts to implement them. Monday’s summit, while professing otherwise, was revealed by Secretary Clinton to be following the course charted in Illulisaat. This hardly seems realistic, let alone responsible or desirable.

Do coastal states have a right to meet? Of course they do. But the world expects more of them than a division of the spoils. The world is knocking on their door. The Arctic, with over a quarter of the planet’s remaining petroleum supplies, a large portion of its uranium, a quarter of the European fishery and as an engine of planetary cooling cannot be managed by a patchwork of agreements, none of which were designed with the current reality in mind. If coastal states like Canada do not come up with a cohesive framework for governing the Arctic, they will soon lose the moral authority to do so.

Craig Stewart is Director of WWF-Canada’s Arctic program, based in Ottawa Ontario

Sea ice beneath midnight sun in June in the Bering Sea.
© Kevin SCHAFER / WWF-Canon Enlarge

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