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Arctic Decisions Made at National and International Levels

Alaska has limited role as a state, some Alaskans can have influence


An adult polar bear, the iconic symbol of the Arctic, stands upright on hind feet in search of seals to eat on sea ice floating off the coast of Svalbard, Norway.

┬ęSteven Kazlowski/AlaskaStock.com

The Arctic is opening, posing opportunities as well as risks. Some see the potential for oil and gas exploration and new shipping routes as positives. Others see dire consequences from severe storms, wildlife effects, coastal erosion, and melting permafrost.

As the nation’s only Arctic state, Alaska will feel the effects first, for better or worse. But it is unclear how much Alaskans can influence key Arctic policy decisions. Those decisions are made far from the state on the national and international levels, and Alaska’s role is limited.

Nations that share the Arctic, and even nations far from the north, like China, Singapore, and India, are now part of a multinational group, the Arctic Council. Alaska is not part of this.

Alaskans must work through the channels they have, which are several, to influence the US delegation to the Arctic Council.

Eight nations that are considered “Arctic” formed the Arctic Council in 1996 and are its permanent members. They include Canada, Denmark (which includes Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States, because of Alaska. However, the member states are not bound by a treaty and the Council has no legal authority on its own.

Nations rotate the chairmanship at two-year intervals. Sweden has completed its turn, and Canada is now the chair. The United States will take over as chair in 2015. In 2017 the United States turns the chairmanship over to Finland. Though its status is informal, the Council does now have a full-time Secretariat, or staff office, that is located in Stockholm.

Every two years, when the chairmanship rotates, the council meets in a ministerial-level session and issues a formal, but non-binding “declaration” that reviews past work and outlines future projects.

The Council’s agreements are those of its members, which pledge themselves to enforce the agreements. Two agreements have been adopted now: an emergency response agreement in 2011 and an oil spill response agreement reached this year. These do commit member states to pool resources in responses. Further agreements are likely. One being discussed is sharing research and providing access to members’ Arctic continental shelves for research. This may be a touchy subject for some members, however, such as Russia and possibly Canada, who are sensitive to territorial sovereignty.

So how does Alaska fit into the Council’s work? Procedurally, Alaska must work through the US delegates, which are headed by the US State Department. Formally, the US Secretary of State is the actual council member along with other members’ counterparts of equal rank, although day-to-day matters are handled by subordinate officials, in the United States’s case by Julie Gourley, the US State Department’s senior Arctic official.

An interesting development is that, with climate change, the Arctic, and the Arctic Council, are now getting more attention from senior officials in the US government. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the Council ministerial meeting in Nuk, Greenland, two years ago, and John Kerry, the current Secretary of State, attended the 2013 meeting in Kiruna, Sweden earlier this year.

The presence of a US cabinet member at the meeting attracted widespread attention and substantially elevated interest in Arctic matters and the international status of the Arctic Council.

Alaska has no formal role at the Council meetings. However, state officials can be, and have been, members of the council’s various working groups. For example, Larry Dietrick, former state oil spill response director, was a member and an active participant in the Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness, and Response working group. This is important because it is at the working group level that the heavy-lifting staff work gets done on policy initiatives.

In addition to the eight member states, several other entities and countries are involved at different levels in the Council.

One unique feature of the Arctic Council is that it is one of few multinational bodies that grant a special status to indigenous groups.

Six indigenous groups are “permanent participants” and play an active role in the Council’s deliberations and participate in its negotiations and discussions. What’s also important is that Alaska Natives are leading several groups like the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, one of the Council’s six permanent participants.

Permanent participants are allowed to attend and participate in Council meetings, which gives Alaska Natives direct access to top-level officials of the member nations. Permanent participants can also engage in the working groups and can even chair working groups. There is also the Indigenous Peoples Secretariat, a staff group that works with the Council’s Secretariat in Sweden.

Finally, there are “permanent observers,” nations or even organizations that are given official recognition to attend Council meetings to observe, but not participate. Great Britain, for example, has long had observer status.

In 2013, the council, cognizant of increasing global competition for the Arctic’s resources, added six more permanent observers at its biannual meeting, doubling the number from six to twelve. Five of the six new permanent observers are Asian (China, India, South Korea, Japan, Singapore) and one is European (Italy).

That move attracted a lot of attention. But it is clear that although they are far from the Arctic these nations are interested in Arctic resources and shipping routes and want to at least be near the policy table if not at it.

Alaska’s Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell, who has long been involved in Arctic policy matters, takes the position that it is better to include these nations as observers rather than try and exclude them. “It’s better to include them, because you don’t them going off to form their own group,” Treadwell says.

Observers are not without status, however. They can participate in the Council’s working groups. Some close observers of the Arctic Council such as Patricia Cochran, executive director of the Alaska Native Science Commission, are critical of the Council for not better defining the roles of the observers.

“The status of the observers is not well defined, and I think this is one of the failures of the Arctic Council,” she says.

Cochran is originally from Nome and was involved for several years in Arctic Council matters, representing the Inuit Circumpolar Council from 2006 to 2009. (Jimmie Stotts, from Barrow, now heads the ICC.) Cochran also served as chair of the Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat to the Arctic Council.

Cochran’s concern is that observer nations with financial clout, like China, may be able to wield outsized influence in the working groups, particularly since all Arctic nations, including the United States, have few financial resources to commit to Arctic projects like infrastructure.

Also, although observers cannot participate at full Council meetings on their own initiative, they can be invited to participate at the meetings by member nations, Cochran says. For example, Denmark, which represents Greenland, may be one Council member that China can rely on. Chinese mining companies are making heavy investments in Greenland in joint-ventures with Australian firms.

Cochran’s real concern, however, is that as observer nations accumulate more influence in the working groups, and indirectly on the Council, the influence of indigenous groups, their formal recognition notwithstanding, will be diluted.

“Some of these newly-recognized observers have terrible human rights records, and we’re now expecting them to be respectful of Arctic indigenous peoples? It’s a little frightening,” Cochran says.

Cochran has reason to be concerned. The spate of news about what other far-flung nations want in the Arctic keeps growing. There are even hints of conflicts—Russia recently flexed its muscles and reopened an abandoned naval base off its Arctic Coast. That reopening was interpreted as “an apparent bid to protect the new northern shipping route to Asia, as well as to secure the region’s vast energy resources,” according to the Economy Watch news site.

There is some talk of devising a global regime for the Arctic under the auspices of the United Nations. Shyam Saran, a former Indian Foreign Secretary, proposed that idea a few months ago. Saran, writing in The Hindu newspaper, considered the “global commons” character of the Arctic and suggested that the UN set up its own Arctic body. Such a body would “provide the international community the capacity to monitor what is happening in the region, draw up strict norms for activities, taking into account, and put in place a credible and effective compliance mechanism.” Without a hint of irony, Saran goes on to say, “India could certainly push for such a global regime without violating its role of Observer at the Arctic Council.”

There are other bodies engaged in Arctic matters that are outside the Arctic Council.

One is the US Arctic Research Commission (ARC), a body of citizens and scientists appointed by the president, which advises US government agencies on Arctic research priorities. Several Alaskans are members of the commission, and its chair is Fran Ulmer, a former lieutenant governor. Treadwell was the previous chair of the ARC.

That two of the commission’s five priorities deal with indigenous peoples (human health and cultural preservation) and a third deals with community infrastructure impacts from climate change demonstrates the Alaska influence on the commission. Two other ARC priorities are observing and understanding environmental changes and understanding natural resources.

The principle way of strengthening indigenous culture, interestingly, is to help preserve Native languages, a priority for the federal commission Treadwell established during his tenure as ARC chair, and that has been continued by Ulmer. Indigenous languages are important because a great deal of traditional knowledge important to scientists is stored and expressed through local languages, Treadwell says.

If the federal research commission’s goals reflect Alaska influence, the federal government’s Arctic “strategy,” as it is emerging, seems not to. The strategy, which is meant to prepare for the US turn as chair of the Arctic Council, was released earlier this year and emphasizes security and environmental concerns with, so far, no mention of the economic opportunities in the Arctic, like oil and gas and shipping, or real environmental risks like oil spills from shipping.

Canada’s priorities during its current tenure as chair of the Council, in stark contrast to US strategy, emphasize responsible resource development, safe shipping, and sustainable communities through local jobs and business development.

Local jobs and business development are of prime interest to Alaskans, too, and so is marine safety in the Arctic and in congested waters like the Bering Strait.

The Bering Strait is getting a lot of attention. Oil tankers and freighters are using Russia’s Northern Sea Route in increasing numbers. This summer the Yong Sheng, a Chinese cargo ship received international attention as it journeyed through Russian Northern Sea Route, which shortens the voyage between China and Europe by thousands of miles.

Alaskans worry about the lack of requirements for the shipping companies to have spill contingency plans, unlike shipping in Alaska waters.

In fact, there are not even “rules of the road” and traffic lanes agreed on between Russia and the United States for vessels in the Bering Strait, a matter of real concern to the US Coast Guard.

Another group engaged in Arctic issues that will address marine safety, is the International Maritime Organization, a body that establishes rules for international shipping. Recognizing the increased shipping in the Arctic the International Maritime Organization is now working on a special “Polar Code” of guidelines for ships that transit the Arctic. These are expected to be finalized in 2015.

Developments in the Arctic will continue at a frenetic pace. Alaskans have a role to play in the discussions about the Arctic’s future and they have to prepare for the big changes that await an area whose riches are coveted by many.

Shehla Anjum is an Anchorage-based writer.

This first appeared in the December 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.
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