The Arctic Council: Transformation and Expansion

May 31, 2013

By Edward Phillips, Principal Lecturer, Law School, University of Greenwich

The Arctic Council was set up in 1996, following on from the Ottawa Declaration, and compromises the States who border the Arctic Circle: Canada, Denmark (Faroe Islands and Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the USA. In addition, there are also a number of so-called Permanent Participants (representing the Arctic Indigenous Peoples i.e. the communities with a vested stake), including: the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Aleut International Association, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Russian Arctic Indigenous Peoples of the North and the Saami Council. There are also a number of non-member States, who enjoy observer status, including: France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK.

At stake

The particular interests of these States / Participants are obvious, including environmental protection, resource exploitation and the concomitant advantages following on from the utilisation of the Arctic Sea routes. As far as the latter is concerned, the opportunities are manifest. The savings in costs and time to commercial shipping have been well documented[1]. Moreover, maritime security is a further factor of concern and this has been a cause of concern for NATO and its often troubled relationship with Russia.

All the factors above have led to a growing interest from those States whose Arctic Circle connections may not, at first sight be obvious. An obvious example is China, with its increased maritime role in both commerce as well as the maritime security. Similarly, States such as Singapore and India have long agitated for their interests to be represented. This has finally been accepted by the Arctic Council. At its meeting on the 15 May 2013 at Kiruna in Sweden, the representatives of the Arctic Council and the Arctic Indigenous Peoples agreed to an expansion of observer status to the following six States: China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore. An application by the EU was deferred following on objections by Canada, apparently due to the on-going EU ban on Canadian exports of seal fur and other associated products (see this BBC comment).

The Kiruna Meeting was also noteworthy for the following:

  1. The Kiruna Declaration: the theme for the Canadian Chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2013 – 2015) will be “The Development of the People of the North” together with the establishment of a Circumpolar Business Forum. The latter has three main aims: to provide new opportunities for business to engage with the Arctic Council; to continue the on-going work on oil prevention; and concerted measures to deal with other pollutants including black carbon and methane.
  2. The Arctic Biodiversity Assessment: the report prepared by the Arctic Council’s Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), dealing with the status and trends in Arctic biodiversity and conservation.
  3. The Arctic Ocean Review: prepared by the Arctic’s Council’s working group on Protection of the Marine Environment (PAME) which, among other things, provides policy recommendations to strengthen the conversation and sustainable use of the Arctic marine environment.
  4. The Arctic Ocean Acidification assessment: produced by the Arctic Council’s Arctic monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), which is the first-ever scientific assessment of the impact of acidification on the Arctic marine eco-system and its consequences for the Arctic Indigenous Peoples.


In connection with the twin issues of transformation and expansion, two developments are worth closer scrutiny.

The first relates to the relationship between the EU and the Arctic Council: despite the refusal to grant the EU observer status, it should be noted that two EU member States (Sweden and Denmark) are full members of the Arctic Council while a further four (France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK) have now obtained observer status. This makes it unlikely that the future developmental initiatives of the Arctic Council will be entirely out of step with general EU policies, particularly in relation to the environment and climate change.

The second development may be summarised by the policy of ‘smart power’ pursued during the first Obama Administration and now continued under the second. The ‘smart power’ policy was frequently enunciated by the former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton (see the link below) and may be viewed as one method to deal with the practical / political impossibility of the Obama Administration obtaining congressional approval to secure treaty ratification (especially of the Law of the Sea Treaty 1982 and the various climate change initiatives). A full discussion of ‘smart power’ policy is not feasible here but is summarised in the link below to remarks made by former Secretary Clinton. One consequence of this is that the US is now a full partner in the letter and spirit of both LOSC 1982 as well as in relation to climate change in the Arctic Ocean.

[1] see, for instance, Schoyen and Brathen, “The Northern Sea Route versus the Suez Canal: Cases from Bulk Shipping” (2010) 19 Journal of Transport 977

For further reading:

Arctic Council:

Arctic Council Permanent Participants:

Arctic Sea Routes: “Melting Arctic Sea-ice and Shipping Routes”

NATO Parliamentary Assembly: “Security at the Top of the World”

Remarks of former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton:

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