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Arctic Council in Retreat?

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The flags of Arctic Council members, observer states and permanent participants. © Arctic Council

This week senior officials from the eight Arctic nations, along with leaders from six Indigenous organizations, will gather in Levi, Finland.  On the agenda are issues around environmental protection, connectivity, meteorological cooperation and education in the Arctic. But there is one other critical issue that also needs to be discussed – whether the Arctic Council can provide the leadership needed to help ensure strong cooperation and collaboration in the region moving forward.

The importance of the Arctic region to the rest of the global community is becoming more clear as sea ice melts dues to climate change and global economic players increasingly see the Arctic as a fertile stage for new exploitation. The Arctic remains a region characterized by harsh conditions with scant infrastructure and a variety of governance models, all of which contribute to a lack of consistent environmental management.

For more than two decades, Arctic states have joined together through the Arctic Council to study the region and consider measures important for the protection of its fragile environment through sustainable development. For much of that time the studies and recommendations of the Arctic Council have languished in obscurity and neglect. The failure of states to follow-up on their own studies with concrete action was highlighted last year in WWF’s Arctic Council Conservation Scorecard.

As development pressures increased Arctic Council member states began to recognize an urgent need for more robust cooperation and governance in the Arctic. This growing sense of Arctic state responsibility for wise stewardship of the region seemed to accelerate as non-Arctic states such as China became increasingly active in the region.

However, decisions made at a meeting last month by an Arctic Council Task Force on Marine Cooperation in Quebec City, Canada appear to be heading in the opposite direction. Rather than creating mechanisms to ensure better state implementation of decisions made by Arctic Ministers, it appears the bureaucratic forces within the Arctic Council system prefer to maintain the largely ineffective status quo.

If the Arctic Council is to be a relevant regional and global force capable of addressing the difficult governance issues facing the Arctic region, it must adopt a long-term strategy that embraces a stronger system of cooperation and implementation. Addressing how the Arctic Council can play a leadership role to assure wise stewardship of the Arctic and its resources for its people and the entire earth is what should really be on this week’s agenda.

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