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This article originally appeared in issue 01.17 of The Circle. See all issues of The Circle here.

The Netherlands is one of the longest-standing observers at the Arctic Council – since 1996 – and at its predecessor, the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS). KEES RADE and JORDEN SPLINTER look at how this small non-Arctic country contributes to the sustainable development of the North, The Netherlands’ niches and strengths in this region, and how it views the incoming Finnish Chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

1639 painting by Cornelis de Man picturing the whaling station of the Amster-dam chamber of the Northern Company in Smeerenburg, Svalbard, Norway.1639 painting by Cornelis de Man picturing the whaling station of the Amsterdam chamber of the Northern Company in Smeerenburg, Svalbard, Norway.

HISTORICALLY, THE DUTCH were among the earliest Arctic explorers in the 16th century, naming and mapping numerous locations. But what is the current Dutch interest and involvement in the Arctic? The Netherlands 2016-2020 polar strategy makes that very clear: while it doesn’t rule out economic opportunity, environmental protection and sustainable development – based on the ecosystem-based approach and the precautionary principle – come first. This implies that the government does not actively encourage further Arctic exploration and exploitation by the Dutch private sector. However, Dutch companies are very much aware of environmental and safety aspects, and where they are active in the Arctic we ask them to go beyond local or national regulations and keep raising the bar for sustainable operations.

This is where a multi-stakeholder approach is key with government, private sector, scientists and NGOs participating equally in decision-making. This approach is a long-standing Dutch tradition and an export product in itself, reflecting the strong legal position NGOs have in The Netherlands. In the Arctic, the Dutch government has a good working relationship with NGOs such as WWF, which is generally considered a constructive and engaged actor in this vulnerable part of the world.

For sustainable Arctic operations, solid science and research data are indispensable. Arctic countries agree on this as per a binding agreement on Arctic research cooperation signed in May 2017. This is a critical area in which non-Arctic countries can also contribute to the Arctic Council and to the sustainable development of the North. The Netherlands conducts research on numerous themes, and even though its polar program is modest in terms of quantity, we are proud to rank first in the world in terms of citations per research publication. The quality of our research makes The Netherlands a reliable partner in three of six working groups of the Arctic Council – Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG), Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) and other Arctic fora. The Netherlands has also had its own research facility on Svalbard for over two decades.

One of the obvious reasons The Netherlands is involved in Arctic research is climate change and subsequent sea level rise. Roughly one third of the country is below sea level, and two thirds of the national GDP is generated there. Arctic changes are already affecting the biodiversity in the Netherlands, notably in the Wadden Sea area, so we have a strong sense of responsibility for the Arctic. The Netherlands is a country with a large ecological footprint per capita, including CO² emissions. This, combined with a belief that parts of the Arctic belong to us all (as a global common), illustrates the need for an Arctic policy. Part of this policy is the position of Indigenous peoples, as The Netherlands is one of the few countries globally to ratify the International Labour Organization 169 Convention on Indigenous Peoples Rights. Finally, a changing Arctic means changing relations between states. It is very much a Foreign Affairs task to analyze Arctic changes and understand what global and Arctic climate developments mean for national and European security. Our Minister of Foreign Affairs had this in mind when he joined the former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s GLACIER conference on Svalbard in the summer of 2015.

The US Chair of the Arctic Council has done a great job in terms of working with observer countries and giving them a voice. We are confident the Finnish Chair will continue this practice. We have recently met with the Finnish Arctic team, and have concluded that the Dutch and Finns share similar Arctic priorities: sustainable development, environmental protection – particularly the reduction of black carbon emissions – and education. Nothing stands in the way of future cooperation. If there is one thing needed to safeguard the Arctic, it is international cooperation.

KEES RADE became the first Arctic Ambassador for The Netherlands in 2016. He is also Ambassador for Sustainable Development.

JORDEN SPLINTER is Senior Arctic Official for The Netherlands.

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