In May 2013, Canada will succeed Sweden as chair of the Arctic Council, a high-level intergovernmental forum for Arctic governments and peoples. Canada’s term as chair coincides with a period of dynamic change for the Council and the Arctic region as a whole.
The chair rotates among member states every two years. Canada held the inaugural position from 1996 to 1998. It will officially take the helm again at the Council’s ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, on 14–15 May.
The Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of Health, Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and Minister for the Arctic Council, will assume the chair.
The overarching theme for Canada’s term will be “Development for the People of the North.” There are three sub-themes: “Responsible Arctic Resource Development,” “Safe Arctic Shipping” and “Sustainable Circumpolar Communities.”
Rapid change in the Arctic
Canada assumes the chair at a time of transition for the Council and of increasing need for international cooperation in the Arctic.
The Arctic is undergoing rapid, multi-faceted change. In the last few decades, the Arctic has warmed at about twice the global rate, contributing to an accelerated thaw of Arctic sea ice, glaciers and permafrost.
This has significant implications for the people and biodiversity of the North, as well as for the global climate. In addition, it has rendered parts of the region more accessible to natural resource development and to marine navigation, as in the case of the Northwest Passage.
These changes have created new challenges and opportunities for the governments and residents of the Arctic and focused the world’s attention on the region.
As the centre of circumpolar cooperation, the Arctic Council is becoming more important to the international community.
The Arctic Council is an international body with Canadian roots. The 1996 Ottawa Declaration formally established it as an intergovernmental forum to promote cooperation, coordination and interaction among the eight Arctic states (see map). It has representation of Arctic indigenous peoples as permanent participants, a unique feature among international bodies, as well as the involvement of other stakeholders as observers.
The Council’s activities are largely conducted through several thematic working groups and overseen by designated government ministers of member states and by senior Arctic officials.
The Council’s institutional character has evolved in recent years. In the May 2011 Nuuk Declaration (4.58 MB, 7 pages), ministers of the Council committed to strengthen its capacity by establishing a permanent secretariat in Tromso, Norway.
At the Nuuk, Greenland, meetings, ministers also approved the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic. It was the first legally binding agreement to be negotiated under the Council’s auspices. Some have noted that this marks a change, as the Council becomes more of a decision-making body as well as one that shapes policy.
Specific initiatives, foreshadowed in various government statements and media reports, will be announced at the May 2013 ministerial meeting.
These are some of the key issues expected to develop during Canada’s chairing of the Council:
- Expanding membership: Since 2009, several applicants, including China and the European Union, have sought observer status on the Council. Decisions on such applications may be taken at the May ministerial meeting. If more observers are accepted, their participation and the protection of the role of permanent participants may become an issue in the Council.
- Arctic shipping: Currently, Arctic shipping is regulated mainly via two international treaties and 2009 supplementary guidelines for the Arctic region. The Arctic states are supporting the International Maritime Organization in the development of a mandatory Polar Code to supplement existing international law. In addition, the Arctic Council’s 2009 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment recommended greater access to reliable communication and monitoring systems.
- Oil spill preparedness: The Council is preparing to adopt a new treaty on oil spill preparedness and response in Kiruna. Canada has offered to host the first exercise under the instrument in 2014.
Figure 1 - Member States of the Arctic Council
Source: DIVA GIS, Natural Earth, CIA Factbook, Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR), 2004
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