Arctic Circle: Challenging Exclusivity


The Arctic Circle is the new circumpolar forum to address Arctic issues. It is the brainchild of Ólafur Grímsson, Iceland’s President and his team comprising of Prince Albert II of Monaco, Greenlandic Prime Minister Kuupik Kleist, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski and Russian explorer Artur Chilingarov, who seek to engage a number of stakeholders through an inclusive process. The forum was launched at the National Press Club in Washington in March 2013 and aims to provide opportunities to a variety of stakeholders to present their views on ‘Arctic matters’. The inaugural conference of the Arctic Circle is planned in Reykjavik in October 2013.

Speaking at the inauguration of the forum, Mr. Grímsson observed “We want to be an open tent or a public square". With specific reference to China, EU, India, Singapore and international energy giants and arguing their inclusion, Mr Grimsson added " We realize that there are other nations in Asia and Europe that have legitimate concerns and enterprises in the Arctic and it's important to involve them in a co-operative effort.”. In his schema, Google and Greenpeace also merit consideration.

At the heart of the Arctic Circle is a belief that the forum would bring together under its roof a number of policy and science research centers, think tanks, indigenous people, and non-government organizations (NGO) engaged in Arctic research. The forum would address issues concerning the regional political and security dynamics, economic and resource potential of the Arctic, new sea routes and navigational challenges, environmental concerns and socio-economic issues particularly the concerns and aspirations of the indigenous peoples.

Although these issues are interconnected but are discussed and debated at various forums across the world and therefore lack synergy. It is hoped that the Arctic Circle would ‘raise the profile of Arctic issues worldwide and discuss solutions in a frank and collaborative manner’. The forum can be expected to be an ‘umbrella’ forum or the proverbial ‘tent’ where various stakeholders can get together and discuss issues in an inclusive manner. Interestingly, the forum has also been referred to as the ‘Davos gathering for the High North’.

The Arctic Circle has established a number of smaller working groups to address specific issues such as opportunities and risks of oil and gas exploration, clean energy and sustainable development, business opportunities and cooperation, role and rights of indigenous peoples, polar law (treaties and agreements), Asian and European interests in the Arctic, scientific research cooperation on ice. Interestingly, a working group will also address issues relating to the Arctic and the Himalayas.

The Arctic Circle is unlikely to find favour among the members of the Arctic Council (Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States of America, and six organisations representing Arctic Indigenous Peoples) some of whom have attempted to keep the Council as an ‘exclusive club’ with a number of ‘firewalls’ and argued that ‘Arctic matters’ are best dealt by the littoral countries.

The Arctic Council members have been most suspicious of Asian countries. It has been observed that ‘many countries that have no relation to the Arctic, now have the desire to get a piece of the Arctic pie. If given the green light early in the Council one hundred observers will require more and more rights, and then want to convert the Arctic into a 'heritage of humanity’. Likewise, concerns have been expressed that with the inclusion of other members in the Arctic Council, it will be harder to reach a consensus and it may face a similar situation as happened during the climate conference in Copenhagen. Although there is no common view among the Asian countries on the Arctic, some countries have expressed disappointment and it has been observed that ‘Circumpolar nations have to understand that Arctic affairs are not only regional issues but also international ones.’

Currently there are 14 applications from non-Arctic states and organizations that are seeking Permanent Observer Status in the Arctic Council. These applications are pending before the Arctic Council and will come up for consideration during its meeting in Kiruna, Sweden in May 2013.

Earlier, in 2011, the Arctic Council had announced the Nuuk Observer Rules and set the criteria for including members as permanent observers. There are fears that the Arctic Council may not take decision on the pending applications during the Kiruna meeting in May 2013. This can potentially create a vacuum to be filled by the Arctic Circle. The Observer aspirants will surely be drawn towards the Arctic Circle which is willing to fill the vacuum. The forum could serve as an alternate platform and help advance their national interests. They may even think of raising the issue of ‘exclusivity’ in the United Nations.

At another level, it is worth mentioning that Iceland is pushing China’s application for a Permanent Observer in the Arctic Council. It will be useful to recall that in 2008, China had supported the floundering Icelandic economy and bailed out Iceland’s banks after they had colappsed. Since then China has unleashed a number of political and diplomatic initiatives and offered economic sops to Iceland. For Reykjavik, it is a pragmatic relationship and the government looks to Beijing favourably much to the discomfort of the US and the European Union who failed to support Iceland in its hour of crisis.

Author Note
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Director (Research) Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.