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Memories from a side room – Arctic Council when it did not matter

Markku Heikkilä

Markku Heikkilä

In case you are planning to have an Arctic Council ministerial meeting, you need to secure room for eight ministers and their aides, permanent participants, all the observers and a huge hang-around crowd. It easily means several hundred people, with security screening to match the status of a superpower state secretary. That is now, 20 years after the Council was inaugurated. In the beginning it was different.

When I watch my pictures from that first Arctic Council event in Ottawa September 19th, 1996, I can see a side room inside the Canadian parliament without any security procedures, with only three ministers in place and without the sense that history is being made here and now. There was rather a tired mood: finally this is done and the names are on the paper, after so many delays and downgrading.

I was there as a journalist, representing all of the international press in place: newspaper Kaleva from Oulu, Finland. From Canada there was Nunatsiaq News from Iqaluit and in a picture there seems to be one cameraman, I do not know who he was. What I do know is that in the next day there were no news about the event to be found anywhere I could check (no Google those days).

Now Arctic Council and Arctic matters are mainstream news. Arctic seminars and conferences pop up here and there, politicians and businessmen keep dropping the A-word from their lips. So what is the point of going back in time? There has been a huge evolution and that is what everybody hoped way back then, one might imagine.
Only that if there were such hopes, they were not anywhere to be seen or heard.


“Sustainable development, global significance”
Soon after Ottawa I started to collect material to my 1998 book Arktiset visiot (Arctic visions, published only in Finnish) where I went through the ideas, origins and early developments of those new cooperation models in the North: Arctic Council, Barents Council, the Northern Dimension. There are some familiar feelings when you go back to the discussions of those years and to the speeches of the Ottawa event: so many of the contents have remained the same.

The meetings and conferences have grown in size and visibility and that in turn employs a lot of project organizers, consultants and us who keep on traveling to those places to hear that the Arctic is changing. All this, however, was not listed in 1996 as one of the concrete goals of the cooperation.

“The major challenge for the Arctic Council lies in promoting sustainable development in the North (…) Increasingly, Arctic issues are becoming global issues” (Lloyd Axworthy, Canadian minister for foreign affairs in Ottawa)

“All activities should be carried out with the framework of sustainable development (…) The Circumpolar North has a global significance (Pekka Haavisto, Finnish minister for environment in Ottawa).

A certain déjà vu –effect is rather inevitable. In those two speeches (most of the statements were not available on paper) are actually surprisingly few elements that would not have been circulating ever since. One such thing obviously is that according to Haavisto the Arctic Council will be a new forum for regional cooperation in the space of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). That aspect has disappeared totally.

When talking about Finnish Arctic-related expertize there is only one institute that Haavisto named: “The Arctic Centre, a separate institute, affiliated to the University of Lapland”. Representing that institute nowadays it is nice to note that it was highlighted like that already back then. This makes some tradition to the Arctic Centre which also has sustainable development as one of its core values.

How to measure if development has been more sustainable with or without 20 years of Arctic Council, that is then another question. Soon after Ottawa it seemed that the question in any case is, so to say, academic, as there was a feeling that the Council is not going anywhere.


“Our eyes can see more”
According to the story I wrote to Kaleva from Ottawa Sergey Krylov, the Russian deputy minister for foreign affairs, wanted the Council to discuss nuclear safety, international law, fishing, harbors, airports and so on: a long list of everything. “Our eyes can see more that our stomach can eat”, was the comment of Timothy Wirth, the head of the US delegation.

Yeremey Aipin, the Khanty writer who those days represented RAIPON (the Russian indigenous peoples) was the main pessimist of the meeting. According to him, the peoples in the Russian North are in the threshold of extinction and the Arctic Council should find ways to handle the colossal utilization of the natural resources. “The stronger a country is the more it has taken away from its original inhabitants”.

In Ottawa I wrote that the Arctic Council could be more than it seems to be. It is after all a forum where a country like Finland is equal with a country like the USA. It is a question of choice: the Council can also be left to run its own bureaucracy without anybody outside noticing its existence.

The visions had been much more ambitious in earlier years when Finland started the Arctic environmental cooperation (AEPS) in Rovaniemi process and when Canada made its initiatives about a wider Arctic cooperation. In early 90´s the original ideas included basically everything, from regional representation to issues related to peace and security.

All that dropped off and some years later negotiations were totally stalled. In 1995 when Bill Clinton administration came into power the discussions started again with seemingly two goals: to finally establish the Arctic Council and to make sure that it will not deal with anything concrete. Still, the diplomatic work got done and Leif Halonen, the chair of the Saami Council, made a summary in Ottawa:

“I must admit though, that I had my doubts and felt discouragements on many occasions (…) Despite these bad days the process developed steadily and when the proposal to the establishment of an Arctic Council was presented I got the feeling that the cooperation was maturing into the right shape”.

That maturing took its time. “Arctic Council has not done practically anything yet because it lacks all concrete contents”, I wrote in 1998. My conclusion back then was that everything had gone into the sidetracks and nobody really knew what the Arctic Council would or should be about. The discussion had mainly been about the rules of the procedure. However, the original AEPS working groups kept going, the University of the Arctic was already getting there and the Arctic parliamentarians made their own voice heard with figures like Clifford Lincoln, a Canadian parliamentarian who rapidly took the role of the grand old man of the Arctic.


“EU as an observer? I do not know”
Observer states started to announce their interest to jump in and in the early years it was easily done, one mainly just had to walk in. As journalist I asked why the European Union was not anywhere to be seen and nobody could really answer to that.

In Ottawa minister Axworthy commented to the question that the European Union is welcomed as an observer – after ambassador Mary Simon, one of the real founding figures of the Arctic cooperation, had whispered the correct answer into his ears.

Then in Luleå January 1998 there was the Barents EuroArctic Council ministerial meeting with more heavyweights than ever before or after in Barents meetings. Hans van den Broek, the Commissioner for External Relations was in place and faced a question about if the EU should get involved in the Arctic Council.

“I do not know. I have not made a decision yet. We need to study the question”, was his answer.

Now EU has already studied its Arctic role quite thoroughly. But judging from today, doing that already in the early years might have done some things easier, like obtaining the observer status to the Commission.

And when it comes to sustainable development I am now reading again what I quoted from Clifford Lincoln in my Ottawa story in 1996. Dene Indians have lived in the North for 13 000 years, the Inuit for 24 000 years, using the environment but not spoiling it, he had said. When the white people arrived, all was polluted and spoilt in less than 100 years. On the northern rivers the water must be drank from plastic bottles, fish is not usable, there are warnings to eat caribou meat.

“I hope that we have learnt our lessons and want to make things better”, he said in Ottawa. This was where and why the Arctic Council got started.

Writer is Head of Science Communications at the Arctic Centre. He started to follow Arctic developments already as a journalist in early 90´s.


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