Monday, September 16, 2013


The Arctic Council – a body of eight circumpolar states – has had its eighth Ministerial meeting in May 2013 in Kiruna, the Swedish mining town above the Arctic Circle. While there have been a number of remarkable achievements, such as the adoption of a binding agreement on the cooperation on oil spills response; of importance however is also the inclusion of new observer states. The number of observer states has been doubled with the admission of six new countries. Except Italy the other admitted new countries – China, India, Japan, Singapore and South Korea – are from the Far East. The observer status in the Council is granted not only to state actors, but also to inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations. The European Union (EU) has also aspired for an observer status, but a decision on its application was deferred. Yet the EU has been granted the right to observe Council’s proceedings until a final decision is made at a later stage. What consequence does the Arctic Council have with the expansion of observer states? Does this expansion weaken the authority of the Arctic states in Arctic affairs? Or does this expansion enhance the legitimacy of Arctic governance? Apparently, the observer states are the states that do not have territories in the Arctic. Nevertheless, out of around 14 million square kilometers of Arctic Ocean, a significant part – considered to be the high sea – is open to all the states either Arctic or non-Arctic; although it should be noted that presence of thick ice makes this part of the marine area inaccessible. The law of the sea however grants a number of legitimate rights to all the states e.g. certain rights in the exclusive economic zone – a 200 nautical mile zone determined from the coastal state’s shoreline – as well as a right to navigation through the newly emerged sea routes – the North East Sea Route and the Northwest Passage – along the coastline of the Arctic states given that the disputes over these sea routes are settled as international straits but not internal waterways. Furthermore, the Svalbard Island located in the high Arctic Ocean, the status of which has been determined by an international agreement concluded in 1920, offers legal rights to mining and mineral exploration and exploitation as well as right to research expedition to all contracting states. Many such states including China are non-Arctic nations. Even though Norway exercises the sovereignty over the island, the treaty of 1920 grants certain non-discriminatory rights to other contracting states albeit with precise responsibility determined by local laws regulations pertaining to the protection of the environment. Thus, regardless of their admission to the Arctic Council, the non-Arctic observer states, like any other states, have legitimate interests and stance in the Arctic. Inclusion of the non-Arctic states in the Arctic Council as observers does not mean really too much. The primary role of an observer is basically only to observe the work of the Council without however having any active role in its decision-making. If an observer state does have any proposal, that must be channeled through an Arctic state or a Permanent Participant – the indigenous people’s organization that participates in the Arctic Council’s decision-making. The real contribution, if any, an observer can make, is through its engagement in the level of working groups of the Council. In fact, in Kiruna meeting a document entitled “Arctic Council Observer Manual” was endorsed. This Manual provides clear instructions on how an observer may contribute to the subsidiary bodies of the Arctic Council. Generally an observer may, at the discretion of the Chair, makes statements, but that is only after the Arctic states and permanent participants have done so. In addition, an observer may also present written statements, submit relevant documents and provide views on the issues under discussion. Nevertheless the real authority in regard to decision-making at all level lies at the hand of the Arctic states. Why have then these non-Arctic states long been interested in joining the club? Is a seat in the Arctic Council prestigious, and thus the emerging powers are determined to show their presence despite knowing the lack of real power in Council’s decision-making? This is perhaps true, an engagement in broader world politics, whosesoever it is, especially of the powerful nations with little or even no jurisdiction, is a matter of prestige. It is therefore no surprise that the countries admitted would want to expand their political presence in a region that has huge future potential. But from the side of the Arctic states, the admission of new members in the observer group is about achieving recognition of the authority of the Arctic states in Arctic affairs; promoting mutual understanding in Arctic matters; enhancing further cooperation on a greater level; and ensuring transparency in the governance mechanism. The admission of the non-Arctic states as observers surely thus brings enhanced legitimacy in the governance of the Arctic.