Arctic Council

The Arctic Council is a high-level intergovernmental forum that addresses issues faced by the Arctic governments and the indigenous people of the Arctic. Eight member countries constitute the council: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States as these are the eight countries with sovereignty over the lands within the Arctic Circle. Outside these, there are some observer states.

Arctic Council
FormationSeptember 19, 1996 (1996-09-19) (Ottawa Declaration)
TypeGovernmental organization
PurposeForum for promoting cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic states, with the involvement of the Arctic Indigenous communities
HeadquartersTromsø, Norway (since 2012)
  • Canada
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Iceland
  • Norway
  • Russia
  • Sweden
  • United States
Main organ

History of the Arctic Council

The first step towards the formation of the Council occurred in 1991 when the eight Arctic countries signed the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS). The 1996 Ottawa Declaration[1] established the Arctic Council[2] as a forum for promoting cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic states, with the involvement of the Arctic Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on issues such as sustainable development and environmental protection.[3][4] The Arctic Council has conducted studies on climate change, oil and gas, and Arctic shipping.[4][5][6][7]

In 2011, the Council member states concluded the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement, the first binding treaty concluded under the Council's auspices.[4][8]

Arctic Council membership

Member states

Only states with territory in the Arctic can be members of the Council. All eight countries are members making the Arctic Council a circumpolar forum. The Council also has permanent and ad hoc observer countries and "permanent participants".[9][10]

The member states consist of the following:

Observer countries

Observer status is open to non-Arctic states approved by the Council at the Ministerial Meetings that occur once every two years. Observers have no voting rights in the Council. As of May 2019, thirteen non-Arctic states have Observer status.[11][12] Observer states receive invitations for most Council meetings. Their participation in projects and task forces within the Working Groups is not always possible, but this poses few problems as few Observer States want to participate at such a detailed level.[4][13]

Observer states consist of the following (2019):[14]

In 2011, the Council clarified its criteria for admission of observers, most notably including a requirement of applicants to "recognize Arctic States' sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the Arctic" and "recognize that an extensive legal framework applies to the Arctic Ocean including, notably, the Law of the Sea, and that this framework provides a solid foundation for responsible management of this ocean".[4]

Pending observer states

Pending observer states need to request permission for their presence at each individual meeting; such requests are routine and most of them are granted. At the 2013 Ministerial Meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, the European Union (EU) requested full observer status. It was not granted, mostly because the members do not agree on the EU ban on hunting seals.

Pending observer states are: European Union[15] and Turkey.

The role of observers was re-evaluated, as were the criteria for admission. As a result, the distinction between permanent and ad hoc observers were dropped.[16]


Chairmanship of the Council rotates every two years.[17] The current chair is Iceland, which serves until the Ministerial meeting in 2021.[18]

  • Canada (1996–1998)[19]
  • United States (1998–2000)[20]
  • Finland (2000–2002)[21]
  • Iceland (2002–2004)[21]
  • Russia (2004–2006)[21]
  • Norway (2006–2009)[21]
  • Denmark (2009–2011)[21][22]
  • Sweden (2011–2013)[17][23]
  • Canada (2013–2015)[24]
  • United States (2015–2017)[20]
  • Finland (2017–2019)[25][26]
  • Iceland (2019–2021)

Norway, Denmark and Sweden have agreed on a set of common priorities for the three chairmanships. They also agreed to a shared secretariat 2009–2013.[21]

Permanent participants

Six Arctic indigenous communities have the status of Permanent Participants on the Council.[27] These groups are represented by the Aleut International Association, Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich'in Council International, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, and the Saami Council. They are assisted by the Arctic Council Indigenous Peoples Secretariat.

Nongovernmental observers

Approved intergovernmental and interparliamentary organizations (both global and regional) and non-governmental organizations can also obtain Observer Status. They include the Arctic Parliamentarians,[28] International Union for Conservation of Nature, the International Red Cross Federation, the Nordic Council, the Northern Forum,[29] United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme; and a handful of non-governmental organizations such as the Association of World Reindeer Herders,[30] Oceana,[31] the University of the Arctic, and the World Wide Fund for Nature-Arctic Programme.

Indigenous peoples

Seven of the eight member states have sizeable indigenous communities living in their Arctic areas (only Iceland does not). Organizations of Arctic indigenous peoples can obtain the status of Permanent Participant to the Arctic Council,[4] but only if they represent a single indigenous people resident in more than one Arctic State or more than one Arctic indigenous people resident in a single Arctic state. The number of Permanent Participants should at any time be less than the number of members. The category of Permanent Participants has been created to provide for active participation and full consultation with the Arctic indigenous representatives within the Arctic Council. This principle applies to all meetings and activities of the Arctic Council.

Permanent Participants may address the meetings. They may raise points of order that require immediate decision by the Chairman. Agendas of Ministerial Meetings need to be consulted beforehand with them; they may propose supplementary agenda items. When calling the biannual meetings of Senior Arctic Officials, the Permanent Participants must have been consulted beforehand. Finally, Permanent Participants may propose cooperative activities, such as projects. All this makes the position of Arctic indigenous peoples within the Arctic Council quite unique compared to the (often marginal) role of such peoples in other international governmental fora. However, decision making in the Arctic Council remains in the hands of the eight member states, on the basis of consensus.

As of 2014, six Arctic indigenous communities have Permanent Participant status.[4] These groups are represented by the Aleut International Association,[32] Arctic Athabaskan Council,[33] Gwich'in Council International,[34] Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON),[35] and the Saami Council.[36] These indigenous organisations vary widely in their organisational capacities and the size of the population they represent. To illustrate, RAIPON represents some 250,000 indigenous people of various (mostly Siberian) tribes; the ICC some 150,000 Inuit. On the other hand, the Gwich'in Council and the Aleut Association each represent only a few thousand people.

It is costly for these groups to be represented at every Council meeting, especially since they take place across the entire circumpolar realm. To enhance the capacity of the PPs to pursue the objectives of the Arctic Council and to assist them develop their internal capacity to participate and intervene in Council meetings, the Council has established—and provides financial support to—the Indigenous Peoples' Secretariat (IPS).[37] The IPS is located in Copenhagen, Denmark and its board decides on the allocation of the funds.

However prominent the role of indigenous peoples, the Permanent Participant status does not confer any legal recognition as peoples. The Ottawa Declaration, the Arctic Council's founding document, explicitly states (in a footnote): "The use of the term 'peoples' in this declaration shall not be construed as having any implications as regard the rights which may attach to the term under international law." Incidentally, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on September 13, 2007 after 22 years of negotiations, was rejected by Canada and the United States, while Russia abstained.[38] Both the United States and Canada have their origins as colonies of the United Kingdom and have large non-indigenous immigrant majorities and small indigenous populations. This means that most Arctic indigenous people were not covered by the rights laid out in the declaration. In November 2010, Canada officially endorsed the declaration and in December of that year President Obama declared the United States would sign the declaration.

Administrative aspects


The Arctic Council convenes every six months somewhere in the Chair's country for a Senior Arctic Officials (SAO) meeting. SAOs are high-level representatives from the eight member nations. Sometimes they are ambassadors, but often they are senior foreign ministry officials entrusted with staff-level coordination. Representatives of the six Permanent Participants and the official Observers also are in attendance.

At the end of the two-year cycle, the Chair hosts a Ministerial-level meeting, which is the culmination of the Council's work for that period. Most of the eight member nations are represented by a Minister from their Foreign Affairs, Northern Affairs, or Environment Ministry.

A formal, though non-binding, "Declaration", named for the town in which the meeting is held, sums up the past accomplishments and the future work of the Council. These Declarations cover climate change, sustainable development, Arctic monitoring and assessment, persistent organic pollutants and other contaminants, and the work of the Council's five Working Groups.

Arctic Council working groups document Arctic problems and challenges such as sea ice loss, glacier melting, tundra thawing, increase of mercury in food chains, and ocean acidification affecting the entire marine ecosystem. Arctic Council members agreed to action points on protecting the Arctic but most have never materialized.[39] The last Ministerial meeting took place May 11, 2017 in Fairbanks, Alaska, United States.[40]


Year City Country
1998 Iqaluit Canada
2000 Barrow United States
2002 Inari Finland
2004 Reykjavík Iceland
2006 Salekhard Russia
2009 Tromsø Norway
2011 Nuuk Greenland, Denmark
2013 Kiruna Sweden
2015 Iqaluit Canada
2017 Fairbanks United States
2019 Rovaniemi Finland

The secretariat

Each rotating Chair nation accepts responsibility for maintaining the secretariat, which handles the administrative aspects of the Council, including organizing semiannual meetings, hosting the website, and distributing reports and documents. The Norwegian Polar Institute hosted the Arctic Council Secretariat for the six-year period from 2007 to 2013; this was based on an agreement between the three successive Scandinavian Chairs, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. This temporary Secretariat had a staff of three.

In 2012 the Council moved towards creating a permanent secretariat in Tromsø, Norway.[4][41] Magnús Jóhannesson (Iceland) has been the director since February 1, 2013.

Working Groups

In addition, the Arctic Council works through six Working Groups and four Programs and Action Plans:

Programs and Action Plans

Security and geopolitical issues

The Arctic Council is often in the middle of security and geopolitical issues since the Arctic has peculiar interests to Member States and Observers. When the Arctic Council was founded in 1996, peace and security concerns were left out of its mandate. However, changes in the Arctic environment and participants of the Arctic Council have led to a reconsideration of the relationship between geopolitical matters and the role of the Arctic Council.

Due to climate change and melting of the Arctic sea-ice, more energy resources and waterways are now becoming accessible. Large reserves of oil, gas and minerals are located within the Arctic. This environmental factor generated territorial disputes among member states. The Law of the Sea allows states to extend their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) (which allows exploitation of resources) if the states can prove that their continental shelf extends beyond the 200 nautical miles (370 km; 230 mi) limit.[4][50] Countries are claiming their sea at the utmost reach from their coastlines. There are disputes over several rocks located between Greenland and Canada, the Bering and Chukchi Seas between Russia and America, and Hans Island and the Lincoln Sea between Canada and Denmark.[51] In addition, a poll indicated that half of Canadian respondents said Canada should try to assert its full sovereignty rights over the Beaufort Sea compared to just 10 percent of Americans.[52] New commercial trans-Arctic shipping routes can be another factor of conflicts. A poll found that Canadians perceive the Northwest Passage as their internal Canadian waterway whereas other countries perceive it as an international waterway.[52]

Increase in number of Permanent Observers drew other national security issues. Observers are showing their interests in the Arctic region. China explicitly shown its desire to extract natural resources in Greenland.[51] Other interests are hidden which can eventually weaken Member States' presence in some way.

Military infrastructure is another point to consider. Except for the U.S., the defence commitment of Canada, Denmark, Norway and Russia is rapidly growing by military presence and building infrastructure.[50]

However, some say that the Arctic Council facilitates stability despite possible conflicts among member states.[4] A Norwegian admiral Haakon Bruun Hanssen says the Arctic is "probably the most stable area in the world". They say that laws are well established and followed.[51] Member states think that sharing cost of the development of Arctic shipping-lanes, research etc. by cooperation and good relationships between states is beneficial to all.[53]

Looking at these two different perspectives, some suggest that the Arctic Council should expand its role by including peace and security issues as its agenda. The survey demonstrates that two thirds of constituencies (Nordic states) were very supportive on the issues of an Arctic nuclear-weapons free zone. More than 80 percent of Russians agreed that the Arctic Council should cover peace-building issues.[54] They think that solving security matters in the Arctic Council will shorten a great amount of time than in UN. However, as of June 2014, military security matters are often avoided.[55] The focus on science and resource protection and management is seen as a priority, which may be diluted or strained by geopolitical security issues.[56]

See also


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  2. Axworthy, Thomas S. (March 29, 2010). "Canada bypasses key players in Arctic meeting". The Toronto Star. Retrieved Sep 5, 2013.
  3. Savage, Luiza Ch. (May 13, 2013). "Why everyone wants a piece of the Arctic". Maclean's. Rogers Digital Media. Retrieved Sep 5, 2013.
  4. Buixadé Farré, Albert; Stephenson, Scott R.; Chen, Linling; Czub, Michael; Dai, Ying; Demchev, Denis; Efimov, Yaroslav; Graczyk, Piotr; Grythe, Henrik; Keil, Kathrin; Kivekäs, Niku; Kumar, Naresh; Liu, Nengye; Matelenok, Igor; Myksvoll, Mari; O'Leary, Derek; Olsen, Julia; Pavithran .A.P., Sachin; Petersen, Edward; Raspotnik, Andreas; Ryzhov, Ivan; Solski, Jan; Suo, Lingling; Troein, Caroline; Valeeva, Vilena; van Rijckevorsel, Jaap; Wighting, Jonathan (October 16, 2014). "Commercial Arctic shipping through the Northeast Passage: Routes, resources, governance, technology, and infrastructure". Polar Geography. 37 (4): 298–324. doi:10.1080/1088937X.2014.965769.
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  7. Brigham, L.; McCalla, R.; Cunningham, E.; Barr, W.; VanderZwaag, D.; Chircop, A.; Santos-Pedro, V.M.; MacDonald, R.; Harder, S.; Ellis, B.; Snyder, J.; Huntington, H.; Skjoldal, H.; Gold, M.; Williams, M.; Wojhan, T.; Williams, M.; Falkingham, J. (2009). Brigham, Lawson; Santos-Pedro, V.M.; Juurmaa, K. (eds.). Arctic marine shipping assessment (AMSA) (PDF). Norway: Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME), Arctic Council. Archived (PDF) from the original on January 28, 2016.
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  10. Member States
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  14. Thirteen Non-arctic States have been approved as Observers to the Arctic Council
  15. SAO meeting November 2009 Archived July 20, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
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  24. Arctic Council – About Us
  25. Finland’s Chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2017–2019
  26. Permanent Participants
  27. "Arctic Parliamentarians". Retrieved 2013-09-24.
  28. "Northern Forum". Northern Forum. Retrieved 2013-09-24.
  29. Association of World Reindeer Herders Archived September 28, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
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  36. Terms, Reference and Guidelines Archived July 20, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
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