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Winter Skies, Frozen Seas And Northern Shores: The Arctic Council (epilouge 2)

The ‘Alþingi’ of the North: The birth of the rounded Ice Table

The ‘Alþingi’ was one of the first parliaments of the world. Established in Iceland circa in the year 930, free men and chieftains treated issues of concern as equals. Nowadays, the Arctic Council is a current sort of ‘Alþingi’, where every actor and stakeholder having issues with the Arctic can discuss them in an organization intended to include every Arctic-related actor.

Established in 1996, the Arctic Council aims to promote cooperation, coordination and interaction between the eight Arctic Countries: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States[1]. Native populations and others inhabiting the region are included as well[2]. Environmental protection and sustainable development are the core issues, although following the accessibility of the Arctic, issues such as search and rescue and oil spills are also included (Arctic Council, 2014; Andersen & Perry, 2012).

One of the most striking and interesting aspects of the Arctic Council is the Observer Status, which is open to Non-Arctic states, inter-governmental or inter-parliamentary organizations (both global and regional) as well as non-governmental organizations (Arctic Council, 1996). For instance, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom were granted the Observer Status. In the case of the European Union, the establishment of cooperation with the European Commission and the EU’s Northern Dimension was implemented (Arctic Council, 2000; Arctic Council, 2002; Arctic Council, 2009)[3].

In a move that sparked some controversy, the Council in 2013 granted Observer Status to China, India, Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Singapore. Controversy was particularly focused on China, given the implications of that granting and because of the Chinese activities in the region, not to mention the strategic implication for the security of certain Arctic States. On this aspect a further analysis will be made.

Managing the ‘Niflheim’

The ‘Niflheim’ is one of the nine worlds of the Yggdrasil, the Three of Life, in the Nordic Mythology. It consists of fog, mist and ice[4]. The ‘Niflheim’ is no other than the Arctic region and the Arctic Council is bound to preserve it.

The Arctic Council addresses any issue that the Arctic is facing, thus having 4 main frameworks or cross areas to do so. The first is ‘Environment and Climate’, with two main areas: Climate Change and Environmental Protection. The second is ‘Biodiversity’, with two main areas: Arctic Biodiversity Assessment and Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program. The Third is ‘Oceans’, with six areas: Search and Rescue, Arctic Ocean Review, Emergency Preparedness, Marine Environment, Shipping, and Oil & Gas. And the Fourth is ‘Arctic Peoples’, with three areas: Health & Well-Being, Indigenous Peoples Today, and Languages & Cultures (Arctic Council, 2014).

The Arctic Council has seven main work groups: The Arctic Contaminations Actions Programme (ACAP), the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna’s Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program (CBMP), the Emergence Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR), the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME), and the Sustainable Development Working Group (SDWG). Additional groups are the Ecosystem-Based Management Experts Group (EBM), four task forces, and the Arctic Economic Council (Arctic Council, 2014)[5].

The Arctic Economic Council is an interesting one, since it signals their recognition of the Arctic as an important and active economic region. Indeed, in the Kiruna 2013 Declaration, the Arctic Council pointed out the importance of economic endeavours to the region and the peoples’ sustainable development, and that it was important to promote the local Arctic economies, thus creating the TFCB[6]. This Task Force is co-chaired by Canada, Finland, Iceland and Russia and it is the core of the Arctic Economic Council. Its objectives are to foster businesses development in the Arctic, to engage in polar cooperation, and to provide a business perspective to the work of the Artic Council (Arctic Council, 2013; Arctic Council, 2014).

Another important aspect worth to be mentioned is the University of the Arctic, whose activities go in accordance with the aim to educate, inform and promote interest in the Arctic. By the initiative of the Arctic Council and the Circumpolar Universities Association (CUA) in 1997, it was inaugurated in 2001 at Rovaniemi, Finland. Being a network of colleges, universities, research institutes and other organizations, it aims at benefiting students, the public and private sector, as well as the North through international collaboration (University of the Arctic, 2014).

Last but not least, the Council is headed by the Chair of the Arctic Council, assisted by the Arctic Council Secretariat. The Secretariat is tasked mainly with administrative and organizational support, as well as communication and outreach activities (Arctic Council, 2014).

The future: Challenges and Risks

The Arctic Council is a relatively new body that saw its first steps when in 1989, under the initiative of Finland. The Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy was the product of the meetings held between 1989 and 1991 and it was assisted in preparation by the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the  Nordic Saami Council, the USSR Association of Small Peoples of the North, the United Kingdom, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, the United Nations Environment Program, the International Arctic Science Committee, Germany and Poland(Arctic Council, 2014).

Clearly intended to discuss environmental and peoples’ related issues, it was never intended to deal with military-security issues. The inclusion China as an Observer and the current assertive Russian attitudes towards the Arctic and in Ukraine will definitely enforce the Council to treat such issues[7]. The lack of military security and the risk of instability in the region can affect the environment and the people living there. To secure the environment and the Arctic inhabitants, it is best for the Western Arctic countries to enhance their military capacities to keep Russia in check in order to secure the desired  stability; military security is simply a capital need and a mandatory step to be taken for the benefit of the region.

Regarding China, the opposition was spearheaded by Canada and Russia. Canada raised concerns about the respect for the Arctic States’ sovereignty and the cultural identity of indigenous communities by the Observer States. In addition, it expressed its concern about a possible overshadow of the indigenous peoples’ voice within the Council.  Russia, in turn, it is entirely opposed to opening the door to non-Arctic States and international organizations, like Greenpeace. The reasons for Russia are that the Arctic Council should remain a regional-focused organization and not become globalized by accepting other countries, along with the fear of facing problems in administration (Bertelsen, 2013; Sevunts, 2013).

Indeed, the fact that a Chinese Rear-Admiral stated that The Arctic should belong to everyone could give a hint of their real intentions. Moreover, a Chinese tycoon bought some land near potential strategic deepwater ports (Mroczkowksi, 2012). This might indicate that China will use the facilities to host both commercial and military vessels following the “Arctic for All” principle. If the presence of the Chinese Navy is allowed, it could have some serious implications for the security of the United States as well as Europe. Moreover, the naval assets could be used not only to secure the Sea Lines of Communication at the Arctic, but also some valuable resources that China is interested in. In fact and as Mroczkowksi (2012) points out, strategic minerals and rare earth is drawing attention of Chinese mining firms. In addition, there is a Chinese research centre in the Svalbard Islands. These activities have become a source of unease since they are being used, according to Guschin (2013), as a cover to disguise the real interests China has in the region. Those ‘true interests’ might be more strategic-military rather than environmental or concerns about indigenous peoples.

A closer and more concrete issue is Russia. It has been sending aerial and naval assets to the Arctic seas and skies, threatening the stability and security that the Arctic Council desires. The events in Ukraine, in addition, has risen doubts about collaboration with Russia on Arctic issues and of international cooperation sustainability, especiialy given Russia’s willingness to make use of military power to meets it territorial ambitions (Klimenko, 2014). It’s worth mentioning that Russia perceives the Arctic as a region of strategic importance thus increasing its military presence in the area along with the abovementioned patrols and flights in the region to secure it. The hint is that Russia will also make use of those military assets to secure its own Arctic region, breaking the Arctic stability and opening the way for potential instability.

Last but not least, the close relations between China and Russia, despite some cautious attitude of the latter towards the former, could create a block within the Arctic Council that can increase the likelihood of turmoil. This situation could be fuelled by their mutual support in that case one of them (or both) decides to use the Arctic as a scenario to wage a challenge against the Arctic Western nations, NATO or the West in general[8].

The Arctic Council is indeed a product of the post-Cold War wishful thinking that regarded stability, international cooperation and the death of power politics as the road the world would take from then on. However, as facts and the real situations are showing, it is time to consider military and security issues on the table, as well its implications on the world. The history indeed does not end, nor the old game of power politics; The Arctic will be but one of the areas where this will take place in a very intense way, and the Arctic Council has to include security and military issues if it really wants to contribute to the stability and security of the region. Between military clashes and internal divisions, perhaps the leaders of some Northern and Western nations might take wise decisions that will keep the Niflheim out of the Ragnarök, the twilight of the Gods.


[1] Each of the eight member states holds a chairmanship every two years.

[2] The Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the Saami Council and the Association Indigenous Minorities of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation and other indigenous population representative organizations. See: Arctic Council (1996). Declaration of the Establishment of the Arctic Council.

[3] However, the European Union was not granted with the Observer Status, due to some frictions on seal ban by the EU. See: Sevunts, L. (2013). Arctic Council has tightrope to walk in potential decision to admit China. Alaska Dispatch News. Retrieved from:

[4] See: Højberg, M. (2014). The Nine World in Norse Mythology. Retrieved from:

[5] The task forces are: Task Force on Arctic Marine Oil Pollution Prevention (TFOPP), Task Force on Black Carbon and Methanes (TFBCM), Scientific Cooperation Task Force (SCTF), and the Task Force to Facilitate Circumpolar Businesses Forum (TFCBF). Task forces were the Task Force for Institutional Issues (TFII), the Task Force on Search and Rescue (TFSR), and the Task Force on Arctic Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response (TFAMOPPR).

[6] See footnote 4.

[7] See: Arctic Council. (1996). Ottawa Declaration of 1996, p. 2.

[8] China has been supporting Russia at a certain point after the invasion of Ukraine (Crimea and the Luhansk region). In addition there has been some close projects for resource exploitation, according to Klimenko (2014).


Bertelsen, T. N (2013). Canada, Russia hold key to China’s Arctic Access. gbtimes. Retrieved from:

Guschin, A. (2013). Understanding China‘s Arctic Policies. The Diplomat.

Højberg, M. (2014). The Nine World in Norse Mythology. Retrieved from:

Jesse B. (2002). The Icelandic Althing: Dawn of Parliamentary Democracy. In J. M. Fladmark (Ed.), Heritage and Identity: Shaping the Nations of the North, (1-18). The Heyerdahl Institute and Robert Gordon University. Donhead St. Mary, Shaftesbury: Donhead. Retrieved from:

Klimenko, E. (2014). Russia’s Evolving Arctic Strategy. SIPRI Policy Paper No. 42. Stockhol: SIPRI. Retrieved from:

Mroczkowski, I. (2012). China’s Arctic Powerplay. The Diplomat. Retrieved from:

Perry, C. M; & Andersen, B (2012). Chapter 2. Emerging Strategic Dynamics in the High North. In: New Strategic Dynamics in the Arctic Region: Implications for National Security and Cooperation (pp. 6 – 30). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis.

Sevunts, L. (2013). Arctic Council has tightrope to walk in potential decision to admit China. Alaska Dispatch News. Retrieved from:

The Arctic Council (1996). The Ottawa Declaration. Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council.

The Arctic Council (2000). Barrow Declaration on the occasion of the Second Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council.

The Arctic Council (2002). Inari Declaration on the occasion of the Third Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council.

The Arctic Council (2009). Tromsø Declaration on the occasion of the Sixth Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council.

The Arctic Council (2013). Kiruna Declaration on the occasion of the Eighth Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council. Arctic Council Secretariat.

The Arctic Council (2014a). Arctic Council. Retrieved from:

The Arctic Council (2014b). History: Forerunner to the Arctic Council. Retrieved from:

The Arctic Council (2014c). Task Forces of the Arctic Council. Retrieved from:

The Arctic Council (2014d). The Arctic Council Secretariat. Retrieved from:

University of the Arctic (2014). About UArctic. Retrieved from:


*Cover Image: ‘AC_flag_stadshotellet‘ by arctic_council, released under Creative Commons 2.0 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


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