Arctic Council adds six new observer nations, and signs agreement on oil spill preparedness

Publish date: May 23, 2013

MURMANSK –The Arctic nations that make up the Arctic Council partially approved an expansion of their organization by granting China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Singapore permanent observer status in a powerful signal of the polar region's growing international importance.

The inclusion of the new observers did not come without spirited debate at the biennial meeting and reflected the growing prominence of the issues facing the region.

The council is made up of the eight Arctic nations: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.

With the Arctic ice melting, the region’s abundant supplies of oil, gas and minerals have become newly accessible, as have shortened shipping routes and open water for commercial fishing, setting off a global competition for influence and economic opportunities far beyond the nations that border the Arctic.

Foreign ministers of the eight-member council, including US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov, made the decision to allow new observer nations at this year’s biennial gathering, which took place in the town of Kiruna in Northern Sweden on Thursday of last week.

But the decision did not come without some balking from Russia, which has high hopes of achieving dominance over the Arctic’s vast mineral and fossil fuel resources and shipping routes.  

“There is nothing that should unite quite like our concerns for both the promises and the challenges of the northernmost reaches of the earth,” Kerry, who brokered a compromise over the observer nations, said at the council’s final session, according to The New York Times.

“The consequences of our nations’ decision don’t stop at the 66th parallel,” he said, according to the paper.

“Interest in the Arctic is rapidly growing. This in particular is evidenced by the number of [of nations] wishing to obtain observer status on the Arctic Council, which, in its turn bears witness to the increased international authority of our organization,” said Lavrov, according to the Russian daily Kommersant. “Today we made the decision to expand the number of observers, which we welcome.”

The new observers extend the geographical reach of the once largely symbolic organization, which promotes cooperation on environmental protection, oil and mineral exploitation, shipping, tourism and fishing. Founded in 1996, the Arctic Council convenes every two years.

According to Lavrov, a new raft of requests from nations seeking to gain observer status will be reviewed at the coming new ministers session in Canada in two years.

Russian media: Lavrov planned to scuttle observers

This latest meeting of the Arctic Council had great geopolitical significance for Russia, according to Kommersant, which reported that Russia intended to vigorously convince the council to block the Arctic ambitions of “non-regional players,” such as the European Union, China, India and a host of other countries and organizations.

Kommersant reported that if Russia had been able to advance its point of view, its opponents would have threatened to create an alternative organization to the Arctic Council in order to transform the region into a “universal property” like the Antarctic. Even so, experts say such an initiative will wend its way through the United Nations’ General Assembly, and if adopted would be disadvantageous for Russia, the paper reported.

EU observer status on hold

Though China and India managed to squeak by with observer status, a decision on allowing the EU observer status that was greeted “affirmatively” was nonetheless deferred, Agence France Pressed reported.

“It will be implemented once certain questions have been tackled, but the decision means that the EU already now can act as an observer,” a spokesman for Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told AFP.

The nature of the Council’s reservations over the EU were not disclosed, AFP reported.

Norwegian Foreing Minister Espen Barthe Eide told the Barents Observer news portal that, “EU and Canada have to solve some disputes first and seals are a major part of these remaining discussions”

The Kiruna Declaration

The ministers that gathered signed the so-called Kiruna Declaration to prepare and coordinate a response to potential spills that could result from increasing oil and gas exploration.

. The declaration was signed by Kerry, Lavrov, and their counterparts from Canada, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland.

“Welcome China, India, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea and Singapore as new Observer States […], reads the document in part.

According to Eide, the decision to allow the new observer nations was a breakthrough for the Arctic Council’s status, not only for the enhanced cooperation of Arctic counties but for international cooperation in general.

“The Kiruna Declaration confirms that the Arctic Council is the primary organization for Arctic issues,” Eide said, according to the Barents Observer. “It confirms that the basic principles of the Arctic Council are to lead the way for all decisions concerning the Arctic. It confirms that all nations will focus on preserving the environment of the Arctic and it also confirms that this organization will have Indigenous Peoples as active participants.”

All of the new observer nations have sought economic opportunities in the Arctic region and viewed participation in the Arctic Council as a means of influencing the decisions of its permanent members.

Environmental concerns

The ballooning interest in the Arctic zone has raised concerns of reckless development that could harm what is a fragile environment, as several scientific studies presented to the council made clear. Outside the municipal building in Kiruna, where ministers from the council met, protesters called for restrictions on economic development, reported The New York Times.

Another concern is the increasing role of the Northern Sea Route. Once views as a pipe dream, the route has become more feasible as during longer stretches of the summer, allowing ships traveling from Asia to Europe to traverse the Arctic in far less time than they would on the traditional route through the Suez Canal.

In 2010, According to The New York Times, only four ships carrying 111,000 tons of cargo made the northern passage; by last year, 46 did, carrying 1.26 million tons. Among those was China’s first ship through the Arctic, an icebreaker called Xuelong, or Snow Dragon.

Russia stands to make economic gains from such passages, declaring that ships passing through the route must be escorted by Russian icebreakers.

The Arctic Council next convenes in Canada in 2015. 

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