The territories encircling the Arctic Ocean belong to eight Arctic states. The three large federations, Russia, Canada and the US, are respectively, the first, second and fourth largest stakeholders in terms of Arctic lands. Given the vast Russian territory, no initiatives regarding Arctic governance can succeed without due attention to Russia. The Arctic Ocean, the core of the region, is the smallest of the world’s five oceans. It has the widest continental shelf of all the oceans. The Northwest Passage (US and Canada) and the Northern Sea Route (Norway and Russia) may therefore become increasingly important navigation routes.
The Ilulissat Declaration, adopted by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States “called the Arctic Five” on May 28th, 2008 reminds us that while there are pressing issues to address in this region, existing national and international legal frameworks already cover large parts of the Arctic region and address a range of issues. Questions are being asked of other governments and the indigenous peoples organizations as to whether the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of five coastal countries is an adequate framing to address the governance issues evolving within the Arctic region. In these discussions, an enhanced role for the Arctic Council is often central as well as the inclusion of non-Arctic or non-coastal states about rights of passage in the Arctic seas.
Under the circumstances, there is a growing recognition that rapid change in the Arctic is producing new challenges for governance in the Arctic region. It is already possible to identify a number of the central issues requiring attention:
- Access: As the Arctic sea ice recedes toward a more open ocean for months every year, issues of access and rights of passage through sea routes including the Northern Sea Route (Russia) and the Northwest Passage (Canada) will be critical to not only the coastal nations of the Arctic, but to oil and gas development, trade and commercial sea routes for many nations. Demands, by many nations, to address their perceived rights to legally-protected access to vital natural resources across the Arctic from fisheries to oil/gas resources,
- Maritime claims and boundary issues: The more open ocean is raising issues and involving claims to jurisdiction over areas beyond the territorial sea within the Arctic oceanic basin and the resolution of offshore boundary disputes.
- Commercial shipping and oil and gas development: Issues regarding the development of effective codes of conduct for shipping under Arctic conditions and for the conduct of offshore oil and gas drilling and production.
- Arctic fisheries and ecosystems: Issues concerning the management of northward moving commercial fisheries that takes into account the principles of ecosystem-based management and the rights of indigenous peoples. Further, there are governance issues regarding the protection of marine and terrestrial ecosystems that are under pressure from human actions as well as biophysical changes.
- Land claims and legal challenges: This has been and will continue to be an important issue: historic claims and occupancy and the still unresolved claims of a number of indigenous peoples as they relate to the governance of human-environment interactions in the Arctic. Other legal disputes must be resolved within Arctic nations, among the Arctic countries, and internationally among non-Arctic nations who perceive they have rights to access to resources such as water, fossil fuels, food and arable land.
- Challenges to Civil Infrastructures: The civil infrastructure within the region is already being impacted, for example, by the thawing of permafrost and the loss of coastal ice that historically has projected low lands across the Arctic and will likely require changes in domestic practices, policy and legal arrangements,
- Regional Governance: Issues relating to multi-level governance and collaboration among regional, national, and international bodies in guiding northern development toward mutually desirable ends.
- Human Security and Well-being: From the challenges of increased storm intensities or drought conditions that projections by the IPCC and other assessments that are increasingly likely to occur because of climate change, globalization or the development of natural resources such as economically important minerals, oil and gas.
It is increasingly clear that the Arctic Council will be pressed to address some of these governance issues. While only a subset of the Arctic Council, the five Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the coastal Arctic nations, has noted further in their Ilulissat Declaration that “We therefore see no need to develop a new comprehensive international legal regime to govern the Arctic Ocean.” The landscape of governance issues is populated by seminal challenges, challenges not faced by humankind during its 10,000 years of remarkable climatic stability where the global mean temperatures did not exceed +/- 0.7 degrees C, and now a world that is faced with the prospects of global mean surface temperatures significantly higher than this. Governance issues in the Arctic will dominate the geopolitical agenda of the eight Arctic nations and many non-Arctic countries for decades to come.
Robert Corell is the Principal for the Global Environment & Technology Foundation, and represents the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment in the Arctic Governance Project. He served as the Chair of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment.
Related Material from the Atlantic Community:
- Paal Sigurd Hilde: Norway and the Arctic: The End of Dreams?
- Mia M. Bennett: Fractures in the Ice: The Future of Arctic Governance
- Ingrid Lundestad: Will the US Become More Active in the Arctic?