Whose voice is heard in the Arctic Council?
Answers to this question were considered during an open discussion event at the University of Lapland’s Arctic Centre at the beginning of June. Researchers Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen and Marjo Lindroth interviewed the Finnish member of the Arctic Council’s Officials’ Committee, René Söderman.
In their research, Sinevaara-Niskanen and Lindroth have examined questions of political participation and the related changes that have taken place in the UN and in the Arctic Council. Their new book, which deals with international politics and indigenous peoples, challenges the assumption that political change is for the “better”.
Would it be possible to establish the Council today?
“The Arctic Council was set up in the atmosphere following the Cold War, and at that time Arctic issues were the subject of interest of a very small circle. The situation is different now, but the initial conditions have not changed. The role of the Arctic Council is to produce environmental information, to promote sustainable development and to promote the well-being of the region’s inhabitants”, summarised René Söderman.
“The Council is a unique forum in which the representatives of eight Arctic countries and six indigenous peoples’ organizations sit at the same table to resolve common problems. Setting up something similar today would certainly not be possible.”
What is concrete in Finland’s programme?
The researchers, Sinevaara-Niskanen and Lindroth, suspect that the member states just polish their country’s image and that reports and recommendations will be left in civil servants’ drawers.
“Finland started to construct the programme for its chairmanship with the main areas of work of the Council in mind. The background is the Paris Climate Change Agreement and we want to encourage Arctic countries to play their part. Many of the objectives of the UN’s Sustainable Development goals are very important for the Arctic regions too. Finland’s own priorities, the environment, meteorological cooperation, the improved connectivity and education, can be seen concretely as the outputs of working groups which are collected in the declaration issued by the Ministerial meeting at the end of the period”, responds Mr Söderman.
Söderman points out that the Ministerial declaration establishes clear tasks for the following chairmanship and the secretariat of the Arctic Council closely monitors the progress of issues. “For example, one of Finland’s tasks was to develop the Council’s long-term strategic work and that is what we are doing”, says Mr Söderman.
The voice of the indigenous peoples remains unheard?
In their recently published book, Heidi Sinevaara-Niskanen and Marjo Lindroth have focussed on the opportunities for indigenous peoples to have an impact on policy. They claim that there is a dimension of hope that is, however, not solidified in the work of the Arctic Council.
René Söderman says that the decision making power in the Arctic Council lies with the states, but emphasises in the same sentence, that the voice of the indigenous peoples is heard and has an influence. “My experience is that if one on the indigenous peoples’ associations objects to some issue, then the Council looks for other ways to reach consensus.”
Söderman admits that there are problems in practical work. “The indigenous peoples organizations do not have nearly enough resources and people. There are lots of issues and actors.”
What about after the period of chairmanship?
Finland’s period as Chair of the Arctic Council will end at the Rovaniemi Foreign Ministers’ meeting at the beginning of May next year.
“Finland will start as Chair of the EU in July and our period of chairing the Arctic Council ends in May. I believe that Arctic policy will stay on the agenda especially as the EU has strengthened its own Arctic policy”, assesses Söderman.
“The image of Finland as an Arctic expert would be further strengthened and we would have an active influence in the Arctic field in future years too”, observes René Söderman.
Text: Martti Ruokolainen
The author is an Information Officer in the Communications Department of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.