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Is it time for an Arctic Charter? Perspectives on governance in the Arctic Region

August 3, 2006 4:00 PM
By Diana Wallis MEP in Seventh Conference of Arctic Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region, Kiruna, Sweden, 3 August 2006

I attended my first meeting of this conference six years ago in Rovaniemi, Finland. At that conference one of the important presentations was the one by Professor Oran Young on Arctic governance. Even then he made it clear that all was not as it should be if we were properly listening and ready to protect this fragile area of the globe and to heed the warning signals it was giving off in relation to our world. His words and the description by Sheila Watt-Cloutier, from the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, of the subtle changes to the nature of her homeland remained with me for long afterwards.

Of course in European Union terms, Finland is again at the fore and we are on the eve of a new chapter of our northern policy, the Northern Dimension. When the European Parliament in November last year debated its resolution on the Northern Dimension I successfully called for a reference to a Charter for Arctic Governance to be included. I wanted to reinforce the fact that the Northern Dimension is not merely about the Baltic Sea and EU-Russia relations. It is also about the Arctic. I also wanted to carry through the discussions we had had in the Standing Committee of this organisation.

The Northern Dimension programme from the very beginning has had an 'Arctic window' and my view on the inclusion of the reference to the Charter was to attempt to move forward the debate started all that time ago in Rovaneimi. To move it forward in the emerging geo-political context which we face in the Arctic dealing with the competing issues of climate change and security of energy supply and in the knowledge that we have an opportunity with the Artic region being centre stage in the coming year as we celebrate International Polar Year. Now is our opportunity. Let me rely on the words of our leading English playwright: 'There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; ... On such a full tide are we now afloat and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures…'

Some will question the need for EU involvement in the Arctic region. However let's be clear the EU has three member states that are Arctic countries. Everywhere else in the world there is EU interest and involvement beyond its actual borders, because of the cross border issues we face and because, to put it bluntly, the Arctic affects us all. I regularly receive letters from schoolchildren in the area I represent who are touched by what is happening to the Polar Bear and his Arctic home. They expect their politicians to respond. It is important that the EU maintains a close scrutiny of developments in the Arctic region, not lest because of the changes to the Arctic environment so clearly stated in the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment report, which was presented to Members of the European Parliament last year along with members of the Standing Committee of Arctic Parliamentarians. It is clear from the ACIA report that the environmental changes it outlines will mean much in the way of commercial opportunities and impact:

• The retreating sea ice allowing for shipping routes to be established

• Fish stocks shifting further north

• The existence and accessibility of substantial oil and gas reserves

It is interesting that the last few years have seen the emergence of new EU policy initiatives in these areas.

Firstly, there is the EU's Marine Strategy, aimed at protecting Europe's seas and oceans, ensuring that human activities are carried out in a sustainable manner. The consultation leading to this strategy has involved sounding out many non-EU actors, many of them in the Arctic region. Clearly such a strategy has to interface regionally and internationally with existing non-EU countries, conventions and commissions.

The same is true of the growing debate concerning the securing of energy supply in the EU which is leading to a nascent EU energy policy. Such a policy, of course, necessitates dialogue with our near neighbours and providers in the Arctic: Russia and Norway.

So, there are clearly great commercial opportunities and challenges in the region which come at a time when, post-Cold War, the Arctic is more accessible, in all sense of the word, than at any time in its history. This upswing in activity in itself should lead us to check whether or not the governance structures we have in place are up to the greater task now imposed upon them. Add to that mankind's inimitable tendency to quarrel when we are faced with both valuable and limited resources and you have the ingredients for trouble in this hitherto very peaceful area of the globe. It is sometimes said that it was possible to have a Charter for the Antarctic because there are no people there. Surely where there are people who want to carry out activities it is even more important to have a coherent regime. Yes, of course it will be more difficult to achieve, more politically sensitive, but we are politicians aren't we?

So we should be concerned, even fearful and that fear should lead us to demand an Arctic Charter before it is too late. Why?

Firstly, untrammelled commercial exploitation. What can history in the region teach us? The omens are not good. It was this untrammelled commercial exploitation which denuded the Svalbard archipelago from the early 1600s in what some have called the rape of Spitzbergen as whales, walrus, polar bears, reindeer, foxes, ducks and so on were systematically wiped out for profit. Of course, we have improved since then, but the changes in the environment and the nature of the exploitation has changed. The emergence of so-called 'pizzlies' or growlers'- the offspring of polar bears and grizzly bears which recently made the news - may, on the one hand, be cause for wonderment, even amusement, but we all know that it is really a warning signal that all is not right in the natural world and we have a duty to respond. We also know there are those who already speak about a so-called Arctic 'gold rush' to exploit resources.

Clearly, there is a case, at the very least, for countries to work together in the Arctic in forms of bilateral action. And more obviously there is the need for multilateral agreement. In this case the Spitzsbergen Treaty, signed back in 1920, was an inventive and early attempt at this; yet even this is now beginning to creak and groan under the strains of the developments I have referred to. So I am pessimistic about the success of bilateral and multilateral action. After all there remain significant and growing territorial disputes between many of the nations of the Arctic region, as represented in this room. Disputes that at their root are about limited resources and their future exploitation. Disputes between:

• Russia and Norway in the Barents Sea

• Norway and Iceland, and indeed other contracting parties to the Treaty in Svalbard

• Canada and Denmark over Hans Island

• US and Canada over the North West passage

• Russia and the USA in the Bering Sea

It may be uncomfortable for us to recognise it but this is the reality. These stand out as quarrels between states normally peaceful and at ease with one another. And this is without mentioning the many rights and claims of indigenous peoples in the region.

One can see the situation where as commercial opportunities increase, through discoveries in oil and gas and as the retreating ice allows greater maritime shipping, that commercial pressure could cause less in the way of collaboration between countries and even more instances of states falling out. The Arctic is geographically unique. It is the only place in the world where a number of countries encircle an enclosed ocean. There is a lot of overlap. If you take a normal coastal state, the issues are limited to adjoining states and an outer boundary. In the Arctic it is quite different; accordingly, its governance structures need to reflect this uniqueness.

Clearly part of the problem of the inadequacy of the existing international agreements in relation to the Arctic stems from the backdrop in which many were set up. They were a product of their times. A sudden rush of new initiatives and organisations came into being as the Cold War came to an end. Whereas previously there had been little sense of cooperation, almost immediately following Michael Gorbachev's speech in Murmansk in 1987 when he challenged the Arctic States to form a "genuine zone of peace and fruitful cooperation" in the far north, several significant treaties were signed and several organisations, including the Arctic Council and the Barents Euro-Arctic Region were set up. The plethora of organisations, both governmental and non-governmental, and what Oran Young called a 'cacophony', has made it difficult in the eyes of many to establish consistent and meaningful cooperation and collaboration across the region.

Many would say that this plethora of international treaties and multilateral organisations is such a tangled complexity that it denies democracy and fails to give the Arctic the clear and coherent voice it desperately needs on the international stage. This is the problem that continues to confront us but now is aggravated by the political context in a post 9/11 world by an increasing disregard amongst leading states on the international stage to abide by the rules of international law, including one country I sadly know only too well. This makes it very difficult to talk about constructing new international regimes or breathing new life in to old ones in any meaningful way if participants will not agree to be bound by principles or rules.

In addition to this plethora of treaties and organisations, the changing developments in the Arctic I referred to, particularly global warming, biodiversity, the movement of fish stocks and the exploitation of energy reserves, over the past 20 years or so have meant that the circumstances in which these organisations were set up and treaties signed have significantly changed. For example, no international or regional agreement covers the shift of fish stocks to the high Arctic.

So, many see that we have the opportunity, indeed the obligation, to move on. Some like WWF have started the debate. They argue that beefing up the existing treaties and international organisations would be a good place to start and they propose a strengthening of the work of the Arctic Council. Others argue that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) set up in 1982 provides a sort of 'constitution for the seas' and could be a good starting point or even for the establishment of an Arctic Treaty like that signed to cover the Antarctic.

However there are a number of weaknesses with all these ideas. For example, the USA is not a signatory of UNCLOS and, as I have already indicated, seems to show an unwillingness to support international initiatives that in any way curtail or limit its independence of action. The Arctic Council has done sterling work, not least in spawning our organisation but it still lacks the visibility and teeth to control what its member countries actually do in the Arctic. It is after all essentially a soft law organisation. I still believe, as I did 6 years ago, that as directly elected parliamentarians we hold the potential key. I believe our organisation should use the attention focused on the Arctic during International Polar Year to promote discussion, dialogue and research concerning the possibilities of a new innovative regime for the Arctic, as indeed, Mrs. Hill-Marta Solberg did in Oslo last November in hosting SCPAR's seminar on establishing a legal regime in the Arctic.

We, as parliamentarians, are in a unique position to reach across national boundaries to serve those we represent. In this context we could learn from what Sylvia Simma of the Saami Parliament said yesterday when she emphasised the cross-border nature of much of their Parliament's work.

In the European Parliament we are used to working in this cross border context - it is what we do every day. Whilst you may not all be so keen to see Europe intervening is this area, let me suggest that as the EU is now looking at Marine and Energy policy in a way that has to reach beyond its geographic boundaries, it would also be useful if these issues were the clear focus of attention. I envisage that this would be through working groups or partnerships in the new Northern Dimension with the EU's partners: Iceland, Norway and Russia. The Northern Dimension has always been an external policy of the Union and the Arctic could now, post-enlargement, be the subject for a clear horizontal focus. I believe the EU could help to act as a catalyst and I hope the conference of Northern Dimension parliamentarians we plan to hold in the European Parliament in the autumn will be a start. The good thing about any EU policy is that it has direct oversight by elected parliamentarians. Outside of the EU this cross border activity would otherwise only be conducted at ministerial level on an intergovernmental basis without direct democratic input. I hope this is what our Parliament can help to bring to the table - our unique experience of cross border parliamentary democracy. It is some testament to international cooperation that I am able to come here on behalf of a parliament of 720 members representing 25 countries and over 400 million people and work together here with national parliamentarians.

In short, by what I have had to say today I could not offer you neat solutions. Yes, in my previous professional life I was a lawyer and I like things to be tidy and clear but I have learnt that political life is not like that. On the other hand, we have tremendous opportunities as parliamentarians to provoke, initiate and lead debate; a debate which as I have already indicated is underway. This should be a political process that I hope we will now decide to set in train with some urgency.

When Oran Young made his statement six years ago, he spoke about the Arctic being like the canary in the mine screaming out a warning to the world. Well, that canary must be screaming so hard now that I should think it is probably close to losing its voice! Our task is to give it back its voice.

Let me leave you with this thought originating in my own home town of Hull, a port on the North Sea coast of England. It took the world over 300 years from the arrival of the very first whaling ships, many coincidentally from Hull, off the Svalbard coast to the signing of the Spitzbergen Treaty which went a long way to ending the destruction of what remained of the wildlife of that archipelago. The world has not got 300 years for our nations to come to an agreement over the Arctic and the responsible exploitation of its resources. This is an area of the world that many citizens across the globe marvel at and have affection for. Little wonder then it has been called the 'last imaginary place'. We, the representatives of that place, must not fail to raise the debate about a serious regime to protect it and our globe for future generations.