By Else Berit Eikeland, Senior Arctic Official, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway
Gunn-Britt Retter, Head of the Arctic and Environment Unit, Saami Council
It was quite an achievement that the Arctic indigenous peoples got a seat as permanent participants at the table; first at the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), which then developed into the Arctic Council with the mandate to discuss environmental protection and sustainable development.
The Arctic indigenous peoples welcomed this initiative, and today, could you even imagine what the Arctic Council would be without the indigenous peoples? The Arctic Council is unique. It is the only forum in the world where the indigenous peoples and the states sit at the same table.
The Senior Arctic Officialsʼ (SAO) meetings are all organized in small communities in the Arctic. Travelling to these meetings is a reminder for all of us that the Council is built on the well-being of the people of the North. Every visit to an Arctic community is teaching us that the Arctic is not one but different places with varied population and various needs and priorities related to sustainable development.
The Arctic Council is sometimes accused of being ineffective, with most of the time spent talking and agreeing on irrelevant matters. Our colleagues ask what exactly we are doing in the SAO meetings. Do we need a separate forum just to agree and be friends with Arctic states and indigenous peoples? Is the main objective environmental and climate issues or peace and love in the Arctic?
Such questions relate to what appears to be the most effective form of international cooperation, namely the treaty-based cooperation where the strongest voice is heard and disagreements are resolved by majority vote. Such cooperation might polarize disagreements and not give room to build consensus. The decision-making process in the Arctic Council is inspired and modeled after the indigenous consultations with extensive dialogue until an agreement is reached. Such processes can be demanding, but there are no clear winners or losers. We all move to a new understanding. The strength of consensus is the power behind the decision.
Strengthening and further developing the Arctic Council should be based on this consensus-based decision-making process. To answer the questions above: yes, the Arctic Council is about the environment and climate change and promoting sustainable development in a changing Arctic. In addition, the Arctic Council is about building trust and cooperation between all key stakeholders in the Arctic. Fundamentally, the Arctic Council is about peace and love. That is why it is worth celebrating.