Is the Arctic Council Still a Visionary Leader?

World Policy blog posted an article titled, “Is the Arctic Council Still a Visionary Leader?” The article reads in part as follows;

“Many thought he was sick; some feared he was dead. But in October 1987, after 51 days spent planning in seclusion, Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev emerged in Murmansk and gave birth to a new Arctic. Gorbachev envisioned the Arctic as a “zone of peace”—a place where the threat of nuclear attack that plagued the Cold War vanished, where countries could collaborate on Arctic science and share best practices for resource development and environmental protection, and where indigenous people had a role in shaping decisions. The idea of a peaceful area shared by East and West was a conceptual shift following failed negotiations over nuclear weapons and increased militarization in the North.

Within four years the Cold War had ended and countries were collectively engaged in environmental protection through the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy. This vision was then expanded through the foundation of the Arctic Council. The Council’s initial strategic vision, outlined in the 1996 Ottawa Declaration, affirmed the organization’s commitment to the environment, sustainable development, and the well being of indigenous peoples—all parts of Gorbachev’s Murmansk speech. To this end, the Council has written many scientific reports on topics ranging from human development to climate impact, helped elevate the status of indigenous peoples worldwide, and raised broader global awareness of Arctic issues—reflecting Gorbachev’s early vision.

While the Council has been the model of a successful international organization, it is weakened by its lack of long-term strategy. A 2014 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the Arctic Council offers an explanation. The report states that the U.S. State Department does not track the progress of the Arctic Council’s recommendations, as ‘the Council has not been a priority for State’. Since governments, like that of the U.S., are not effectively applying these reports to domestic policy, it is not possible for the Arctic Council to fully enact its proposals.

The GAO report lists 39 recommendations from the Arctic Council’s ministerial declarations from 1998-2013, though there are far more possible action items listed in these documents. For example, the GAO considers only one of the 33 paragraphs from the 1998 Iqaluit Declaration to be a recommendation, even though several of the paragraphs are directly actionable—one paragraph, for instance, urges the Arctic states to work toward early ratification of what later became the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and to encourage other states to do the same. While the U.S. signed the Convention in 2001, it has yet to ratify it. Similarly, only one of the 31 paragraphs from the 2011 Nuuk Declaration was considered actionable. The GAO also does not recognize recommendations contained in Working Group or Task Force reports, as these were too broad and numerous for State to handle effectively, given the limited resources of the department and the Council’s increased output.”

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