Arctic coastal states meet as EU, Inuit left on sidelines

Meeting near Ottawa seen by some as snub to Arctic Council


Randy Boswell
Canwest News Service

As the foreign ministers of five Arctic coastal states gather Monday for talks near Ottawa on the economic and environmental challenges facing the planet’s polar frontier, difficult questions linger over the region’s geopolitical future — highlighted by the exclusive guest list of the “Arctic Summit” itself.

With the melting Arctic Ocean emerging as “a new Mediterranean” in the minds of many, the five nations sharing its shoreline — Canada, Russia, the United States, Norway and Denmark — are positioning themselves to claim new undersea territory along the continental shelves and to exploit the potential oil riches, trade routes and tourism opportunities that an unlocked North could represent.

They point out that history and geography have also assigned them greater financial and administrative responsibility for Arctic security, environmental protection, shipping regulation and social development.

But just as Greenland’s inaugural Arctic Summit did in May 2008, the latest invitation-only meeting of the ocean’s “littoral states” has sparked concerns about possible conflicts over the region’s resources and prompted questions about the Arctic’s long-term governance — even as the five participating leaders again try to put such concerns to rest.

Iceland — a member of the international Arctic Council that has been left out of the talks, along with Sweden and Finland — has already publicly registered its annoyance over the snub. So have various northern aboriginal groups that have “permanent participant” status with the Norway-based council but no seat at the table inside Willson House, the federal retreat in Chelsea, Que. — minutes from Ottawa — where Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon is playing host this week to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and their counterparts from Denmark and Norway.

“It is inconceivable that the Government of Canada would contemplate holding a conference to discuss economic development and environmental protection in the Arctic without the active participation of Inuit, who will have to live with the consequences of any new government policies. This reeks of paternalism,” Pita Aatami, a top official with the Ottawa-based Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said of the Chelsea gathering.

To the European Union — which was recently blocked by Canada and others from gaining even “observer” status at the Arctic Council because of the continent’s ban on seal products — Monday’s party-of-five brainstorming session represents a troublesome narrowing of polar interests at a time when the wider world, including China and India, is angling for greater involvement in charting the future of the circumpolar realm.

“It is worrying,” left-leaning British EU representative Diana Wallis said earlier this month during a parliamentary debate about the Arctic, “that we see the development of an inner core of five coastal states of the Arctic meeting outside the architecture of the Arctic Council. This could seriously undermine a very precious co-operation and it has to be treated with some seriousness.”

During the same debate, the EU’s commissioner of foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, applauded the union’s push to enhance its position as a “responsible and respected player in the Arctic” by developing a “coherent, comprehensive” policy asserting Europe’s interests in the region.

“The Arctic’s ecosystem is very fragile and therefore needs maximum protection and safeguards,” she stated. “At the same time, because of climate change, the resources of the Arctic are becoming increasingly accessible. . . . We want to ensure our citizens and companies are treated fairly, including in the areas of transport and natural resources, and that needs to be done in a very deliberate and careful manner with appropriate environmental safeguards.”

While acknowledging the Arctic Ocean is surrounded by land “which belongs to sovereign countries” — specifically Canada and the other nations of the Arctic Ocean 5 — Ashton highlighted the importance of international law and UN treaties in resolving disputes and protecting the environment, urging European politicians to “take a careful look at whether and how these arrangements could be complemented and developed further.”

Much more pointedly, conservative British EU representative Charles Tannock warned that a strong European presence in the High North is “vital” because “Russia has left us in little doubt as to its own designs on the Arctic.”

He added: “We know to our cost that Russia sometimes follows its own rule book in international affairs. Only a united front by other members and the observers on the Arctic Council, working through the EU’s Northern Dimension policy, will keep the Kremlin in check. We cannot allow the Arctic to become the new arena for Russia’s expansionist tendencies.”

Such expressions of European anxiety — and even resistance — in the face of Russia’s Arctic strategy did not escape notice in Moscow.“Regrettably, we have seen attempts to limit Russia’s access to the exploration and development of the Arctic mineral resources,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in a speech following the EU debate. “That’s absolutely inadmissible from the legal viewpoint and unfair given our nation’s geographical location and history.”

Such signs of friction over how the world will oversee the Arctic’s development come at a time when China is asserting its own interest in the region. A March 1 report on the issue by a Swedish think-tank quoted one of China’s top Arctic experts as saying: “Circumpolar nations have to understand that Arctic affairs are not only regional issues but also international ones.’’

Cannon has argued that the special responsibilities confronting Arctic coastal states justify the five-nation meeting being held Monday. He also notes the government represents all Canadians — including northern indigenous nations — and consulted last week with Canada’s Arctic Council stakeholders to try to alleviate their concerns.

The Chelsea summit “can greatly contribute to discussions within the Arctic Council,” Cannon’s chief spokeswoman, Catherine Loubier, told Canwest News Service this week. She insisted that the meeting offers a chance for Canada to show “stewardship and leadership on the Arctic file.”

And as for the EU’s complaints about being left out Arctic Ocean’s inner circle, Loubier said Europe’s demonstrated “lack of sensitivity to northerners’ issues and way of life” — highlighted by the ban on seal products — is a valid reason to keep it out of the Arctic Council, at least for now.

Despite criticism from Canadian polar experts Michael Byers and Rob Huebert about the Arctic Summit’s affront to the Arctic Council, another polar specialist — University of Waterloo historian Whitney Lackenbauer, co-author of the book Arctic Front: Defending Canada in the Far North — has offered qualified support for Monday’s gathering.

“Having a meeting like the one at Chelsea is not incompatible with the Arctic Council,” Lackenbauer told a Senate committee on defence and security last week.

“If it is relating to littoral states getting together to reaffirm the message that there will be co-operation in sorting out the extended continental shelf, it is absolutely appropriate,” he said. But if the discussion “crosses over into the social and economic realm, then it could potentially undermine the Arctic Council.”

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