Interpellation debate on the Arctic Council

Translated from the Norwegian 

Interpellation from Member of the Storting Ivar Kristiansen (the Conservative Party) to the Minister of Foreign Affairs:
“The Arctic Council is attracting growing international attention. Some of the interest shown in the Arctic by larger countries, particularly relating to minerals, energy and new sailing routes, has the potential to create political tension in the High North. This would have repercussions for security policy. China, for example, seems to want to increase its level of activity in Svalbard and in the High North as a whole. The Arctic states bordering the Arctic Ocean agree that any conflicts arising in the Arctic should be resolved in accordance with the principles of international law. At the same time, there are still unresolved issues with regard to delimitation and establishment of the outer limit of the continental shelf in the area surrounding the North Pole. Both the EU and China are applying for observer status in the Arctic Council.

What are the Government’s ambitions and strategy in relation to the Arctic Council, in the light of developments in the region?” 

Minister of Foreign Affairs Espen Barth Eide’s main response: 
Mr Kristiansen has raised a number of important issues. To a large extent, these issues relate to the new opportunities and challenges that are arising as a result of climate change in areas of the region previously covered in snow and ice. 

Mr Kristiansen calls on me and the Government to think strategically, and it is indeed crucial to think strategically about these issues. It is precisely for this reason that the Government’s original policy platform from 2005 states that the High North is Norway’s most important strategic foreign policy priority in the years ahead. This was reiterated in the next policy platform, in 2009. Since then, the High North has been at the top of our agenda, for exactly the reasons Mr Kristiansen now gives: this is a region where we are seeing major and dynamic developments, which are creating significant opportunities both for Norway and the other countries concerned, but which may also give rise to significant challenges if not handled in the right way.

The Government has therefore consistently sought to promote peace, stability and development in accordance with the Law of the Sea. The Law of the Sea provides an integrated and predictable international legal framework for the sea areas, which is rooted in the UN. In the High North we have binding and effective international cooperation that promotes the sound management of resources. Moreover, new rules are being developed in line with growing needs and within the framework of international law.

From a global perspective there are grounds to emphasise the degree of consensus that exists in the High North, not only on the fundamental frameworks, but also in terms of the depth of cooperation between states, not least the coastal states concerned. The 2008 Ilulissat Declaration is one example of this. Here, the five coastal states bordering the Arctic Ocean confirmed their commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as the binding legal framework for activities in the Arctic Ocean.

Mr Kristiansen is quite right to say that countries do not always have common interests. That is one of the reasons we have foreign policy. But I would also like to make a distinction between two different levels of interests. States may, for example, have overlapping claims to the same area; this situation has certainly arisen in the past, and it will no doubt arise again in the future. By definition, the countries then have conflicting interests, in that they are interested in the same area. This said, they can have a common interest in having predictable rules for resolving the issue.

What we have seen in recent years is that fewer and fewer issues are remaining unresolved, because solutions have been found by using the relevant institutions and rules under the Law of the Sea. The maritime delimitation treaty between Norway and Russia is a key case in point, as is the recent breakthrough in establishing the maritime delimitation line between Denmark and Canada in the Lincoln Sea. 

Norway is the first Arctic state to have had the outer limits of its continental shelf clarified. It received the final recommendations from the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2009. Canada has a deadline of 2013 for submission of documentation, and Denmark a deadline of 2014. Russia, which originally submitted documentation in 2001, is to submit additional documentation to the Commission during the course of 2013.  

The US, for its part, has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This means that it is not bound by the deadlines, but nevertheless to a great extent considers the rules of the Convention to be binding customary law. The US therefore bases its cooperation in this area on the Law of the Sea. There are therefore grounds to expect that the outstanding continental shelf issues in the Arctic Ocean will be resolved in an orderly manner in due course.

The 2010 maritime delimitation treaty between Norway and Russia is not just a milestone in our bilateral relations; at a more general level it is also an example of practical cooperation on fisheries and energy issues, based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In accordance with the Ilulissat Declaration other coastal states bordering the Arctic Ocean are also giving priority to clarifying their maritime delimitations.

Although the various actors may have legitimate but conflicting interests in the High North, there is no race for the Arctic or for the resources in the region. The main challenges in the Arctic region relate to other concerns, such as climate change and the environment, the growing use of new sailing routes, increased tourism, and greater oil and gas activity. As I mentioned at the beginning, the growing activity in the High North is a result of the region becoming more accessible as the sea ice melts. In order to address the challenges, there is a need for appropriate national legislation, but also for cooperation in the relevant international forums.

The Arctic Council is the most important arena for discussing the common challenges we face. It is the only circumpolar forum for political discussions at government level. The Arctic Council is also the only body that brings together all the Arctic states and representatives of indigenous peoples. The nature of cooperation in the Arctic Council has changed in step with the changes in the Arctic region. It was established in 1996 as a forum for promoting environmental protection, but has since become the leading forum for cooperation on Arctic issues.

It may also be useful to bear in mind what the Arctic Council is not: it is not an administrative body, but a council in the literal sense of the word. The Arctic Council makes recommendations on Arctic issues that are of mutual interest to its members and of importance to relevant international organisations. One example of this is its cooperation with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on establishing a mandatory international code of safety for ships operating in polar waters (the Polar Code). 

Research carried out under the auspices of the Arctic Council has played a key role in informing the conclusions drawn by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It is crucial that the Arctic Council continues to play a leading role in gathering and disseminating information on climate change in the Arctic. However, we are also seeing other developments in the Arctic Council that are both important and appropriate. Norway has actively sought to promote these developments.

Firstly, in the Arctic Council we have shown that we are able to respond to new challenges by establishing more binding cooperation. We see this for example in the negotiation of legally binding agreements. On the initiative of the Arctic Council, the Arctic states have negotiated an agreement on search and rescue in the Arctic. The agreement was signed in Nuuk in May 2011, and will enter into force in two days’ time, on 19 January 2013. Furthermore, the Arctic Council established the Task Force on Arctic Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response, which has negotiated the text of an agreement on Arctic marine oil pollution preparedness and response. The aim is that this agreement will be signed at the Arctic Council’s Ministerial Meeting in Kiruna in May this year.

Secondly, the growing interest in the Arctic is leading to an increasing number of states and organisations applying for observer status in the Arctic Council, for example China, the EU, India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. Norway supports the admission of new observer states provided that they fulfil the Arctic Council’s own criteria. These criteria include recognising the sovereign rights of Arctic states and recognising that the Law of the Sea and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea constitute the legal basis and the legal framework within which the Arctic must be understood. If all goes to plan, a decision on the admission of new permanent observers will be made at the Arctic Council’s Ministerial Meeting in Kiruna this spring.

Thirdly, the establishment of a permanent secretariat for the Arctic Council in Tromsø is important for further strengthening the work of the Council. This is also a clear affirmation of Norway’s role in the Arctic. Establishing the Council’s permanent secretariat in the capital city of the Arctic will help to strengthen Tromsø’s position as one of the foremost centres of expertise on Arctic issues. The secretariat will be up and running in May this year, when Canada takes over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council. In a few days’ time, on 21 January, I will sign the Host Country Agreement for the secretariat at the Fram Centre in Tromsø. Norway and the other Arctic Council member states will make sure that the secretariat has the capacity it needs to be able to perform its functions vis-à-vis the chairmanship and the member states. 

Norway has played an active role in promoting the Arctic Council as the most important international forum for discussing challenges in the Arctic region in general, and in supporting developments in the three key areas mentioned above in particular. At the same time, it is essential that the Council continues to play a leading role in producing and compiling information about climate change, living standards, and health, safety and the environment in the High North. But in the Government’s view it is also important that the Arctic Council supports business development as the human activities in the region increase.

To sum up, I would like to emphasise the importance of close international cooperation based on predictable legal frameworks for maintaining peace and stability in a region undergoing change and development. Given that the Arctic is high on today’s agenda, and that the international media often likes to sensationalise developments in the region, it is vital that we convey the message that the Arctic is a peaceful region characterised by growing international cooperation. This cooperation is based on common recognition of the Law of the Sea as the most important legal framework for understanding the Arctic. The political relevance of the Arctic Council has increased. By strengthening the Arctic Council we can achieve greater predictability. The Arctic Council is therefore an important contribution to modern security policy. 

*** 

For all the other remarks (in Norwegian), see the Storting's website.

 

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