At the Nuuk meeting, the Arctic Council put off the European Commission’s application for “permanent observer” status – probably for two years. The bid was strongly supported by one Arctic Council member state, Finland (which also belongs to the EU). But it was opposed by two other permanent Council members, Canada and Russia. Decisions are taken by unanimity on the Council. A decision on the EU application – based on criteria established at Nuuk – is set to be taken within two years, ie by the time of the next Council ministerial.
A letter – contending that non-littoral countries are affected by changes in the Arctic and should be heard on the Council – was circulated to the meeting by France, which has observer status and wants more rights for countries with that status. The incoming chair of the Council, Sweden, stressed the rights of the eight members. “Members are members, and observers are observers,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt was quoted as saying.
EU sources voice complaints that Canada and Russia have “closed attitudes” in which they say they are trying to keep the Council from becoming unwieldly as a rationalization for maintaining their degree of control. In the French letter, Michel Rocard, a former prime minister who is the ambassador to the Council, said: "Over the next 20 or 30 years, putting the Arctic to good use is the most colossal of any current human endeavour." The letter implicitely queried whether the eight Arctic Council states would have the capacity to tackle the growing list of issues. A fuller account of this debate can be found at "EU gets cold shoulder in the Arctic."
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The Obama administration, ei wrote on May 11, is sending a strong and hopefully influential delegation to the ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council on May 12 in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, the continent-sized Arctic island linked with Denmark. In the eight-nation consultative body of littoral states, Washington is working to play a role on Arctic issues by using tangential leverage because the U.S. is not a party to the main relevant treaty.
Just as with the International Criminal Court and with climate-change negotiations, Washington has not ratified the key treaty instruments – in this case, the treaty formally known as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In the circumstances, Washington has again (as in ICC work and in climate negotiations) sought to step up its weight and input in operational negotiations – in this case, with the other Arctic Council member states: Canada, Denmark (and Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. To emphasize U.S. interest (and enhance U.S. powers of persuasion), the Obama administration is sending Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to the ministerial.
In framing U.S. hopes for the meeting Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg described it as an opportunity to expand what he called a “new model” for international cooperation on issues for which there is no treaty-based set of negotiated rules and obligations. In the Arctic, that instrument is the Law of the Sea treaty, which has been signed by the U.S. but never ratified since its inception in 1994.
In this situation, the Obama administration has sought a constructive role – for the Arctic and for U.S. interests – in embracing pragmatic cooperation as the only alternative. As presented by Steinberg, the State Department number two official, who has managed these issues for the last two years and was appearing this week after his recent resignation to go to academia, a workable “good news” basis for joint international action nowadays is for countries to volunteer their own objectives, hope that other countries will emulate this with ambitious and complementary efforts of their own and then press each other to live up to their commitments.
This process is what Steinberg sees happening in the Arctic today in a situation where there is no timeframe or political prospect for Senate ratification of the Law of the Sea accord. In the absence of binding treaty-based joint action, Steinberg sees pragmatic cooperation as a viable way forward. He spoke on these issues this week at a meeting hosted by a Washington think tank, CSIS. Here are excerpts of his remarks on this point:
A great example of this approach, he said, can be seen in the search and rescue agreements that are being signed among Arctic countries. “It is a legally binding agreement; we’re going to be able to do it as an executive agreement, so we can go forward with that. I think there are a number of other examples of steps that we can take to reach inter-governmental agreements that allow us to advance a number of instances…[for example], coordinated domestic action on short-term climate forces [such as black carbon]. These are all things that can be done in collaboration with other Arctic countries, and I think what’s interesting about the Arctic Council is that we really are breaking new ground in terms of tools of collaboration. We’re not a treaty-based organization, but what we’re finding is that it facilitates negotiations among the member-states, and that, I think, is going to be a model for a lot of international organizations that don’t have some of the rigidities of the more formal institutions. The efforts that we make on short-lived climate-forcing agents can contribute to the broader climate discussions taking place through the UN Framework Convention and elsewhere. But [at the Arctic Council] we have nimbleness because it’s a smaller group of significant countries, and can take decisions going forward. [Similarly] to climate work, I think, this is going to be more and more the model that you see of how you stimulate broader international agreements moving forward. Of course, I also want to emphasize that on the Law of the Sea, although we have not yet acceded to it, the United States as a signatory abides by and respects the provisions of that treaty, and we continue to believe it’s an important instrument to our national interests....
[In the Arctic as with climate mitigation] I think what we recognize at the end of the day is that they require domestic actions by the key players. But if you think about the model established by Copenhagen and now incorporated in the Cancun agreement, [it] is a system that allows individual nations to make commitments, but to have the kind of mutual commitment to each other, and in the context of these individual action plans, we will be responsive to each other’s efforts. That’s why the Copenhagen-Cancun model of individual countries putting forward action plans but engaging with dialogue with their partners and trying to encourage coordinated efforts I think is a very promising model moving forward. As I say, the step from Copenhagen to Cancun shows that these kinds of efforts can be effective. So what we’ll be looking for with respect to short-term climate forces, not just among the Arctic member states, but also other nations, is steps that we can take together. And so, for example outside this context, as I mentioned today in China-U.S. bilateral talks [on the global context of short-lived climate forces], we are looking for steps that we can mutually take both to provide technology exchanges, but also to strengthen our own domestic efforts. “
Steinberg amplified his views on this theme in a subsequent part of his answers to questions about how the U.S. and other Arctic littoral (and non-littoral nations) can cooperate on common problems in the melting Arctic outside the most relevant treaty, the Law of the Sea.
What the U.S. and other governments are seeking, in the Arctic Council ministerial and in wider international efforts, he said, is “a coordinated effort of individual states looking at what is needed broadly and trying to find common understandings about steps these individual states can take. The problem, of course, is different in the different countries. [On black carbon, for example] for more developed countries the challenge has to do with diesel…others deal with problems of domestic cooking and heating. I do not think there is a single answer in terms of what to do in every country. There are elements of this, for example, in the question of hydrochlorofluorocarbons, where there are formal mechanisms both through the Montreal protocol and the U.N.F.C.C. that may allow for formal agreements. But again here, the point is that the coordinated focus and coordinated set of efforts to put attention on these issues, have encouraged countries to step up to the plate, take strong actions domestically and give the sense that this is a collective action problem…i.e. in the sense that, if everybody does not help, then individual actions do not have that big an impact. There is unlikely to be a formal legal agreement on this, but we are challenging each other to make the collective and common efforts to raise the standards, incentivize strong action and give people sense that, if you take strong action, others will do it, too. This tool has proven to be a successful one and allows us to move this agenda forward without some of the rigidities of going through the negotiation of a formal agreement.”
Steinberg’s perspective and upbeat theme are set to be vindicated in some degree by movement at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting on some agenda items such as codifying the body’s “observer status” to include more non-littoral nations and setting action-agendas on black carbon.
But serious constraints remain on the U.S. role in the Arctic due to the country’s failure to ratify the law of the sea treaty which defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world's oceans – including the newly navigable Arctic Sea, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources.
In this context, the U.S. role has shown some ambivalence in approaching its “Arctic vocation” as now embraced by the Obama administration as a national security priority. As described in a paper by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Washington think tank that sponsored Steinberg’s briefing, the U.S. so far has preferred “either to remain outside Arctic governing structures such as the Law of the Sea Convention or requiring that Arctic organizations be informal, technical and project-driven in nature such as the Arctic Council. Although the United States has long been regarded as a science power in the Arctic, it is a nation with very limited Arctic infrastructure and coast guard capabilities.” CSIS has worked with the World Wildlife Federation and other partner organizations to produce a policy study on the issues.
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