Decolonizing The Arctic Council – OpEd

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In 2017, Dalee Sambo Dorough, Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, pointed out that the Ottawa Declaration, the founding document of the Arctic Council, explicitly declares in a footnote that the term peoples “shall not be construed as having any implications as regard the rights which may attach to the term under international law.” In other words, Indigenous Permanent Participants, or IPPs, on the Council cannot act from the position of self-determining and sovereign peoples as enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and International Labor Organization Convention 169.[i]

Recognizing the political validity of peoples, Dorough suggested, would better fulfill the Arctic Council’s mandate to support Arctic Indigenous Peoples in receiving an equal seat at the table in the event of future reform or restructuring of the Council. Even for an organization as young as the Council, however, her suggestion to revisit its founding documents in light of emerging political realities lands far afield of the consensus on the adequacy and appropriateness of Arctic Council structure. Still, many have noted that the balance, if not the structure, of the Council is indeed already changing, with 38 Observers (13 states, 13 intergovernmental organizations, and 12 NGOs) today outnumbering IPP representatives by a factor of nearly five.

Power imbalance

IPPs spearheaded efforts between 2008 and 2013 to strictly define and delimit the role played by non-Arctic Observers, resulting in the Observer Manual for Subsidiary Bodies, but the right of often well-resourced Observers to invest in working groups and co-lead projects remains an evolving source of power imbalance.[ii] Such Observers have expressed interest in enhancing their role in the Arctic Council, but IPPs have expressed concern over the potential impacts on their rights,[iii] noting that only 16 of the Council’s 90 activities in 2019 featured an IPP co-lead. The recent pause in Council activities stemming from Russia’s military assault on Ukraine should prompt leaders to address this and other Indigenous concerns as the Arctic Council determines its future structure and function.

The category of IPP in the Arctic Council is enshrined in the Ottawa Declaration “to provide for active participation and full consultation with the Arctic indigenous representatives within the Arctic Council.” Indeed, many Arctic Indigenous leaders have rightfully praised the comparatively progressive nature of this arrangement, noting the open and consequential communication it facilitates between IPPs and Member States. Andrew Chater points out that the status of Permanent Participants, as evidenced in Council documents, adheres to this conservative, mostly benign formulation of participation, but also that IPPs such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council have publicly signaled their interest in having a more substantive role.[iv]

The fact that voting rights remain exclusively with the Member States means that IPPs depend on them not only to solicit their opinion, but to validate and advocate for their perspectives in final negotiations.[v] That the five Arctic coastal states are also able to conclude agreements outside the structure of the Council likewise demonstrates an imbalance of power with IPPs.[vi] As in nearly all other major international fora, it is the nation-state actor whose de facto sovereignty, territorial hegemony, and ability to mobilize resources qualify it to make decisions.

Raising the political form of peoples, Dorough invites Arctic Council constituents to give due respect to the national and international, binding and non-binding legislation that has recognized Indigenous cultural and political legitimacy in many spheres of state activity. But while suggesting that recognition as peoples could form the basis for affording IPPs greater authority and influence in the Council, Dorough stops short of making a more formal, structural recommendation.

Seeking equal representation

It is already understood that Indigenous leadership and stewardship are essential to successful nature conservation efforts[vii], that the holistic management practices of Indigenous peoples can improve dominant governance structures and processes,[viii] and that Indigenous voices contribute enormously to international law’s treatment of human rights, self-determination, and the role of other non-state actors.[ix] In order to expand the window of Arctic political discourse to encompass more than the parochial interests of powerful, growth-oriented nation-states, the Arctic Council could grant IPPs formal voting rights, equal representation as peoples, and the right to hold council chairmanships.

Under the leadership of Indigenous organizations, the familiar, sectoral themes of past Council chairmanships (e.g., acting on climate change, sustainable economic development, protecting the environment) could give way to more holistic themes, such as those emphasized in the 2020 ICC Food Sovereignty and Self-Governance report, including Indigenous knowledge, food security, or even traditional principles such as respect, communication, or patience.[x] Elevating Indigenous leadership to a position of greater authority within the Council would show that Member States are not only willing to back their international commitments through the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which all Arctic states have endorsed), but are ready to tackle climate change and economic inequality at their roots in the structural underpinnings of colonial-capitalism. Such a first step in the decolonization of the Arctic Council could yield powerful results and, should it avoid being diluted or undermined, might open the possibility of other, more just and inclusive futures.[xi]

With the contested creation of the Álgu Fund in 2017, IPPs began building greater financial capacity to effectively participate in Arctic Council meetings and activities. If this was to be supplemented by in-kind contributions from Member States, it would demonstrate not only a genuine commitment to procedural justice but recognition—a long time coming—that the values and vision of Indigenous peoples are the global community’s greatest asset in sustainably readjusting to planetary boundaries.

It would be easy to dismiss an enhanced Council status for IPPs as an unachievable and unpalatable disruption to the business-as-usual operations of geopolitics. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created a rift unparalleled in post-Cold War history, where truly transformative innovation might take place. And dismissing this and other novel and emancipatory governance arrangements is itself part of what allows technocratic institutions to languish in the face of planetary catastrophe. While neither incremental change nor utopian thinking hold the promise of resolving the Arctic’s present misfortunes, the opportunity to ensure that all voices, especially those of Arctic Indigenous peoples, are fully represented and empowered in the international arena threatens nothing except the relentless and imprudent exploitation of our common Earth.

About the author: Nicholas Parlato, a specialist in maritime law and society in the Russian-American Arctic, is a research assistant with the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks, Alaska. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of the East-West Center or of any other organization.

Source: This article was published by East-West Center

[i] Dorough, D. S. (2017). The rights, interests and role of the Arctic Council permanent participants. In Governance of Arctic shipping (pp. 68-103). Brill Nijhoff.

[ii] Barry, T., Daviðsdóttir, B., Einarsson, N., & Young, O. R. (2020). The Arctic Council: an agent of change?. Global Environmental Change63, 102099.

[iii] Abdulmuminov, E. A. A. (2021). Who Matters in the Arctic?: The Rise of Permanent Participants in the Arctic Council and International Affairs (Doctoral dissertation, University of Washington).

[iv] Chater, A. (2021). Inuit in the Arctic Council: How Does Depiction Differ?. Northern Review, (51), 155-171.

[v] Charron, A. (2014). Has the Arctic Council become too big?. ISN Security Watch.

[vi] Koivurova, T. (2010). Limits and possibilities of the Arctic Council in a rapidly changing scene of Arctic governance. Polar Record46(2), 146-156.

[vii] Neil M. Dawson, Brendan Coolsaet, Eleanor J. Sterling, Robin Loveridge, Nicole D, Gross-Camp, Supin Wongbusarakum, Kamaljit K. Sangha, Lea M. Scherl, Hao Phuong Phan, Noelia Zafra-Calvo, Warren G. Lavey, Patrick Byakagaba, C. Julián Idrobo, Aude Chenet, Nathan J. Bennett, Stephanie Mansourian, Francisco J. Rosado-May. The role of Indigenous peoples and local communities in effective and equitable conservation. Ecology and Society, 2021; 26 (3)

[viii] Nursey-Bray, M., & Jacobson, C. (2014). ‘Which way?’: The contribution of Indigenous marine governance. Australian Journal of Maritime & Ocean Affairs6(1), 27-40.
Emanuel, R. E., & Wilkins, D. E. (2020). Breaching barriers: The fight for indigenous participation in water governance. Water12(8), 2113.

[ix] Anaya, J. (2007). Indigenous law and its contribution to global pluralism. Indigenous LJ6, 3.

[x] Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska. 2020. Food Sovereignty and Self-Governance: Inuit Role in Managing Arctic Marine Resources. Anchorage, AK

[xi] Tuck, E. & Yang, K.W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1-40.

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