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Arctic Circle

Arctic Council: Structure, Work and Achievements

by Magnús Jóhannesson, Director of the Arctic Council Secretariat (ACS) 2013-2017


The Arctic Council was established to promote sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic Region. It has provided effective cooperation between the eight Arctic States with many tangible results. The Council is not founded on a treaty or legally based commitments. It was established as a high-level intergovernmental forum by a declaration signed by the Foreign Ministers of the Arctic States.

Why has the Arctic Council been so effective in promoting measures at different levels in addressing environmental protection and sustainable development in the Arctic? Decision making informed by science, indigenous knowledge, and the inherent structure for dialogue between scientists and policy makers has been the key.

Structure and method of work

The Arctic Council cooperation is based upon a consensus-building approach. Decisions cannot be taken by the Council unless there is consensus among all the Arctic States. This might be seen as a weakness. However, given the structure of the Arctic Council, this has indeed turned out to be a major strength.

The Arctic Council works at three levels. These are the Ministerial level, the Senior Arctic Officials level, and the working group level. At all these levels the consensus principle prevails.

Every two years the Council meets at the Ministerial level. These meetings are usually attended by Foreign Ministers of the Arctic States. Each Ministerial meeting marks the end of one Chairmanship and the beginning of another. The Ministers receive reports and recommendations from the Council ́s subsidiaries. They decide upon new priorities and follow-up with the Arctic States. A detailed work plan for the next Chairmanship period is approved and highlights of the past and ongoing work recorded by the Ministers.

At the second level, Senior Arctic Officials (SAOs) meet at least twice a year to monitor and guide the Council’s work including the scientific and the fact-finding work. SAOs are generally high-ranking officials, ambassadors, from the Foreign Ministries. They take their mandate from the Ministers. The dialogue that takes place between SAOs and the scientists from the third level is of high significance and central for consensus building for the informed decision making in the Council.

At the working group level, the council has 6 permanent working groups and a varying number of expert groups. Sometimes special Task Forces are established for urgent tasks to be completed between Ministerial meetings. The working groups are responsible for the scientific and technical work which is carried out by scientists and indigenous representatives from the Arctic States. Experts from observers to the Arctic Council do also contribute to the work. Monitoring and assessment of developments in the Arctic Region is central to the work of the working- and expert groups. The work often leads to recommendations to the Ministers on measures to mitigate adverse effects of the findings, or – if it is more appropriate – for further work on the issue. However, before such recommendations go to the Ministers, they are discussed at the SAO level between scientists from the working groups and the senior officials who represent the Ministers. Recommendations that have been developed by consensus of scientists or technical experts with input from indigenous representatives and adopted by the SAOs are most frequently approved by the Ministers.

Scientific and fact-finding work is largely carried out in the working groups, expert groups, and Task Forces of the Arctic Council. This has been the mainstay of the Council’s work. When the Arctic Council was established in 1996, knowledge of the natural environment in the Arctic region was limited. The Arctic Council has changed that. Regular dialogues between the scientific experts, indigenous peoples with their local and traditional knowledge, and high-level officials of the Arctic States have helped to ensure successful developments. The presence of the Arctic indigenous peoples has strengthened the Arctic Council in its decision making and enhanced the political discussions. Traditional knowledge and science have been mutually supportive.

In addition to the state’s representatives and the Permanent Participants, the Arctic Council has a number of Observers that are encouraged to contribute substantially at the technical working level of the Council. Today there are 38 observers, 13 states, 13 international organizations and 12 non-governmental organizations. Observers contribute primarily to the work in the working groups and can support motions by the Arctic States in International Organizations regarding Arctic issues.

This might be seen as a weakness. However, given the structure of the Arctic Council, this has indeed turned out to be a major strength.


What have been the major achievements by the Arctic Council during its first 20 years? For many the Arctic Council has been quite successful in its work. It has indeed been referred to as a major poster case of diplomatic success. Its fundamental scientific and technical research has resulted in a number of actions, taken eventually by the Ministers, which have aimed at better environmental protection and promotion of sustainable development in the Arctic Region. Some measures have been cases - the Arctic States have used their conclusions in the Arctic Council to argue for more effective international agreements in respective international fora with considerable success.

Monitoring of persistent organic pollutants in biota and humans in the Arctic produced conclusive evidence that helped to generate international consensus for the Stockholm convention in 2001 [1]. In the Arctic we have already seen reduced levels of some of the substances covered by that convention. Similarly, the work of the Arctic Council on monitoring of heavy metals in the Arctic Environment helped to establish the Minimata Convention in 2013 [2]. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the Arctic Council’s Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, published in 2004 [3], contributed significantly to the IPCC’s understanding of the global climate change.

There are more examples. The Council’s Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment in 2009 informed the development of the Polar Code by the International Maritime Organization. The Polar Code, which now regulates shipping activities in the Arctic, entered into force on 1 January 2017 [4]. Most recently the Reykjavík Ministerial adopted a comprehensive action plan on marine litter with special emphasis on reducing plastic pollution [5].

Of other notable achievements, the Arctic States have negotiated three legally binding agreements under the auspices of the Arctic Council which are of great relevance for the Arctic. These are the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic ([6], Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic [7] and Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation [8].

At the most recent Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council in Reykjavik in May 2021 the Ministers agreed on a Strategic Plan laying out a vision for the Arctic in 2030 with strategic goals and actions. The Strategic Plan will guide and strengthen the Arctic Council in the coming years when the work resumes from the present situation affected by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.


The strength of the Arctic Council is in its structure, and in the fact that the consensus principle between the eight Arctic States prevails at all levels in this structure. Involvement of the Indigenous peoples is also of major importance in shaping decisions in the Arctic Council. It is of great significance for the Council’s research that the results and findings that emerge from its work are discussed by officials and policy makers at the highest levels. Experience has shown that when experts and scientists from the Arctic States agree on results and proposed recommendations, they are in general approved by the Ministers and therefore very likely to be followed up by the Arctic States.

In shaping effective policy measures, the consensus principle in this structure should therefore be seen as a strength, rather than a weakness. The fact that Ministers are greatly involved in shaping the Council’s research has also helped to make the work of the Arctic Council more meaningful and more prominent in discussions in other international organizations.

No. 10/2022, 12 December 2022

This article is a part of the Arctic Circle Journal Series which provides insight, understanding and new information. The material represents the opinions of the author but not those of Arctic Circle.

Magnús Jóhannesson

Director of the Arctic Council Secretariat 2012-2021

Magnús Jóhannesson is a chemical engineer graduated from the University of Manchester, England. He was the first Director of the Arctic Council Secretariat in Tromsö Norway. Before he had served as the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources and as the Maritime Director in Iceland.


[1] Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants see

[2] Minimata Convention on Mercury see

[3] Arctic Climate Impact Assessment see

[4] The international Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters see

[5] Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter see

[6] Ses

[7] See

[8] See