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The Arctic Council Pause: The Importance of Indigenous Participation and the Ottawa Declaration

By Barry Scott Zellen, PhD, Visiting Scholar, Department of Geography at the University of Connecticut

12th Arctic Council Ministerial meeting
Family photo

The ongoing boycott of the Arctic Council – announced by the seven democratic member states (A7) three months ago on 3 March 2022 – was unexpected news to the six Permanent Participant organizations representing the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. While the Council is predicated upon the spirit of meaningful and inclusive participation of Arctic indigenous peoples, who hold special status under the foundational terms of the 1996 Ottawa Declaration, the Permanent Participants were not consulted before this historic boycott of Council meetings was announced after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.

The Arctic Council: An Innovative and Inclusive Diplomatic Forum for Aligning Indigenous and State Interests

The Arctic Council (like the Arctic region generally) is distinctively collaborative, where indigenous peoples and sovereign states regularly meet to jointly deliberate and collectively govern, embracing a region-wide commitment to co-management. This unity is its essence, a reflection of the prominent role of indigenous peoples in the Arctic order and the high value placed on indigenous values by not just indigenous peoples but their state and non-state colleagues on the Council as well.

While the Council does not de jure address matters of national security and defense, its distinct composition and high regard for indigenous knowledge and values has positioned the Council to de facto redefine Arctic security to include environmental, ecological, cultural and human security as core security pillars in the Arctic. Its embrace of indigenous values has helped the Council strengthen not only its East-West bond, but its North-South bonds as well, nurturing the emergence of a distinct culture of collaborative Arctic sovereignty and security over its first quarter century.

The omission by the A7 of their all-important commitment to consult with the six Permanent Participants ahead of the Arctic Council boycott decision signals a return to a more Westphalian conceptualization of Arctic security, risking an erosion of the hard-won prominence of indigenous voices in Arctic international relations. Indeed, this sacrosanct collaboration between tribe and state at the top of our world is now at risk.

Indeed, this sacrosanct collaboration between tribe and state at the top of our world is now at risk.

A Return of Indigenous Exclusion as Arctic Security Hardens?

While the unprecedented inter-state unity and protracted nature of the A7’s boycott of the Council made headlines, the exclusion of indigenous stakeholders in their deliberations prior to the boycott indicates a tectonic shift in Arctic governance is under way, as conceptions of Arctic security shift back from ‘soft’ power to ‘hard’ in the wake of Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

As described in a February 14 press release issued by the Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC), (AAC), one of the six indigenous Permanent Participant organizations of the Arctic Council, the Council is comprised of “[e]ight Arctic states, including the United States, Canada, and Russia and six permanent participants (Indigenous Peoples)” [1] which, together with a growing cohort of state and non-state observers:

“serves as the leading forum for the Arctic …” “that promotes cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic states and permanent participants. It is at the Arctic Council table that international cooperation agreements have been reached that address important areas including climate change, marine pollution, and Arctic scientific study. It also serves as an important global forum working towards agreements committed to sustainable solutions as regions look to future developments in the Arctic.” [2]

Ten days before the Ukraine invasion began, AAC called upon world leaders to remember their commitments to the indigenous peoples, noting in particular that Crimean Tatars “comprise the largest population of Indigenous Peoples in Ukraine” as “officially recognized by the Government of Ukraine and the European Parliament as Indigenous Peoples in February 2016.” [3] With the winds of war blowing, AAC was thus:

“urging global leaders in Canada, United States, Russia, and Ukraine not to forget commitments they have made to Indigenous Peoples. Specifically, AAC wants to remind state leaders that Canada, United States and Ukraine are all party to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), originally adopted in 2007. AAC points to Article 30 which states: ‘Military activities shall not take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples, unless justified by a relevant public interest or otherwise freely agreed with or requested by the indigenous peoples concerned,’ Further it proclaims: ‘States shall undertake effective consultations with the indigenous peoples concerned, through appropriate procedures and in particular through their representative institutions, prior to using their lands or territories for military activities.’” [4]

Chief Gary Harrison, AAC’s International Chair, pointed out the vital importance of the work of the Arctic Council, and the potential risk to the hard-earned diplomatic alignment of Arctic states and indigenous peoples, strengthened by their unity of effort and purpose in combating Arctic climate change at the Arctic Council table:

“We have warming taking place in the Arctic at three times the speed of other global jurisdictions. This reality and the future threat to Arctic water systems, marine life, wildlife, and our fragile ecosystems will affect us here in the Arctic, and globally, for generations to come. The work now at the Arctic Council table is already at a critical stage. Our relationship with the Russian Federation, as with all our regional partners, is one of diplomatic cooperation that took years to build. We fear this could be greatly disrupted if the resistance to finding a solution over the conflict in Ukraine continues.” [5]

And Chief Bill Erasmus, the AAC’s Canadian Chair, added that: “We want to remind all governments that the Arctic Council is the world’s only forum where we, as Indigenous People have inclusion at a global level. As concerns over the Russian-Ukraine crisis are increasing, we feel the need to speak out.” [6]

Erasmus emphasized the importance UNDRIP, which “must be adhered to through this process. The loss of human life, the economic and environmental costs should a war commence, is troubling. We do not support or endorse any war and urge all parties to seek a diplomatic solution.” [7] He also noted there were “several upcoming meetings set to take place that involve Indigenous Arctic organizations including Arctic Territory of Dialogue 2022,” originally scheduled (before the Arctic Council pause was announced) to be hosted by the Russian Federation in St. Petersburg in April. [8]

A Diverse Range Indigenous Perspectives on the Ukrainian War and the Arctic Council Pause

AAC’s effort to directly reach out – not only to the leaders of the Arctic states but the global community of nations – to protect the rights of indigenous peoples from the ravages of war reflects the powerful diplomatic innovation of the Arctic Council, the inclusive diversity inherent in the Council structure, and the novelty of its effort to align the formal sovereign powers of the Council’s state actors with the informal influence of its indigenous actors in the formation of Arctic policies.

While most (but not all) the Permanent Participants would endorse the boycott after it was announced, they did so with concern for the future of Arctic cooperation, knowing full well how great indigenous gains have been since the Council’s formation, and how much Arctic indigenous peoples have to lose in a world without an Arctic Council.

The Russian section of the Saami Council (SC) issued its own statement on 27 February, among the first, commenting they could neither “ignore” nor “remain silent” about the situation in Ukraine, and while not directly addressing “who is right and who is wrong” concluded there was “no justification for military action.”[9] Amidst the dizzying cascade of sanctions, suspensions, and boycotts of Russian participation in various forms of international cooperation since the war began, the SC’s Russian section expressed their desire

“to make sure that the Sami people from the Russian side can continue to participate in international meetings and conferences, including visiting other countries. … Now, more than ever, the Sami people in Russia need international support to continue cooperation between the Sami of the four countries. We hope that this difficult situation will soon be resolved in the least painful way.”[10]

Gwich’in Council International (GCI) issued its response to the pause, “Re: Joint Statement on Arctic Council Cooperation Following Russia’s Invasion Ukraine,” on March 3, in which GCI “welcomes the collective pause of activities of the Arctic Council as we explore new modalities for pursuing peace and cooperation in the north,” while expressing its

“grave concern for the people of Ukraine, particularly the indigenous peoples, due to the invasion by Russia. We stand with our partners around the world in calling for peace in Ukraine, a peace which can only be achieved by Russia recalling its armed forces immediately.”[11]

GCI reiterated that it

“remains committed to engage in productive dialogues that advance the collective aim and responsibility of stewarding a peaceful Arctic region built on cooperation and our shared value of mutual respect.”[12]

Four days later, the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) released its “Statement from the Inuit Circumpolar Council Concerning the Arctic Council,” which acknowledged the A7’s “calling for a temporary pausing of participation at all meetings of the Arctic Council and its subsidiary bodies,” as well as a “message from the Russian Chair of the Arctic Council agreeing to the request of the other countries.”[13] In their statement, ICC recounted that it:

“emerged from the Cold War as a unifying voice for Inuit across our collective homeland of Inuit Nunaat. We worked hard to ensure that our sisters and brothers from Chukotka were able to join us in 1992. We are concerned about the future of the Arctic Council which is based on peaceful cooperation and mutual respect. Inuit are committed to the Arctic remaining a zone of peace, a phrase coined by former USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev in a 1987 speech in Murmansk. ICC has repeatedly echoed this message in all of its guiding documents … ICC is monitoring the situation closely and agrees with the SAOs that this temporary pause will allow time to consider ‘the necessary modalities that can allow us to continue the Council’s important work in view of the current circumstances.’”[14]

how will the Council reconcile the interests of indigenous peoples and modern states if it can’t find a way to bridge the gaps in ideologies and governing philosophies separating the A7 from its circumpolar neighbor, Russia?

The Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), widely criticized in recent years for rubberstamping the policies of the Russian Federation, issued its own statement on March 1, in which it took Moscow’s side:

“Respected Vladimir Vladimirovich! A peaceful sky, land of our ancestors and the safety of children – nothing can be more important for every inhabitant of our planet. For everyone. No exceptions. Regardless of ethnicity or native language. The North, Siberia, and the Far East remembers with gratitude those who have dedicated their destinies to the formation of our regions. … Peacemaking is never easy. [RAIPON] supports your aspiration and decision to protect the rights and interests of the residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics and the security of a multiethnic Russia. We, representatives of 40 small indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East express hope for quick mutual understanding to ensure peace and harmony.”[15]

Ten days later, on March 11, the newly formed International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia put out its own statement rebutting RAIPON, signed by seven indigenous leaders in exile from Russia, and contrasting greatly with RAIPON’s endorsement of Putin’s aggression:

“WE – the undersigned representatives of the Indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East living outside of Russia against our will—are outraged by the war President Putin has unleashed against Ukraine … As representatives of Indigenous peoples, WE express solidarity with the people of Ukraine in their struggle for freedom and are extremely concerned about ensuring the rights of Indigenous peoples during the war on Ukrainian territory, including the Crimean Peninsula that remains illegally occupied by Russia. As representatives of Indigenous peoples, WE are outraged by statements of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) on March 1, 2022 and the statement of civil society leaders on March 2, 2022 in support of the decisions of President Putin.”[16]

ICIPR called upon the international community (including the Arctic Council in addition to the UN) “to ignore the statements of RAIPON representatives and spokespeople of other organizations which supported Vladimir Putin’s decisions.”[17] The fate of RAIPON, and the challenge presented by ICIPR, remains uncertain, as does when and where the Arctic Council will resume meeting, and with whom.

Finding a path back to a restoration of the Council’s important, indeed sacred, reconciliation of tribe and state, is imperative

Will the Council bifurcate along the old East/West fault line, with the A7 representing a “free” Arctic exclusive of the vast Russian Arctic? Will the Council eventually find its way back together, either during or after the war in Ukraine comes to an end? In its future form, how will the Council reconcile the interests of indigenous peoples and modern states if it can’t find a way to bridge the gaps in ideologies and governing philosophies separating the A7 from its circumpolar neighbor, Russia?

The Arctic Council has since its inception in 1996 been about more than Arctic states. Its distinct contribution to statecraft has been rooted in its diverse, multilevel collaboration between indigenous peoples from across the circumpolar world, working in partnership with a diverse group of states – from microstates to middle powers to superpowers, and from democracies to colonial-states to autocracies. Together, they have reimagined statecraft as a synthesis of national and indigenous interests, and Arctic security as a distinctively northern synthesis of hard and soft security interests.

Finding a path back to a restoration of the Council’s important, indeed sacred, reconciliation of tribe and state, is imperative – ideally, with all eight founding member states and the six Permanent Participants all at the table once again – providing the world with an innovative, inclusive, and importantly viable, model for inclusive and responsible statecraft.

References

[1] Arctic Athabaskan Council, “Press Release: Conflict Continues in the Crimean Peninsula, Ukraine,” ArcticAthabaskanCouncil.com, February 14, 2022 (March 1, 2022), https://arcticathabaskancouncil.com/conflict-in-the-crimean-peninsula/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Russian Section of the Saami Council, “The Russian section of the Saami Council has issued a statement regarding the current situation in Russia (27.02.2022),” SaamiCouncil.net, February 27, 2022, https://www.saamicouncil.net/news-archive/statement-by-the-russian-side-of-the-saami-council-regarding-the-current-situation-in-russiaa

[10] Ibid.

[11] Gwich’in Council International, “Re: Joint Statement on Arctic Council Cooperation following Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” GwichinCouncil.com, March 3, 2022, https://gwichincouncil.com/sites/default/files/2022%20March%203%20GCI%20Statement.pdf

[12] Ibid.

[13] Inuit Circumpolar Council, “Statement from the Inuit Circumpolar Council Concerning the Arctic Council,” InuitCircumpolar.com, March 7, 2022, https://www.inuitcircumpolar.com/news/statement-from-the-inuit-circumpolar-council-concerning-the-arctic-council/#:~:text=We%20are%20concerned%20about%20the,a%201987%20speech%20in%20Murmansk.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), NGO in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, Document No. 64, March 1, 2022.

[16] International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia, Statement of the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia, Polar Connection, March 11, 2022, https://polarconnection.org/international-committee-of-indigenous-peoples-of-russia/

[17] Ibid.

Barry Scott Zellen

Barry Scott Zellen, Ph.D., is a visiting scholar in the Department of Geography at the University of Connecticut. He lived in the Western Canadian Arctic from 1990-2000, and was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Akureyri in 2020.