From the Arctic, to the World: Reflections on the Model Arctic Council in Rovaniemi

Emily Tsui

November 23, 2018

The Arctic air came early for me this year. In late October, I packed my bags with four extra layers of clothes along with my formal attire and headed to Rovaniemi, Finland. Rovaniemi is located right on Finland’s Arctic Circle. According to them, it is home to 60,000 people, 21,000 reindeer, and the real Santa Claus. For one week, it was also home to 51 delegates from 13 countries, who had descended upon this city to participate in a Model Arctic Council.

Two years ago, the Model Arctic Council came into existence to educate youth on Arctic diplomacy and the Arctic Council through experiential learning. The Arctic Council is one of the world’s greatest success stories of collaborative governance. It consists of the 8 Arctic States, 6 Indigenous Permanent Participants, and many state and non-state observers. Among its many achievements, the Arctic Council is one of the first international forums to meaningfully include and engage Indigenous peoples on important policy issues. In 2004, it sounded the alarm on climate change with its influential Arctic Climate Impact Assessment Report. Where global cooperation with Russia came to a standstill over Crimea in 2014, the Arctic Council continued to work with Russia in the important areas of search and rescue, navigation, and fisheries regulation.

However, as participants to the Model Arctic Council, we soon learned this collaboration cannot be taken for granted. Although the spirit for cooperation was certainly present throughout the conference, differences in interests and personalities revealed that there had to be a great deal of negotiation to translate this into collaborative policies. The topic for our discussion was “oil and gas development versus environmental protection,” which is not a typically tabled topic for the Arctic Council. Indeed, the fractious nature of this topic soon exposed itself, and we understood exactly why the Arctic Council refused to talk about it. For example, Canada and Norway had diametrically different views on whether there should be a moratorium on oil drilling in the Arctic, and this brought the progress in discussions to a standstill for a couple sessions. I understood why certain topics, like this one, and international peace and security, were either implicitly or expressly prohibited for discussion at the Arctic Council, lest this forum experience a stalemate like so many other international organizations.

In the one week, the greatest learning experience for me came from playing my role as China. China is an observer to the Arctic Council, and therefore has no formal role to play in the proceedings. Given all the clamour there has been about the potential “dilution” of the Arctic Council through accepting observer memberships almost indiscriminately, I was surprised to see that they not only had no power, but also no formal opportunity to speak. Their ability to influence the discussions comes exclusively through the coffee breaks and dinners, where they might have a chance to lobby one of the Arctic states or Permanent Participants to take up their cause.  In playing China, I did exactly that at the Model Arctic Council, and volunteered for any task that might allow me to speak. This included writing the final ministerial declaration of the commitments the 8 Arctic countries would undertake. In doing so, I managed to include greater recognition and participation of observers.

A highlight of the conference was meeting the real Senior Arctic Officials of the Arctic Council. In conversations with them at receptions and our final ministerial meeting, which they sat in, we had a chance to understand how they conduct Arctic diplomacy. Apparently, it was incredibly like our experience: there was a strong atmosphere of geniality, parties were incentivized to make concrete proposals to make the Arctic a better place, and observer states were frequently bored and craved the times after caucusing for them to do their work. The last point aside, for me, this interaction reaffirmed my optimism for the Arctic Council’s work in safeguarding the future of the Arctic.

The experience was incredibly valuable for my understanding of the Arctic Council’s work. I will be writing a research paper next semester on international law in the Arctic, and this conference changed my perspective dramatically on how I should approach my work. Most importantly, crucial to any future research or task, I will carry with me the friendships formed with interested youth from across the circumpolar North forever. I am extremely grateful for UArctic’s Model Arctic Council Thematic Network for inviting me to participate in this initiative, and for the Finnish Ministry of Education and the Munk School of Global Affairs for supporting my participation.