Sweden aims to strengthen Arctic Council
Sweden will assume the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum, on May 11. But if we are to believe the Swedish ambassador to the region, "The Arctic is hot." Natural resources, military space, climate change, globalization and indigenous people's rights are a few of the competing key issues at play. In this complicated region, what can Sweden hope to do? And just what is the Arctic Council anyway?
The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum made up of the eight countries who hold territory there: Canada, the Danish kingdom, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, the USA, and Sweden. Sweden is the last of the eight countries who belong to the Arctic Council to hold the chairmanship of the Council.
The Council makes decisions, but they're not legally binding. Nevertheless, they can ask other organizations like the EU or the UN to adopt their decisions as legal ones. Also, the Council cannot work with military issues.
On Tuesday, the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm hosted a seminar called, "The New Arctic: Building Cooperation in the Face of Emerging Challenges" to discuss Sweden's role.
Gustaf Lind is the Swedish Ambassador to the Arctic. He wasn't ready to release Sweden's national Arctic strategy yet, but he did give some hints about where the country's priorities lie: on the environment, the indigenous people (Sweden's native population, the Sami, is one of the largest of the region's indigenous groups), and on trying to strengthen the Council.
"Chairing an international organization is very much about being an honest broker – that we don't try to set our interest over the other member states," Lind tells Radio Sweden, adding however that Sweden's chairmanship will give the Council "a Swedish flavor" with its focus on climate and indigenous groups. But Lind says that there must be a balance between what Sweden and other states want.
Sweden is taking over the chairmanship from Denmark, and during the seminar, former Danish diplomat and current head of legal service with the Danish ministry of foreign affairs, Thomas Winkler, mentioned that there is "sheer ignorance" on what the Arctic is about.
"The Arctic is unique in many ways but it's also not unique," says Lind. "It's all about people and nature and how they should move forward."
The Stockhom International Peace Research Institute was one of the organizers of the seminar. Neil Melvin directs the organization's Armed conflict and conflict management programme and says, "Sweden comes to this at a very interesting time....I think one of the main challenges now is to consolidate the Arctic Council as an important forum for many of the main questions and even perhaps for part of the security discussion, and to make the Arctic Council really the central organization in the Arctic region around which and in combination with other organizations can then work."
Former British diplomat, Alyson Bailes, jokes during the seminar, "I don't know whether I would qualify as an Arctic Council junky, but I do find it an interesting institution to think about."
Later, she tells Radio Sweden of the Arctic Council's powers, "The ability to make rules is not the important thing as long as you can inspire rules."
One thing Sweden may try to push for is a permanent secretariat for the Council, which would mean more funds and more staff.
Bailes says, "Sweden, I hope, will have fairly good chances of success, because it is not, itself, a threatening country. It does not have a sea outlet even to the Arctic, and, therefore, it does not have territorial claims in the Arctic. It's not one of those countries disputing with each other over boundaries. So I think it's quite proper for Sweden to come forward saying, look, we have no national angle in this. We're not threatening anybody. We would like to defend the environment of the North, the peoples of the North, and we would like to strengthen the Arctic Council.