Opening remarks by the Minister of Foreign Affairs at the presentation of the priorities for Norway’s Chairship of the Arctic Council
Speech/statement | Date: 13/04/2023 | Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Minister of Foreign Affairs Anniken Huitfeldt's opening remarks at the presentation of Norway's leadership priorities for the Arctic Council in Tromsø on Tuesday, 28 March.
It is a great pleasure to welcome you here for this presentation of the priorities for Norway’s Chairship of the Arctic Council.
It is inspiring to be here together with so many of you who provided such constructive input to our work to define our priorities.
And especially to be here in Tromsø, the capital of the Arctic.
And here at FRAM (the High North Research Centre for Climate and the Environment), a unique centre that brings together actors from Norway’s Arctic, Antarctic and High North research communities.
Where you continue to build on the legacy of our polar pioneers in the best possible way. Not least the legacy of Fridtjof Nansen.
There are many here who know a lot more about Nansen’s polar achievements than I do. But I would like share some of what we can find about him in the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
One thing that not everyone knows is that Fridtjof Nansen was Norway’s first ambassador to London.
During his service there, he did not exactly comport himself as a traditional diplomat. Nansen had a deep dislike of formalities and rules of protocol.
On one occasion, he was half an hour late to dinner with none other than King Edward.
On arriving, Nansen deliberately set his watch back a half-hour, entered the room with a broad smile and pulled his watch out of his pocket, saying: ‘I do believe that the clocks here in the building are wrong. This chronometer has followed me across the Arctic Ocean and never been a minute off.’ According to the report in the archives, the response was one of merriment and laughter.
Few other people could have pulled off that stunt and charmed the leader of one of the world’s great global powers.
With his infinitely inquisitive mind and clear moral compass, Fridtjof Nansen succeeding in navigating his way through everything from the Arctic Ocean to the inner sanctums of the British Empire.
Nansen lived and worked during a time of great upheaval for our country.
And today, we once again find ourselves in turbulent times. War in Europe. A refugee crisis. An energy crisis.
The impacts of climate change, which are particularly severe here in the Arctic.
It is against this backdrop that Norway is now preparing to take over the chairship of the Arctic Council. The most important multilateral forum for addressing issues relating to the Arctic. We must navigate wisely. We must use knowledge and our extensive experience as a polar nation.
And, not least, we must be realistic.
The establishment of the Arctic Council was by no means a given.
At the signing ceremony in 1996, Prime Minister of Greenland Lars-Emil Johansen called the Council the realisation of a dream.
A dream that the people living in the Arctic had scarcely dared to believe in just a few years earlier.
This dream grew out of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy adopted in 1991.
There was a critical need to preserve the vulnerable Arctic environment. All the Arctic states were in agreement on that. Starting in 1989, they had been discussing a common framework for cooperative protection measures.
Alongside this process, negotiations were taking place on the potential establishment of an Arctic Council. Was it really possible for the US and Russia to sit at the same table and discuss the many issues relating to the Arctic – an area where the tensions of the Cold War had been pronounced for so long?
The negotiations were prolonged. And difficult at times.
But we know how it went.
A new, unique platform for cooperation on sustainable development and conservation of the Arctic environment emerged.
The establishment of the Council in 1996 acknowledged that the local Arctic communities – including the indigenous populations – needed to play a key role in shaping the region’s future. We take this for granted today, but that was not as widely understood then.
The incorporation of Indigenous People’s organisations as permanent participants in the Council represented a new way of thinking, and ensured that Arctic Indigenous populations could take part and be included in all of the Council’s decisions and projects.
The voice of the Indigenous Peoples has been crucial to the success of the Council.
For more than 25 years, the Arctic Council has been a linchpin of Arctic cooperation.
The working groups provide valuable knowledge and recommendations for national management regimes, as well as for international climate and environmental cooperation.
The Council has, for instance, provided important input to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In 2004, the Council delivered the first, pioneering pan-Arctic climate impact assessment, which gave us our very first insights into the impacts on nature and society of climate change in the Arctic.
And thanks to the Council’s efforts, we now know that pollutants in the Arctic primarily originate not from activities in the region, but from activities outside it.
And this knowledge has in turn contributed to the design of key tools for limiting emissions of hazardous substances at the global level.
The Council has also provided a useful arena for developing legally binding international agreements between the Arctic states. In areas that are of major practical importance for the people in the north – such as on oil spill preparedness and search and rescue.
In 1996 there was little international interest in what was taking place in the Arctic. Today, the situation is completely different. The increase in the number of observers – states and organisations alike – says a great deal about the significance of the Council’s work.
And this has given rise to yet another important outcome: there is now a much broader understanding outside the region of the interplay between the challenges in the Arctic and global processes.
The last time Norway chaired the Arctic Council, in 2006, circumpolar cooperation was constructive – and expanding.
Today we are dealing with a whole new set of circumstances.
Russia has invaded Ukraine, in violation of the most fundamental principles of international law.
This has had wide-ranging ramifications for efforts in all international forums here in the north. And you have felt this more than most.
It is no longer possible to have normal political collaboration with the Russian regime. That is why the official meetings in the Arctic Council were quickly suspended after the full-scale invasion last year. It was impossible to continue cooperation under Russian leadership.
And the work in the Arctic Council moving forward will also reflect the current political reality.
It will not be easy.
But we must do everything we can to ensure sustainable management of resources that adequately balances considerations relating to the natural surroundings, animal life and the people living in the Arctic.
Using the unique aerial photos that courageous polar researchers took in the 1930s – from open propeller aircraft – the Norwegian Polar Institute has discovered that the glaciers on Svalbard have shrunk by a full 3 000 square kilometres. Between 1936 and 2010, the thickness of ice has decreased by an average of 25 metres. This is a dramatic change.
And we know that the temperature in the Arctic is rising almost four times faster than the global average. This is an issue we have to address.
And we must continue to incorporate the perspectives of the people in the north and the Indigenous populations in decisions that affect their futures.
Our most important objective during our Chairship is to preserve the Council, knowing full well that this will be very difficult in the current situation.
There is no guarantee that we will succeed. We have to be open about that.
But the acute, cross-border challenges we are facing will not disappear by themselves. And they cannot be solved without Arctic cooperation.
With a focus on four priority topics: the oceans; climate and environment; sustainable economic development; and people in the north, Norway will continue to pursue the long-term approach taken by the Council in its important efforts to ensure a vibrant and sustainable Arctic region.
Why have we chosen precisely these four priority areas?
Firstly: we are an Arctic coastal state and a global maritime nation. We will use our chairship to strengthen Arctic cooperation on the oceans. We must work together even more closely on international ocean research, and we must increase our action to combat marine litter. Moreover, the coastal areas play a vital role in maintaining the dynamic local communities we need in the north. Better cooperation on emergency preparedness at sea is important in this context.
Secondly: we will strengthen Arctic cooperation on climate and the environment. Because we need to understand more about both what is happening, and how we can adapt to the changes we know are coming.
This is not just of relevance to the Arctic. The changing Arctic climate also has major implications for global climate and weather patterns, not least for global sea level rise.
Thirdly: we have no choice. It is imperative that the green transition forms the basis for future industries in the north. Under the priority area sustainable economic development we will attach special importance to the blue economy, sustainable shipping and Arctic food systems.
Green energy and industry must not be developed at the expense of indigenous people’s cultures and traditional industries. The key role that indigenous people’s organisations play in the Arctic Council makes it a good forum for discussing these issues.
For Norway the Arctic is neither a museum nor just an icy wilderness. It is our home. And we must take action to safeguard it. Part of this is further developing vibrant local communities for people in the north, which is our fourth priority area.
We know that many of the Council’s projects on topics such as mental health and living conditions are very important for a number of Arctic communities. We will continue these projects
One of our targeted initiatives will be to enhance Arctic cooperation on health. We are proposing to establish a network of Arctic human biobanks to gain a better understanding of the impacts of climate change on public health in the Arctic.
To make the region an attractive place to live, it is important to enhance culture and creative industries. However, culture is rarely on the agenda of the Arctic Council. We intend to change that. We will therefore take the initiative to strengthen cooperation in the cultural field and provide support for the establishment of a secretariat for the Arctic Arts Summit.
The future of the region depends entirely on our success in increasing the opportunities for young people in the north to influence and participate in issues that will affect their lives and futures. One of the cross-cutting priorities of the Norwegian Chairship will be a focus on Arctic youth and Arctic Indigenous Peoples.
We will also seek closer cooperation with Arctic communities, for example through the Arctic Mayors’ Forum.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We are presenting the priorities of the Norwegian Chairship under extraordinary circumstances. We are contending with a new security policy reality.
But we must continue to direct our attention to the long-term challenges and opportunities in the Arctic.
Nansen was not a traditional diplomat. He hated ordinary diplomatic work and rules of protocol. But he had a clear vision of what was important.
And so must we. For a quarter of a century, the Arctic Council has been a pillar of diplomacy. And in these difficult times, we need the Arctic Council.
Among other things, to safeguard the unique research knowledge base you all are helping to build. To limit the impacts of climate change, and to protect the environment and biodiversity in the Arctic.
It is in this spirit that we are preparing to take over the Chairship. This will be the most critical period in the Council’s history so far.