Arctic News Roundup: 10-16 February

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Mingming Shi

1) Morgunblaðið, or, an Icelandic news agency, commented on the country’s employment situation involving foreign laborers. Generally, the employment rate of  foreign nationals is high in Iceland, and have contributed to the country’s high economic performance in recent years.

However, in recent months, the unemployment rate of foreign laborers has risen considerably. Hannes G. Sigurðsson, the deputy director of the SA Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise (Samtök atvinnulífsins in Icelandic), called for the Icelandic government to assist immigrant families in adapting to the country and seeking employment.

2) Scottie Andrew reported on the situation for polar bears for CNN this week. The article outlined the reasons behind declining populations, and the changing habitats of the species, including climate change and diminishing sea ice.

3) The International Inuit Business Association has been launched, according to Eye on the Arctic, a news service based in Canada, which specialises in High Northern regional affairs. The new institution consists of Inuit members focusing on business-related issues, mainly in Alaska, Greenland and Canada. One of the ambitions of the organisation is to promote improved economic cooperation among Inuit communities.

4) This week as reported by Sermitsiaq, Ortu Mørch Olsen, an Eskimologist, (or Inuitologist), shared his experiences and thoughts on attracting Greenlanders home from abroad. In his eyes, the job market in Greenland tends to be ‘protectionist’, and should be more open to educated young people.

5) A commentary was published this week by Kevin McGwin in Arctic Today on the most recent five-year strategy of Greenland on oil and gas development, covering 2020-24. Oil exploration has been conducted in Greenland for almost fifty years and there has been the question of whether this sector could make a stronger contribution to the country’s economy in the future.

6) According to High North News, Oslo has re-asserted its stance to Moscow over the current Svalbard dispute. Sergey Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia, called for a bilateral meeting to confer on the differences between Moscow and Oslo over the status of the islands. However, Audun Halvorsen, the State Secretary of Norway, has claimed that his country had no interest in that suggestion, and would open a new discussion on the sovereignty issues.

7) The Barents Observer reported that, this week in Kirkenes, a town north of the Arctic Circle in Norway, Urmas Paet, the sitting Member of the European Parliament from Estonia, highlighted the importance of the participation of the European Union in Arctic affairs, given evolving international politics as well climate change in the region. In addition, the representative also conveyed his dissatisfaction over the insufficient devotion over the Arctic within the EU, and urged it to pursue a more active role.

8) The chief editor of Over the Circle, Marc Lanteigne, provided a comment on the idea of a potential ‘Arctic Treaty’ for the region. The notion was proposed by Bobo Lo, an Sino-Russian affairs specialist based in Australia, in a plenary session in the Arctic Frontiers assembly in Tromsø last month.

The conclusion from Lo was based on various factors, including increasing economic activities, changed international relations, and environmental concerns which are shared by Arctic and non-Arctic governments. However, according to his comments, such an agreement should not undermine the importance of the ‘Arctic Eight’ group, but on the contrary. Lanteigne noted the differences between the current governance system in the Arctic and the Antarctic Treaty System developed since 1959.

9) An article about the planned US consulate in Greenland, by Robbie Gramer was published in Foreign Policy. The involvement of the US in Greenland can be traced back to over half a century ago.

During the Second World War and the Cold War, the US had tightened its relationship with Greenland primarily via military related affairs. In 2019, Donald Trump, the President of the US, proposed a purchase of the Arctic island. However, this was rejected by the Kingdom of Denmark. Nevertheless, the presence of the US is not going to subside, and Washington has been arranging another diplomatic tie with the island, namely through having its consulate in the capital of Nuuk.

10) A jointly produced TV show, Ísalög, (by Iceland and Sweden producers), which tells a fictional story of preventing an oil banning treaty in the Arctic from being signed, was broadcast in Iceland by RÚV this week. Warning: The linked episode is not suitable for young children.

Arctic News Roundup: 3-9 February

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Mingming Shi

1) The Sámi National Day was celebrated during this week, on February 6th. The Sámi people are one of the Indigenous groups living in the Arctic regions, primarily in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Even though the first such observance took place in 1993, the origin of the date can be traced back to 1917, when the first Sámi congress took place in Trondheim, Norway.

2) According to the Icelandic news service RÚV, the previously planned first direct flights between Iceland and China, which were supposed to debut in late March 2020, however, has been postponed to late April due to the coronavirus outbreak.

3) An article on the food culture in Northern Siberia, Russia, was published in the New York Times during this week. Anton Troianovski, the author, tells stories of Indigenous inhabitants in this Arctic region of the country, mainly fishers and reindeer herders, and their local harvest foods, such as seafood and reindeer meat.

4) RÚV reports that the cross-country flooding around Iceland has caused road damage in many areas of the island. In addition, farms and summer cottages of local citizens have also been damaged to different degrees. The incident was believed to be exacerbated by heavy rains and rising temperatures.

5) The chief editor of Over the Circle, Marc Lanteigne, provided a comment on the political and legal situation in Svalbard in the wake of the recent dispute over this Arctic archipelago between Russia and Norway. Svalbard is located in the high north region, whose sovereignty is guaranteed to Norway by the Svalbard Treaty in 1920. However, the rights of other signatory states to engage in scientific and or economic activities on these islands are also acknowledged by the treaty. In addition to the expanding concerns over the effects of climate change on the region, non-Arctic countries, such as Russia, are also interested in the islands’ commercial value, including fishing.

6) Sermitsiaq reports that the economy of Greenland is estimated to be promising, according to the country’s Economic Council ( ‘Aningaasaqarnermut Siunnersuisoqatigiit’ in Greenlandic; ‘Økonomisk Råd’ in Danish). The Council also noted that the public health crisis caused by the coronavirus which may be a factor which affects future economic relations between Greenland and China.

So You Want to Write an Arctic Treaty?

The Fram Centre in Tromsø, Norway, which houses the Arctic Council Secretariat [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Marc Lanteigne

During last month’s Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, one of the more controversial ideas to appear out of the first plenary session, a discussion [video] on regional policy directions entitled ‘The State of the Arctic’, was the potential for an Arctic Treaty to reflect the changed political and strategic milieu of the high north. The issue was mentioned by Bobo Lo, a Non-Resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney Australia and a specialist in Sino-Russian relations in the Arctic.

His comments [video] reflected concerns that present forms of multilateral governance in the Arctic were no longer keeping up with international trends, including climate change, the heightened visibility of the Arctic Ocean, the still poor relations between Russia and the West, the rise of China, and movements in many parts of the world, including in the United States, towards greater unilateralism in foreign policies. His conclusions were that these changes meant that current governing mechanisms in the Arctic would fall under greater strain, and that the time was coming for a reconsideration of new approaches which would reflect the Arctic as a global concern, including an Arctic Treaty. He stressed, however, that such a document should not erode the status of Arctic states, but rather augment it.

The concept of such a treaty is certainly not new, but it has been a longstanding bête noire in many Arctic policy circles due to its controversial nature. This has especially been the case amongst regional governments and policymakers who view any sort of ‘Arctic Treaty’ as negatively affecting the roles of Arctic states, and overcomplicating and potentially sidelining the current governance regime in the region, including the Arctic Council and the Law of the Sea. As fellow panelist Ine Eriksen Søreide, Norway’s Foreign Minister, responding to the question of whether new forms of regional government in the Arctic were required, stated, ‘we cannot give up on the structures of cooperation that are, actually, working today’. She then added, ‘if something is working, please do not try to revise it.’

Professor Lo’s remarks were later critiqued in an editorial in the High North News as falling into the trap of assuming that the Arctic was a remote and unregulated space, and that Arctic governments needed assistance with the running of their own affairs. The Independent Barents Observer took a more equivocal stance on the matter, noting that the Arctic has come under greater global scrutiny, and that other actors, including the European Union, have also been calling for an expanded international role in the region of late.

The plenary panel on the ‘State of the Arctic’ at the January 2020 Arctic Frontiers conference, including Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide (second from left) and researcher Bobo Lo (second from right) [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Despite ongoing opposition to the possibility of an Arctic Treaty, which could in theory regulate many activities in the region, as well as acting as a nexus for existing agreements relevant to the far north, the idea has not faded, and is arguably being pushed closer to the forefront of debates over the Arctic’s political future.

At first glance, such a treaty could be seen as advantageous in a number of ways in light of the regional (and global) changes listed above. Moreover, in theory, a treaty could act as a way of addressing perceived gaps in the current Arctic governance system, including the thorny issues of security which were purposefully left off the 1996 Ottawa Declaration, the founding document of the Arctic Council.

As well, it could be argued that a useable model already exists at the South Pole, in the form of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), created in 1959 and regulating numerous different types of activities and policies on Antarctica, including ensuring that the continent would be used for peaceful purposes only. Subsequent documents had since been incorporated into the ATS, including the 1991 ‘Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty’, (aka the Madrid Protocol), which restricts economic activity in Antarctica and prohibits extractive industry activity, (mining), for any reason other than for scientific study. Is it possible for the ATS to be a template for an Arctic Treaty, especially given similar concerns about the environment, security and current and future economic activities at both poles?

Flag of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) [Image via Wikipedia]
Finally, a treaty could properly define the roles of Arctic and non-Arctic governments at a time when the latter group are starting to make their presence more fully felt in the circumpolar north. There are now thirteen government observers in the Arctic Council representing non-Arctic states, with more likely seeking to enter that club next year. Last November, Estonia announced its intention to become an observer, while Turkey has recently stepped up its polar activities and had reportedly also been interested in seeking observer status in the past.

At the same time, some current observers such as China but also Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom have also recently stressed the growing importance of the Arctic to their strategic interests. Beijing, in its January 2018 governmental White Paper on the Arctic, stated that while non-Arctic states had no right to claim sovereignty in the Arctic, they did have the right to engage in economic and scientific activities in accordance with international law, with the document stating that:

The Arctic situation now goes beyond its original inter-Arctic States or regional nature, having a vital bearing on the interests of States outside the region and the interests of the international community as a whole.’

One looming question about the Arctic Council’s future is whether it can continue to balance the interests of both Arctic state members and non-Arctic observers as the level of economic activity in the circumpolar north grows.

Antarctic Treaty documents in Buenos Aires [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
So far so good, but even before any discussion of the specifics of an Arctic Treaty could commence, two outsized obstacles would have to be overcome right at the beginning. The first is the fact that unlike Antarctica, which has a defined land and sea area, there is no universal agreement as to where the Arctic actually borders on the rest of the world, leading to the considerable problem of agreeing on jurisdiction. The original 1959 Antarctica Treaty was able to define its jurisdiction as within areas south of 60ºS, but such a clean designation of the geographic borders of an Arctic Treaty is implausible at best.

Why so? None of the eight Arctic states define their Arctic regions strictly according to the Arctic Circle, which lies at about 66º33´N in latitude, and as such the Arctic states have their own political definitions [pdf] of where their Arctic lands begin. To give examples, the phrase ‘North of 60’ is often used to define the frontiers of the Canadian Arctic, (meaning the territories north of sixty degrees), many parts of Siberia and the Russian Far East do not fall into the traditionally defined areas of the Russian Arctic, but are now seen as such, Alaska is considered Arctic although most of it lies south of the Arctic Circle, and only one small part of Iceland, the island of Grímsey, is actually north of the Circle.

Two regional cooperation projects with the Arctic Council, the Arctic Human Development Report (AHDR) and the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) also have their own definitions [pdf] of the borders of the Arctic. As well, the post-2017 Polar Code [pdf], which regulates civilian ship traffic in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, excludes the waters immediately north of Iceland as well as north of Norway and the Russian Kola Peninsula in its area of jurisdiction, further reflecting differences between geography and politics in Arctic legal affairs. The Polar Code’s coverage of Antarctic waters, by contrast, is a comparatively neat circle bordered at 60ºS.

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
The second initial obstacle would be convincing the ‘Arctic Eight’ states that any treaty negotiations would not dilute their sovereignty and decision-making power in the region. Arctic governments, notably Canada and Russia, have traditionally been sensitive to any perceived challenges to their Arctic sovereignty. The creation of any new international organisation regime, regardless of mandate or type, requires a certain amount of sovereignty to be transferred ‘upwards’ to the new organisation. Being a part of the European Union requires extensive economic policy coordination with other members, and being a member of NATO necessitates defence information sharing and a promise, (under Article V of the 1949 Washington Treaty), to interpret an attack on one member as an attack on the entire organisation.

While it is very unlikely that an Arctic Treaty would ever be as formal as the regulations found in the EU or NATO, there would need to be an understanding amongst all of the Arctic states that any sovereignty given over to a treaty would be well-balanced by the benefits of such an agreement.

Also, the Arctic Council operates by consensus, meaning that all eight members must be in agreement before a particular new policy goes forward, and much of the day-to-day work of the Council is undertaken by the organisation’s Working Groups. There is the question therefore about whether an Arctic Treaty would upend this arrangement given the perceived greater role of non-Arctic governments within the treaty system. Moreover, Antarctica has no permanent population, thus making many legal decisions there considerably simpler, but of course the same is not true of the Arctic. About four million people, depending on one’s definition of ‘the Arctic’, live in the region, including Indigenous persons. How would an Arctic treaty preserve the status and rights of the people who actually live in the region?

All of these questions would need to be resolved to satisfaction of many parties even before the complex process of drafting an Arctic Treaty could even begin, underscoring the complexity of such a project. Yet, there remains the issue of whether the current Arctic Council configuration, as well as other regional and international laws which cover the Arctic, are enough to address the growing ‘internationalization’ of the far north in tandem with emerging security concerns. If an Arctic Treaty is not viable, are there other solutions?

Addendum (12/02/20): Kevin McGwin at Arctic Today has written a commentary on the Arctic Treaty concept, (and the ongoing political pushback), which quotes Marc Lanteigne and other regional specialists.

Norway, Russia, and a Changing Svalbard

Bust of Vladimir Lenin in Barentsburg, Svalbard [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]
by Marc Lanteigne

Svalbard, a remote Arctic archipelago, has been back in the news of late, and not only because of the islands being the subject of a nine-day, ‘slow TV’ documentary featured this month by the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK. Norway, which administers Svalbard under the terms of the Spitsbergen (Svalbard) Treaty, (a document which observes its hundredth anniversary this year), is feeling a diplomatic chill from Russia over the regulation of the islands. This comes at a time when relations between Moscow and Oslo have become more difficult as both governments are seeking to improve their security situation in the Arctic.

The Svalbard Treaty confirmed Norwegian sovereignty over the islands, (population about 2700), with the caveats that neither Oslo nor any other government shall place military installations there, and that the islands’ distinct environment be protected. In addition, any state which agrees to sign the treaty is granted access to Svalbard for scientific as well as commercial / economic purposes, including extractive industries such as mining. Among the treaty signatories are great and medium powers such as Britain, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia and the United States, as well as Southern Polar states including Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa. Even North Korea announced in 2016 that it was willing to sign the document in the hopes of gaining access to the islands.

As a commentary published last year by the Arctic Institute noted, the treaty offered a unique outlet for non-Arctic states to enter the region for research purposes, and today several states operate scientific stations in Svalbard, especially in the region of Ny-Ålesund. However, the piece also concluded that the venerable legal framework surrounding Svalbard needed to catch up with modern conditions and concerns.

In recent years, climate change has had both an environmental and a political effect on Svalbard. Alterations of glacial patterns, including their size and moments, are being measured on the islands. Like much of the Arctic, Svalbard is experiencing the various effects of ice erosion and warmer average temperatures, including the loss of permafrost in and around the capital of Longyearbyen, as well as floods and avalanches. A January 2019 report [pdf] by the Norwegian Centre for Climate Services (NCCS) concluded that over the next eight decades the islands would experience higher temperatures, shorter periods of snowfall but increased overall precipitation in the form of rainfall, losses of glaciers and sea ice, and a 1ºC average increase in surrounding sea temperatures.

Map of Svalbard [Via Wikimedia Commons]
Often seen as a microcosm for the study of climate change in the overall Arctic Ocean regions, Svalbard has been the subject of much scientific study from a variety of actors seeking to understand the physical transformations facing the far north. This week, new data on glacial movements from satellite observations was presented by glaciologist Professor Adrian Luckman (Swansea University, UK) at the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø. Among the points raised were how glacier speeds were increasing over time, with ‘surge’ behaviour changing, including instances of surges in glacier movement taking place earlier in the year around the region of Tunabreen, a site popular with tourists, in central Svalbard.

The opening up of areas in and around Svalbard due to retreating ice have presented a greater challenge to the Norwegian government as it continues to carefully walk the line between maintaining its sovereignty over the archipelago and following the letter of the 1920 treaty. The islands’ location in the Atlantic-Arctic region, a site of heightened military activity both by Russia and the West, including NATO, over the past few years, along with the deteriorated relations between Moscow and Washington, (as well as many European governments), have further complicated Norwegian Svalbard policy.

At the same time, the economic benefits of the region have also attracted more international attention which has led to diplomatic brushes. One of the most infamous of these rifts was the dispute, starting in 2017, between the European Union and Norway over snow crab fishing rights near the Svalbard coast. The issue was then brought to the Norwegian Supreme Court, which ruled in February last year that the EU needed to seek permission from Oslo before engaging in any future snow crab catches, a ruling which was seen as having a potential positive effect on future Norwegian rights to drill for oil and gas drilling in the region.

As a May 2019 article [paywall] by Andreas Østhagen and Andreas Raspotnik also explained, the case had potential ramifications for the integrity of the Svalbard Treaty system itself. Yet, the matter may not be over, as it was reported in October last year that the EU was again planning on awarding snow crab fishing licenses despite the ruling.

Other non-Arctic actors have also made attempts to subtly challenge Norway’s paramount role within the Svalbard Treaty system, including China, which took Oslo to task over a 2014 plan to set up a radar installation in Svalbard, which the Norwegian government vetoed [in Norwegian], as well as Norwegian regulations over what constituted permissible research activities on the islands. Beijing claimed in 2019 that these rules were overly restrictive [in Norwegian], and beyond Oslo’s treaty mandate.

Yet it has been Russia which has been most active at seeking to chip away at what Moscow has viewed as Oslo’s inflexibility regarding the treaty. Russian business interests are active in Svalbard, especially in the Russian-majority town of Barentsburg, which has been seeking to turn itself from a mining hub to a centre for Arctic tourism. Barentsburg and another Svalbard town, Pyramiden, were brought under Soviet administration for coal mining purposes in the 1920s.

This month, however, it was reported by the Russian Foreign Ministry that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had written a letter to his Norwegian counterpart, Ine Eriksen Søreide, asking for a bilateral dialogue to discuss what was perceived in Moscow as discriminating restrictions on Russia’s economic activities in Svalbard. Among the issues under dispute were Norwegian plans to develop a fishing interdiction zone near Svalbard, a deportation rule affecting specifically Russian citizens, and regulations regarding Russian helicopter usage within Svalbard’s airspace which Moscow saw as obstructive.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide speaking at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, Norway, January 2020 [Photo by Terje Mortensen / Arctic Frontiers 2020].
It was confirmed this week that the Ms Søreide had received the letter in question, and a subsequent statement from the Norwegian MFA stated that ‘the views appearing in the letter are regularly brought up by the Russian side and are well known to Norwegian authorities’. The Russian governmental news service Rossiyskaya Gazeta (Российская газета) published a stinging rebuke [in Russian] of Norway’s stance on these issues earlier this week, stating that Oslo was in violation of the treaty by seeking to unfairly micromanage Russian commercial activities in and around the islands.

It was unclear whether Russia’s request for a direct dialogue about Svalbard with Norway was timed for this month’s centenary of the treaty signing, and whether this represented a form of diplomatic posturing on Moscow’s part. However, another factor may be ongoing Russian concerns about ensuring a long-term presence in Svalbard as the Arctic region continues to open up to increased economic activity. Last year, Russia began to pay closer attention to oil drilling samples the USSR had collected in Svalbard in the mid-1970s, a move seen as an endeavour to further maintain its economic foothold on the islands.

As well, last month, it was reported [in Norwegian] by the Norwegian TV2 news service that deposits of base and precious metals, possibly worth as much as US$100 billion and including copper, gold, silver and zinc, had been detected in the seabeds near Svalbard according to a study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Should this discovery be further validated, it could open up another jurisdictional tug of war between Oslo and other governments, including Russia.

Map of Svalbard at Oslo Airport [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
This most recent Norway-Russia Svalbard dispute comes at a time of cooling bilateral relations between the two countries and Western concerns about growing Russian military interests in the Arctic Ocean. Norway was the main staging areas for the NATO military simulation named ‘Trident Juncture’, which took place in late 2018. More recently, the Norwegian military expressed unease at Moscow’s announcement earlier this month that the Russian Navy was planning missile tests in Arctic international waters near Norway’s Nordland county and the country’s Aasta Hansten gas field.

There was also a diplomatic tussle this month over the refusal by the Norwegian government to allow visas for a Russian military signing and dancing group which was scheduled to perform at next week’s Barents Spektakel, in the northern Norwegian border town of Kirkenes, which begins on 12 February. The Barents Spektakel is an annual cultural event which frequently brings together Norwegian and Russian performers and tourists, and the theme for this year’s celebration is ‘The Russian Connection’ (Русский след).

These recent Russian protests over their rights in Svalbard may simply spark another round of (re-)negotiations, as well as discussions over how Norway can better balance its sovereignty over the islands with the interests of Russia and other treaty signatories. However, both the emerging importance of the Arctic Ocean as an area of untapped resources, and growing impatience in Russia and the West over each others’ Arctic strategies, may lead to Svalbard becoming a de facto pawn in an emerging regional game over regional influence.

Arctic News Roundup: 27 January – 2 February

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Mingming Shi

1) Nunatsiaq News commented on the analysis from a report entitled 2020: Setting the Stage for A Poverty Free Canada, which stated that children in Nunavut, a high northern territory in Canada, is suffering the highest poverty rates in the country. The report also suggested measures to alleviate these underdevelopment issues, including fiscal investment, enhancing food supply security, and other policies.

2) According to RÚV, Reykjavik has signed a Brexit deal with London. The agreement secures the future economic relationship between the two countries in the wake of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union on 31 January, as well as other issues, including people-to-people communication and cooperation.

3) The Vladimir Putin government in Moscow, according to the Financial Times, is claiming that Russian economy is sturdy and adapting to adverse conditions; this despite the sanctions from much of the Western world, including the European Union and the United States, after the Crimea crisis in 2014.

4) This week, the Arctic Frontiers conference took place in Tromsø, Norway. Mr Sam Tan, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of Singapore, conveyed his concerns at the assembly over climate change and rising sea levels which have the potential to undermine the future of this tropical oceanic nation. The representative of Singapore also noted the potential economic opportunities for Singapore stemming from the Arctic, including infrastructure building and oil and gas exploitation investment, according to The Straits Times.

5) Liquefied natural gas, or LNG for short, may not be an ideal alternative to long-used traditional fuels in marine transportation, since LNG potentially generates even more negative environmental impacts, according to High North News this week.

6) Marc Lanteigne, the chief editor of OtC, attended the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, Norway, and published his comments on the event.

7) Considering the current outbreak of the novel coronavirus in China, and its spread to other countries, including in Europe, Royal Greenland, a Greenlandic seafood corporation, whose market has expanded to China, expressed its worry over the possible consequences of the outbreak to its business, according to Intrafish.

8) This week also marks the one-month anniversary of our new News Roundup column for Over the Circle. We have had five pieces this month, and we will continue our work in February 2020 to observe and understand the High North and circumpolar regions, from international politics and economic performances, to the livelihood of people living in these areas. Mingming and Marc would like to thank all of you for your readership and your support!