As part of the series of interviews “International Law in Action,” a second interview took place with Kamrul Hossain, Professor, Director of the Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law at the University of Lapland. Prof. Hossain spoke on topical problems of the Arctic not only within the legal domain but also in the environmental and militarization areas. Interview conducted by Yana Ovsyannikova.
What are the main approaches to designating the status of the Arctic?
The Arctic is unique in terms of shared characteristics concerning geographic space, demographic features, and natural environment. The presence of ice sheets and glaciers all across the region, the frozen Arctic Ocean, long winter and darkness, the existence of harsh climatic conditions, the presence of traditional and indigenous communities, etc. make it a unique space. The whole of the region is subject to drastic environmental changes because of the rapidity of climate change resulting in the rise in temperature, which is felt at least twice faster in the region than that of the global average. Indigenous and traditional communities all across the Arctic share similar kinds of traditional lifestyle and livelihood practices.
Yet, it is a complex region, and designating one single status for the Arctic is not possible. Its territories are shared by diverse political communities — each of the eight states of the circumpolar North administers a specific part of the Arctic belonging to its territory, and as part of its sovereign territorial jurisdiction. Socio-political, economic, infrastructural, linguistic and cultural, and governance structures, for each of the territories within national jurisdiction, is diverse. Only a small portion of the central Arctic Ocean lies completely beyond national jurisdictions and is mainly governed by international law of the sea. The governance of the Arctic consists of a blend of national, regional, transnational, and international regulatory and policy frameworks because of its complex political and geophysical settings.
As a result, approaches to determining the status of the Arctic are diverse. The Arctic can be determined as a unique regime of environmental change; as a geopolitical regime driven by multiple national, regional and global interests; and as a region of greater strategic importance for Russia resulting in increased militarization on its part, which causes tensions in terms of the regional security infrastructure. I, therefore, think that a broader and enhanced Arctic cooperation at both regional and global levels should be set up around these, and possibly other, themes, as the main approaches for Arctic governance.
Why is it still not possible to develop a unified approach among all states?
Because of the complexity of several layers of political structures as indicated above, the Arctic seemingly does not, and will not, have any unified approach to determine its status as an autonomous governance regime. However, there are legal and institutional mechanisms available to determine, discuss, and govern various issues around the themes highlighted above as they acknowledge regional dynamics facing the Arctic. A unified approach has to be sought and better accommodated, within the current structure of governance to mitigate Arctic challenges on environmental, geopolitical, and security dynamics. Arctic and non-Arctic states, and regional and global actors with a stake in the Arctic, should develop a consensus-based mechanism for better cooperation amongst themselves supported by legal and institutional mechanisms currently available. This should probably happen within the framework of the Arctic Council that facilitates political cooperation among all Arctic nations.
How do you assess Finland's chairmanship in the Arctic Council? Have there been any successful results so far?
The Arctic Council (AC) is an intergovernmental body — often referred to as the high-level intergovernmental forum. Its chair rotates every second year. Finland received the chairmanship of the Arctic Council from the United States in May 2017, which lasted for two years till May 2019. The chair offers leadership and coordination roles to implement the activities of the AC. The activities of the AC are performed through its six working groups as well as through task forces and expert groups and following agreed commitments among members on Arctic issues that require action. The stable functioning of the AC is a process — endorsing new actions and continuity of actions each chairmanship succeeds from its predecessor. Any success, therefore cannot be treated as one of a single member's achievement alone. Each country as a Chair sets its priority areas, and there Finland had four priority areas during its chair period defining under the theme of “exploring common solutions." These were environmental protection, connectivity, meteorological cooperation, and education. Assessing the success or failure depends on how effectively Finland performed its role both in addressing its priority issues, and activities that it succeeded from its predecessor.
During the two years of its chairmanship, Finland had to oversee more than one hundred projects, undergoing within the six working groups of the AC as well as its task forces and expert groups. Some of them, as said, started before the Finnish chairmanship, while others started afresh. There were quite some achievements in terms of production of scientific knowledge in several important issue areas, such as issues related to snow, water, ice, and permafrost; protection of seas from acidification; short-lived climate pollutants in the Arctic; pollutants and chemicals and their impact on Arctic wildlife and fish, etc. However, the Finnish chairmanship accomplished two remarkable success stories. One was on meteorological cooperation and the other one on connectivity, performed within the framework of the Task Force on Improved Connectivity in the Arctic (TFICA).
As for the former, Finnish chairmanship played a great role in enhancing cooperation on meteorological and oceanographic observations to improve services and forecasting, which eventually benefit the people inhabiting the Arctic, polar operators, businesses, and researchers. The significant outcome was hosting an Arctic Meteorological summit in 2018, in cooperation with the World Meteorological Organization, the Finnish Meteorological Institute, and other national institutes, having brought together both the Arctic Council and meteorological community. The sharing of knowledge on scientific information based on meteorological data contributes to strengthening understanding of climate issues and changes being taken place in the Arctic. According to the then Finnish Arctic Ambassador Aleksi Härkönen, the promotion of concrete scientific information through meteorological research offers the opportunity to not "to agree to disagree” on important issues related to climate change and their possible impacts on the Arctic.
Concerning the work of the TFICA, established at the Fairbanks Declaration in 2017, at the end of United States chairmanship, that transferred the chairmanship to Finland, the emphasis was on improved connectivity, which links two of the priority areas that Finland highlighted — connectivity and education. As numerous human activities are increasingly being in place in the Arctic, the importance of improved and stable connectivity is just a crucial reality. The role of ICTs and the increased need for digitalization provides the conditions for its economic and social progress in the context of prevailing geophysical characteristics of the region, such as the presence of harsh climatic conditions, the significant distance between human settlements, and poor physical infrastructure. In the Arctic condition, education, knowledge sharing, and ensuring human development and access to learning are especially benefited from the creation of digital infrastructure linked to improved connectivity. The Finnish chairmanship has shown tremendous accomplishment in this regard, and in May 2019 at the Rovaniemi Ministerial meeting, the Task Force has presented several findings and recommendations for improved connectivity in the Arctic. A follow-up to the initiative is the plan to build the trans-Arctic subsea communication cable conceived already in 2018 by a consortium of Finnish infrastructure company led by Cinia, to which companies from Russia and Japan are currently involved. The expected construction will potentially take place between 2022 and 2023.
In May 2019, due to the U.S. protest to develop the climate agreement on the Arctic, it was never adopted. How do disagreements among states affect the Council's activity? And what can be expected from the work of the Arctic Council when the United States becomes the chairman?
I think the question is not about a climate agreement on the Arctic. Rather, it is one of a disagreement that the United States had with other Arctic nations concerning the use of “climate change” language in the potential “Joint Declaration,” which was supposed to be adopted in Rovaniemi. The “Joint Declaration” is an expression of common Arctic ambitions and the direction of the Arctic Council agreed by the Arctic nations. Such a Declaration is adopted at the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting held once every two years. However, for the first time in its history since its foundation in 1996, the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting 2019 has been concluded without a “Joint Declaration." This was due to the opposition of the United States because of the disagreement on the use of the language of "climate change" in the efforts of the Arctic Council's work. The Arctic Council works based on consensus, and therefore, although all the other seven members of the Council held the common position on climate change as the major driver of the Arctic transformation, the opposition from the United States led to adopt a “Joint Statement” instead, not a “Joint Declaration." This is a major setback indeed as it has never happened before. Of course, it brings frustration in the efforts of Arctic cooperation when the United States, being a major super-power, holds a stand-alone position on an issue which the majority of the Arctic nations, and also non-Arctic states and actors, find extremely relevant for tackling Arctic challenges, which is heavily proven by available scientific information. Surely, it will have an impact on determining the Arctic Council's future strategy as it works based on consensus.
The joint statement did not use the term "climate change,” it was, however, signed by all eight foreign ministers, including that of the United States. It re-affirmed the commitment to continue working on issues related to society, culture, and the economy in the Arctic and towards ensuring the wellbeing of its inhabitants to sustainable development for the protection of the Arctic environment. A Declaration probably would have had greater normative significance than that of the joint statement, and that would have also offered consistency in the work of the Arctic Council. However, had there been a joint Declaration with similar language as to what was used in the joint statement, would that have been any different, since there was this disagreement anyway? I would suggest that we are left with an uncomfortable feeling from the fact of such disagreement on a major issue — climate change — so the Arctic as a whole is concerned. We probably need to wait and see how the position of the United States on this important issue may change when, and if, the Trump administration is replaced by a new one.
However, what I found shocking in this process is the long-standing cooperative efforts and the assumption of “Arctic exceptionalism,” both of which are becoming more and more blurred. This leads back to the United States finding the engagement of China, a non-Arctic state, a threat to Arctic cooperation. During the Rovaniemi ministerial meeting, the U.S. pointed out its concern regarding China's increasing engagement in the region, making the Arctic an arena of global power politics and competition. For China, partnering with Russia is vital due to its proximity, capability, and influence, as well as its status as an Arctic superpower. It is obvious that China-Russia cooperation in the Arctic, in particular in infrastructure projects along the Northern Sea Route, will most probably consider Russia's strategic interest to seek Chinese investment to advance its underdeveloped Arctic region and China's interest to expand its trade and investment infrastructure. This includes the expansion of trade routes through China’s Polar Silk Road initiative. It might be that Chinese investment in the Russian Arctic is an entry point for China to engage in Arctic politics to play a future great power role. There are therefore reasons to believe that China-Russia relations will have an implication for the United States’ policy in the Arctic, and will have an impact on Arctic exceptionalism. Yet again, I am not pessimistic, and I hope that the binary division between Arctic and non-Arctic states at the Arctic Council (as members and observers, respectively) will allow the Arctic nations to address common challenges in a common language. However, as said, we probably have to wait for a new U.S. administration that will potentially be more informed on the Arctic and the changes it progressively encounters, and possible mechanisms to deal with Arctic challenges.
What do you think of NATO and Russia's military build-up in the Arctic?
The Arctic, once inspired to be built as an international “zone of peace,” is becoming increasingly significant in geopolitical terms for actors both within, and beyond the region. This is as a result of the accelerating extraction of untapped natural resources, the expansion of shipping activities along the Arctic coasts, and widespread bi-lateral investments and infrastructural projects to connect the region with strategic partners, for example, for the supply of the region's hydrocarbon resources. The overall picture shows an increase in external interests driven by bilateral relations between Russia as an Arctic state and other nations outside of the Arctic. This is where China, for example, is emerging as an influential actor. For Russia, as trade and investment activities are rising, the military build-up is about deploying heavily trained forces capable of tackling the challenges in harsh Arctic conditions, and also about guarding its sovereignty in the region. However, for other Arctic nations, militarizing the Arctic brings a great deal of concern for a number of reasons. These include the asymmetric power balance between Russia and other Arctic nations in the region, an increase in bilateral partnership cooperation between Russia and China, a lack of mandate at the Arctic Council to discuss military security issues among the Arctic nations, etc. As a result, I think the NATO build-up and its recent military exercises are counteractions to respond to Russia's militarization of the Arctic region in the event of asymmetric power relations.
I still, however, think that the Arctic should be considered as a unique region, and should be driven by the notion of “Arctic exceptionalism,” not only for the Arctic itself but also for the rest of the world. Thus it is the Arctic states who should take primary responsibility, whilst informing non-Arctic states of the Arctic developments and creating opportunities for them to engage in Arctic matters, abiding by set rules under an international legal framework. There seems to be a lack of power balance in the Arctic. The Arctic Council does not have the mandate to discuss military security issues; NATO lacks legitimacy in the Arctic as only five of the eight Arctic nations are its members and it has non-Arctic states too as members; Russia, being the largest Arctic nation, is increasingly developing its strategic partnership with China — an emerging non-Arctic state seeking a greater role in power politics. Therefore, for the Arctic to remain a zone of peace, it is important to have confidence-building mechanisms supported by all Arctic nations. Transparency from the Russian side on its militarizing the Arctic is especially important because of the apparent asymmetric power relations between Russia in the Arctic and the other Arctic states. The holding of regular information-sharing sessions on military activities in the Arctic, regular NATO-Russia joint dialogues, as well as occasional NATO-Russia joint exercises in the Arctic could undoubtedly help reduce the tension.