Posted in Writing (mine)

Describe the main successes of circumpolar cooperation since the end of the Cold War. Discuss whether indigenous peoples can be said to have an adequate level of influence in the different fora of circumpolar cooperation.

(My written exam for the Contemporary Issues of the Circumpolar World I and II. Date: December 2017. I am optimistic in my views of circumpolar cooperation, as one should on exams, however NATO/US/Norwegian provocations continues.)


Circumpolar cooperation creates stability within the region, can counter problems associated with flows of globalization, helps with region building, resolve border disputes, contribute to sustainable development, and makes it possible to prepare and respond to global problems like rapid climate change. The softening of Soviet policies made circumpolar cooperation possible.

I will introduce the transition period in Russia, define what the circumpolar north is and introduce circumpolar organizations that contribute to cooperation within the region. In part one I will look at the main successes of circumpolar cooperation, which in my eyes are the creation of the Arctic Council and its continuing work, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, the change in property rights and resource management by the LOS Convention, the cooperation of Indigenous peoples that resulted in devolution across the circumpolar world, and the state initiated cooperation in the Barents area. Indigenous peoples and organizations have been on the forefront for circumpolar cooperation, but in some fora they are not included, a topic which I will explore in part two of this paper.

The Transition to the Post-Soviet Era

During the Cold War the circumpolar north was an area of significant strategic military importance, caused by ideological differences between the two superpowers – the USSR and the USA. The nations communicated with their respective military theatre and (nuclear) arms raise. The north seen with Southern eyes was as a place chiefly for resource extraction, a security zone with a plethora of military bases and military training, and its use for nuclear testing. Reforms within the Soviet Union, along with outside geopolitical and geo-economics forces, led to a softening of Soviet policies. Cooperation of note before the end of the Cold War is the International Geophysical Year from 1957 to 1958 and the Conservation of Polar Bears in 1973. In 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev created history with his Murmansk speech, calling for circumpolar cooperation and region building. In 1991 USSR was dissolved and replaced by the Russian Federation, who adopted its current constitution in 1993 with a nested, or matryoshka, federalism with some autonomous territorial units. By changing Russian foreign policy the nature of circumpolar cooperation also changed drastically. This has led to the north being a peaceful and stable region with a focus on civility in its foreign policy and a willingness to focus on human aspects of security. Circumpolar cooperation has not only changed how the north views itself, but also how its viewed internationally. The circumpolar north is of significant strategic importance because its rich natural resources, and being made more attractive by its stability in the eyes of investors.

The Circumpolar North by Definition

When we speak of the circumpolar north we imply northern Europe, northern Asia and the northern- most coastal area of North America above the 55th parallel northward, along with the Arctic Ocean and its sub-seas. It politically and legally consists of the Russian Federation, Finland, Sweden, Norway with the archipelago of Svalbard which is governed by Norway, Iceland, Denmark with its autonomous regions Greenland and the Faroe Islands, Canada, and the United States of America in the way of Alaska. It is important to note that the circumpolar north does not represent a unified political entity. The Canadian geographer Hamelin defined degrees of northerness based on Polar values (values based on both natural and human components) and coined the term “nordicity”. Nordicity is also a term used in the social sciences when defining the circumpolar north, then dealing with issues like with northern identity, history, customs and culture, “and the effects of the north-south political and economic relationship” (Aitken (d.n.:18-19)). The circumpolar north is a vast region with a multitude of peoples and cultures.

Influential Organizations for Circumpolar Cooperation

Organizations by and for the circumpolar north creates platforms for northern problems and challenges, contributes to region building and the development of a shared regional identity. Being perceived as a cohesive region has positive implications for geopolitical relations and when dealing with global issues affecting the region (Hardcastle (d.n.:5)). Indigenous organizations that have been particularly influential in circumpolar cooperation since the end of the cold war are the Sámi Council (Scandinavia and Russia), RAIPON or the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Aleut International Association, and Gwich’in Council International. These Indigenous organizations are permanent participants of the Arctic Council, which is a leading intergovernmental forum that promotes cooperation, coordination and interaction within the Arctic. The European Union, which is a supranational federation that includes Sweden, Denmark and Finland as its member states, is an important player in circumpolar cooperation. Other important intergovernmental organizations are the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, the Nordic Council of Ministers, Conference of Parliamentarians of the Arctic with its Standing Committee, and of course the United Nations. Non-governmental players of note are the International Arctic Science Committee, the Northern Research Forum and the University of the Arctic. The World Wildlife Fund has an observer status at the Arctic Council, and it along with other environmental non- government organizations contribute to “raising awareness and initiating public debate” (Sagdahl (d.n.:12)).

Main Successes of Circumpolar Cooperation

The Arctic Council

Rapid climate change and other environmental concern is and was a driving force for cooperation in the circumpolar north. All the eight circumpolar states signed the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy in 1991. From that grew the idea of the Arctic Council which was born in 1996. The Arctic Council is a multilateral organization consisting of representatives from all the arctic states with their above mentioned six Indigenous organizations in the North who has a permanent participation status. It offers observer status to non-Arctic states and governmental and non-governmental organizations.

The Arctic Council was created as a forum to discuss environmental pollution, sustainable development and emergency preparedness, prevention and response. It is the Arctic Councils mandate to exclude military security, but focuses on comprehensive, environmental, human and food security. Its main working groups are the Arctic Contaminants Action Program, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, The Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna working Group, the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group, the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment Working Group and the Sustainable Development Working Group. It is considered a soft-law instrument, which means it cannot make legally binding decisions. Because international law concerns itself with nation states the Arctic cooperation does not make much use of international treaties, because this would move power away from communities and regions and give it to the sovereign southern centers (Koivurova (d.n.:16)). The Arctic Council does, however, give guidelines on best practices on several subjects.

The forum has been perhaps the main success story of circumpolar cooperation. It has been an effective tool for circumpolar region building, cultural self-determination, and it has increased knowledge about environmental, ecological and social issues in the circumpolar north.

Persistent Organic Pollutants

The circumpolar north is shaped by the parameters of the northern environment. Extreme seasonal variations and a cold climate is often what the circumpolar north is known for. The seasons can be blamed on the Earth’s obliquity and spherical shape, and the Subarctic zone start at 55°N and the Arctic at 66.5°N. Liquid water, a prerequisite for biological activity, is often a scarcity in cold climates and cold seasons. These conditions have contributed to an ecosystem in Arctic and Subarctic zones which contains relatively few, but numerous, species of flora and fauna which have developed survival strategies to adapt to the northern environment. One of the survival strategies for managing cold temperatures is to store energy in fat, which is problematic when fat-soluble contaminants bioaccumulates and is passed up the food web by biomagnification. The circumpolar north face many environmental challenges, and one of these is Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). POPs, which are stored in fat, has an impact on the health of both animals and people in the North, leading to an assortment of societal effects beyond just health. However, against the battle of POPs the circumpolar community created an important precedent. Through circumpolar cooperation Indigenous peoples of the region created international attention to this important matter and actively contributed to the 2004 the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, where a global treaty on POPs was created. The case against POP is an example of successful circumpolar cooperation.

Property Rights and the LOS Convention

The circumpolar region is rich in natural resources which afforded subsistence to communities “since time immortal” according to some Indigenous peoples. Traditional, subsistence economies can only support low population densities, often have an open access approach to property rights and where compulsory sharing can be used as a successful survival mechanism, with very limited market activity and mostly production for consumption. Subsistence economies are economically sustainable despite there being little attention given to long term profits. As Bertram Pokiak of Tuktoyaktuk so aptly put it:

“I never make a big trapper. I just get enough for my own use the coming year. Next year the animals are going to be there anyway, that’s my bank. The same way all over where I travelled. Some people said to me, ‘Why you don’t put money in the bank and save it for future? I should have told him that time, ‘The North is my bank.’ But I never did. I just thought of it lately” (Berger 1977:94, in (Newark (d.n.:5))).

On the tundra and forest tundra of Eurasia people, and then particularly the Sami, domesticated reindeer which required migration, supplemented with the resources of the sea. On the Taiga, where resources were more abundant, it was common with two or more dwelling places and the activity was a mixture of hunting, fishing, herding, trapping and gathering. Still, this subsistence economy required large territories, and people walked immense distances or relied on reindeer, boats or dogsleds for transportation. On the circumpolar coast permanent or semi-permanent settlements where more the norm, and people relied on the sea for food or bartered with their neighbors when necessary. For transportation on land they often used dogs. These subsistence traditions are still going on to this day in the circumpolar north, and they are important not just for food security and the pocketbook of Indigenous peoples, but as a part of indigenous identity, culture and society. By continuing the practice of their forefathers they are also continuing to build upon traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), which is an intuitive and holistic approach to understanding the landscape based on empirical observation and accumulated over generations. While TEK does not supplant scientifically acquired knowledge, it can be a supplement in sound resource management. Continuing practice of subsistence activities is important for the people and societies of the circumpolar world.

The norths riches attracted attention, at first by settlers from the south who often integrated, adapted, and intermarried within the societies where they settled. Nation states started colonizing the northern regions, the British to acquire native lands, the French to appropriate furs, the Russians to obtain furs, hunting or trade. Colonization ended up making many native people the minority in their traditional homelands and was detrimental to the resource base which the subsistence activities depended on, as these resources where open access and not meant support large populations. “Tragedy of the Commons” coined by Gerret Harding, is a term used to describe the poor harvesting practices and mismanagement of resources with unrestricted property rights, which leads to stock depletion and which made some native groups having to choose between starvation or displacement from one’s ancestral lands.

The issue of property rights is still an important topic in the circumpolar north, and in some areas previously open access resources have been reclassified as common pool or public property, where in some cases special consideration is given Indigenous peoples. Where the common resource is shared between nations, such as the resources of the seas, international cooperation is necessary. The 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (LOS Convention) extended the property rights of coastal states, and created exclusive economic zones (EEZs) which is up to 200 nautical miles from the baseline, under the management and jurisdiction of its connecting nation states. All arctic coastal states (Canada, Greenland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Alaska) ratified the LOS Convention – except the USA (Alaska) who still follow most of its practice. Because fisheries are such an important industry in the circumpolar north, by it often being locally owned and a significant employer, ensuring food security and vital to the northern cultural identity, the establishment of EEZs through the LOS Convention was of imperial importance in the circumpolar north and an example of effective international cooperation.

Settlement Agreements, Greenland Home Rule and the Alaska-Chukotka Accord

The circumpolar north is rich in non-renewable resources. Oil and gas is a cornerstone industry in many areas of the circumpolar north, with great potential for revenues but with significant socio- economic costs. The above-mentioned LOS Convention and the development of EEZs was initiated partly because of nations need for drilling rights offshore. Circumpolar nations are considering an expansion of the EEZs (which will require circumpolar cooperation), as global environmental and technological change could make it possible to reach untapped petroleum resources in the Arctic. There is a lot of money in oil but little remains in the region, and usually the labor and management, along with equipment, is imported from the south leading to weak economic linkages. Its boom and bust cycles creates economic uncertainty, and the in migration causes pressure on local social services and infrastructure. It can do irreversible damage to wildlife and lands used for traditional hunting and gathering activities. However, in North America Indigenous communities have negotiated land claim settlements. This has lead to empowerment of Indigenous people in some areas particularly within Canada, with devolution of governance structures and aboriginal self-governance on a local level in many communities. Settlement agreements can help with the socio-economic costs of resource exploration in the circumpolar north, for instance with demands for hiring locally, demands for sustainable development, and using the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit principles in business practices. Land rights for Indigenous peoples is still a hot issue in the circumpolar north. By working within the political system Greenland achieved home rule, and became decolonized, a major success for its majority Inuit population. The Inuit Circumpolar Council, consisting of Inuits in Greenland, Canada, Alaska and the Russian far east, and the Sami (a people whos homeland are in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia) have been active and influential in circumpolar and international cooperation. The Inuit Circumpolar Council managed to achieve the Alaska-Chukotka Accord, which allows visa free travel within the Inuit region. This was a major success of circumpolar cooperation, as otherwise the Bering Strait relationship has not been as cooperative as the Barents Sea cooperation.

Barents Sea Cooperation

The Barents Euro-Arctic Region (BEAR) was established in 1991 by governmental initiative and it contributed to region building and helped disperse tension at the end of and after the Cold War. It was a necessary initiative that has born rich fruit, and it is has led successful circumpolar cooperation and solved sovereignty issues. Now both supra-governmental organizations (EU), regional organizations and grassroot actors are contributing to rich cooperation in the Barents area with economic activities, environmental support, and cultural sharing.

Indigenous Representation in Circumpolar Cooperation

Indigenous representation in fora and governance in the circumpolar region is not a matter of kindness or residual guilt for previous trespasses, but a matter of following international law. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples includes Indigenous rights to autonomy and self- governance in “internal and local affairs” (Koivurova (d.n.:14)). The 1999 Human Rights Committee’s interpretation of Article 1 Indigenous people as “Peoples” and not “minorities”, and Article 27 stressing the importance of preserving Indigenous traditions. The representation of indigenous organizations in the Arctic Council has increased the status of Indigenous Peoples in the circumpolar world, and they are on the forefront in international indigenous cooperation.

Devolution of power has been easier to achieve in federal governance structures than unitarian governance structures. In Canada prime examples of devolution is in Nunavut and the Yukon First Nations. Russia is centralizing their power, and while their constitution demands Indigenous participation they usually just have an observation status in governance – a “for appearances” representation. The Sami are a minority in Fennoscandia, and the Sami parliament has mostly advisory representation. However, the European Convention on Human Rights and its legally binding court will continue to protect Indigenous peoples on an individual basis. Greenland achieved Home Rule in 1979 and Self Rule in 2009.

Not all forums and organizations created for the circumpolar world includes a voice to Indigenous people. The Nordic Council is an example of this – though they have representatives from Greenland, Farao Islands, and Åland Islands. The European Union’s The Northern Dimension policy is another forum where Indigenous people are excluded. Its members consist of the EU, Iceland, Norway and Russia for international collaboration. The Barents-Euro Arctic Council also excludes Indigenous Peoples while offering countries such as Japan and Italy observer status. However, its Barents Regional Council offers membership to several regions within circumpolar Finland, Norway, Russia and Sweden. By not letting Indigenous and regional voices be heard state centered organizations might miss important insights and solutions to uniquely circumpolar issues, and the dichotomy between the powerful south versus the disenfranchised north relationship continues.


During the Cold War there where little cooperation between nation states, but with a changing geopolitical climate the circumpolar region is now stable and peaceful, focusing more on a foreign policy based on civility rather than conflict. The Inuit Circumpolar Councils work on POPs sat an important precedence on the importance of including Indigenous Peoples perspective and helped empowered their organization, becoming role models for successful Indigenous collaboration internationally. The establishment of the Arctic Council is in my opinion the most successful example on circumpolar cooperation. Its work on the Human Development Report and its work on the environment and sustainable resource management has greatly impacted the region. The LOS Convention radically changed property rights, important for both circumpolar energy security, food security and the regions economy. The Greenland Self Rule is the best example on the devolution in the governance structure, a trend in circumpolar policies, and a product circumpolar collaboration – particularly between Indigenous people across the region. Collaboration by states on the Barents area have solved a potentially tense border dispute and resulted in collaboration on nuclear waste management. But as I’m writing this tension is yet again resurfacing between Russia and the West, and with the risk of increased political diverges along with the consequences of rapid climate change and flows of globalization, the need for circumpolar cooperation on all levels of governance is increasing in importance.


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The Arctic Council (2017) The Arctic Council: A backgrounder. Accessed on 20.12.2017 from

Arctic NGO Forum Accessed on 18.12.2017 from:

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Barents Euro-Arctic Cooperation. Members of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the Barents Regional Council. Accessed on 21.12.2018 from

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Caulfield, R.A. (2004) Resource Governance. Chapter 7 in the Arctic Human Development Report. University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA pp 121-138

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Heininen, Lassi (date unknown) Module 10: Geopolitics, Security and International Society. BCS 100 Module text. University of Lapland & the Northern Research Forum

Heininen, L. (2004) Circumpolar International Relations and Geopolitics. AHDR (Arctic Human Development Report). Akureyri: Stefansson Arctic Institute, Iceland, pp. 207-225. 18pp.

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Koivurova, Timo (date unknown) Module 4: International Law and the Arctic. BCS 322 Module text. University of Lapland.

Larsen, J.N. (date unknown) Module 4.1: Non-Renewable Resource Economies of the North: Petroleum Extraction, BCS 311 Module text, University of Akureyri

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Sagdahl, Bjørn (date unknown) Module 8: Stewardship of Resources & Sustainable


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