The Arctic Council Chairmanship rotates among the Arctic States (Finland, Iceland, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Canada and the USA), each of them assuming the lead position for two years at a time. With the Ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi this week Finland passes over the chairmanship to Iceland. During the past two years the priorities of Finland has included environmental protection, meteorological cooperation, connectivity, and education. Rovaniemi hosted the Ministerial meeting, and UArctic was represented by chair of Council Liisa Holmberg and chair of Board of Governors Peter Sköld. Vice-President Research Arja Rautio was present, and Vice-President Organization Outi Snellman was invited to all non-business parts of the meeting.
At the Ministerial meeting in Fairbanks, USA two years ago a joint declaration was finally signed by the foreign ministers, after extensive discussions and the unwillingness of the USA to include wording on the Paris 2015 Agreement and the UN Sustainability Goals. This time the position of the USA was further pronounced when the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech the day before the Ministerial. He criticized Russian and Chinese activity in the region, and said that these countries must respect American interests in the Arctic. He used also the interests of Arctic Countries in opposition to China, somehow putting the Arctic Council member states in a position where they need to protect the Arctic against outside countries like China, or face the consequences. His speech did not mention US participation in any international cooperative effort to combat climate change in the fast-warming polar region, although he did talk about US CO2 emissions reduction and said that the country was in the forefront internationally. As a result of this the Ministerial meeting could not agree in signing a joint declaration, as has been the case since 1991. Instead a Rovaniemi Joint Ministerial Statement was signed by the Arctic Council member states. Overshadowing the disagreement, and the short text, was the omission of allowing the text to be agreed with the Indigenous Peoples (Permanent Participants) as the basis for their shared message. The only actual disagreement seems to have been on references to the IPCC, and to man-made climate change, while there were alignments among the eight Arctic states on all other issues.
Climate change was highlighted in all ministerial statements by member countries and permanent participants, except the USA. Chief Bill Evans representing Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC) gave voice to the disappointment:
"We have some real concerns. Climate change is real, and we recognize that we are in a state of crisis where we live in the North as residents –permanent, long-term residents in our homeland. Climate change is man-made, and our elders tell us that we are clearly in trouble. Our Indigenous Knowledge must be understood and be implemented to provide us comfort. By following our own knowledge, we have always prevented disaster. We have always had certainty and stability in our lands and territories. This way we are confident in our planning and with our way forward".
Russia's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, who last month at the Arctic Forum conference in St Petersburg stated that the work of the Arctic Council, Arctic diplomacy, and the implementation of international law are decisive for a positive development in the Arctic, now presented focus areas of the coming program of Russian Federation starting after the Icelandic chairmanship - e.g. people, green energy, environmental solutions and indigenous issues.
In a statement by the Arctic Council chair, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland, Timo Soini reported that the meeting "welcomed the strengthened cooperation with the University of the Arctic, in particular in the area of improving educational opportunities for Arctic inhabitants, noted with appreciation the role of teachers and educators in fostering sustainable development in the Arctic and for providing positive future perspectives for its inhabitants". Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland gave the good news that Canada will fund extensive support to research in the Arctic region where the University of the Arctic has a as part of a package of more than $28 million. The addresses of ministers underlined that the region experience continued challenges and change. Climate change is happening as we speak, and it affects all people. The importance of a fact and science based approach was emphasized. Furthermore, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) was approved as a new Observer organization, and a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Arctic Council and the Arctic Economic Council.
Education was one of the priorities of the Finnish chairmanship although it was not highlighted much during the Ministerial meeting. Iceland that now takes over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council presented four priorities for the coming two years: the Arctic Marine environment (including bio-economy), Climate and green energy solutions, the people of the Arctic and their ability to build prosperous communities, and a better and stronger Arctic Council.