Polar Notes

May 2018

Ilulissat + 10

Earlier this month, Denmark and Greenland co-hosted a high-level meeting to mark the 10th anniversary of the Ilulissat Declaration. The event brought together the eight Arctic states, as well as representatives of Arctic indigenous peoples organisations, for the purpose of affirming their support for the principles of the Declaration and discussing what further steps might be taken towards promoting peaceful and productive cooperation in the Arctic.

Those who do not follow Arctic matters closely are perhaps unlikely to appreciate the significance of what took place ten years ago in Ilulissat (a town with less than 5,000 inhabitants on Greenland’s west coast, which a group from the APPG for the Polar regions will visit in August). In May 2008, at the invitation of the Danish and Greenlandic Governments, the five Arctic Ocean coastal states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States) gathered to determine a coordinated response to a sudden upsurge of global attention to the Arctic.  

International interest in the Arctic had been growing since the turn of the century. The Arctic Council’s Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, published in 2004, alerted global audiences to the dramatic impacts of climate change in the region, and the implications for the rest of the world, including the potential for new shipping routes to be developed. The US Geological Survey and high oil prices meanwhile prompted interest in the Arctic’s oil and gas resource potential, as well as the over-lapping continental shelf claims of some Arctic states.

Hyperbolic commentary in the global media predicted a ‘coming anarchy’ in the Arctic, arguing that in the absence of international legal frameworks to manage these developments, the Arctic states were likely to embark on unilateral land grabs and assert control over new shipping lanes. Renewed Russian military activity in the Arctic added further fuel to the fire, as did the appearance of a Russian flag at the North Pole (planted not by Russia, but by a team of international explorers on a scientific expedition supported by Russia).  

In signing the Ilulissat Declaration, the A5 sent out a strong and unified message to the rest of the world that rejected claims that the Arctic was the anarchic setting for a new ‘Great Game’ reminiscent of nineteenth century imperial land grabs in Africa. It also dismissed suggestions from the EU Parliament and others (including several major NGOs) that an international Arctic Treaty was necessary, something which would effectively take responsibility for the Arctic out of the hands of the Arctic states and give it to the international community as whole.

Specifically, the Declaration sought to show the international community that an extensive international legal framework rooted in the law of the sea was already applicable in the Arctic, and that this framework underpinned the sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction of the Arctic coastal states over large areas of the Arctic Ocean. Moreover, by signing the Declaration, the Arctic coastal states committed themselves to maintaining this framework, as well as the orderly settlement of any outstanding disputes over freedom of navigation, the delineation of the outer limits of continental shelves, the protection of the marine environment, and other uses of the sea.  

The Ilulissat Declaration was arguably a great success for the A5 as it shut down much of the debate about whether an Arctic Treaty was needed. Furthermore, it has provided a valuable defence against misinformed speculation that the Arctic states are on the brink of a major conflict over territory, resources, and shipping rights. That is not, of course, to say the Declaration has not received criticism. Iceland, in particular, was angered that it was not invited to the meeting despite sitting on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Finland and Sweden also expressed disappointment at being left out. When Canada organised another A5 meeting in 2010, Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, expressed her regrets about the exclusivity of the A5 and, in particular, the absence of Arctic indigenous groups from the guest list. That effectively killed off attempts to institutionalise the A5 as an exclusive group.

10 years on, it seems lessons have been learned. Since 2010, the A5 have taken a more inclusive approach, as first exemplified by the invitation to non-Arctic states and the European Union to participate in Central Arctic Ocean fisheries negotiations (see PolarNotes #20). At the 10th Anniversary meeting, all eight Arctic states were invited to attend, as were representatives of Arctic indigenous peoples group. Essentially, it was an invitation from the A5 for the rest of the Arctic community to join them in endorsing the Ilulissat Declaration, something which, some might argue, should have been done when it was first signed.  

Discussions centred on how best to maintain peace and fruitful cooperation in the Arctic, as well as sustainable economic development (a key issue for Greenland), and the prospects of the Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation (see PolarNotes #7), which came into force on 23 May. Meanwhile, in the margins, and in the spirit of the Declaration, Denmark and Canada announced the establishment of a new Joint Task Force on Boundary Issues to make progress on outstanding territorial and maritime disputes between the two countries.

Observer states to the Arctic Council, such as the United Kingdom, were not invited to take part in the meeting, reportedly because of a lack of accommodation in Ilulissat.