Race for Resources Deciding the Arctic's Future Behind Closed Doors

Diplomats from Finland, Iceland and Sweden are upset; indigenous groups are furious. Five countries bordering the Arctic Ocean are meeting behind closed doors on Monday to discuss the region's future. Many of those who have interests in the Arctic have not been invited.
The future of the Arctic is the subject of Monday talks in Canada.

The future of the Arctic is the subject of Monday talks in Canada.

Foto: Rob Gillies/ AP

It is a beautiful location for a not entirely successful inventor. Canadian tinkerer Thomas Willson -- who patented a design for electric arc lamps in the 1880s, built buoys and lighthouse beacons in the early 1900s and set up a plant to manufacture fertilizer shortly thereafter -- built a lovely summer house in 1907 on the forested shores of Meech Lake located northeast of Ottawa.

His getaway didn't serve him for long, however. Willson lost almost all of his money on his fertilizer business before dying of a heart attack in 1915. The summer house, located in present-day Gatineau Park, was bought by the Canadian government and is often used for official talks. In 1987, for example, it was where lawmakers gathered to hammer out a reform to the Canadian constitution.

On Monday, it is once again hosting a high-level delegation. Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon has invited his counterparts from four other Arctic countries -- the United States, Russia, Denmark (representing Greenland) and Norway -- to discuss the future of the far north. No other guests have been invited -- a fact that has enraged diplomats from several northern countries as well as representatives from indigenous peoples who call the Arctic their home.

No Interest in a New Treaty

There is much to discuss. The Arctic is changing unbelievably quickly, with several border disputes continuing to simmer and various competing claims to undersea territories currently being adjudicated by the United Nations. Only recently, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev complained that other countries were attempting to limit his country's access to Arctic resources. At the same time, he alleged, these countries, which he declined to identify by name, were taking "active steps" to increase both their research activities and military presence above the Arctic Circle.

It seems likely, though, that the five countries meeting in Canada on Monday will be able to find agreement on at least one issue: namely that they are not interested in establishing a far-reaching plan to protect the Arctic environment like the accord that exists for Antarctica. The Arctic is full of natural resources, and northern countries are wary of doing anything that might limit their access to those riches.

Environmental activists are concerned. Greenpeace head Kumi Naidoo has written a letter to all five countries gathered in Canada on Monday expressing his criticism. The plan to decide on the future of the Arctic "behind closed doors, is not acceptable," the letter says.

Greenpeace activist Iris Menn would even like to see an "overarching, legally-binding treaty for the Arctic." She demands that no further industrial mining or exploitation activities take place in formerly ice-covered regions until international agreements are in place. It is a demand that is not likely to be heard.

A Solid Reputation

In addition to giving such concerns short shrift, Monday's meeting outside of Ottawa also ignores the Arctic Council, a group which, in addition to the five countries currently gathering in Thomas Willson's former villa, includes several other members, including Finland, Sweden, Iceland and non-governmental organizations. There are also a number of permanent observers, including Germany. The Council is weak when it comes to political issues due to the relatively limited importance its members assign to it. But on environmental questions, the Arctic Council enjoys a solid reputation.

Council members Iceland, Finland and Sweden are all irked that they were not invited to Monday's summit. Indeed, Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb recently filed a formal complaint with his Canadian counterpart Cannon. Ambassadors from the excluded countries have also filed protests with the foreign ministries of those countries involved in the meeting. But Canadian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Catherine Loubier insisted to SPIEGEL ONLINE that "this particular meeting is only for the (Arctic) Ocean coastal states."

Greenpeace activist Menn is furious. Monday's meeting, she says, "makes a mockery of the Arctic Council and its role." Indigenous populations in the Arctic are likewise unhappy with being excluded from the gathering. "This is our homeland, why shouldn't we have a say?" asked Gunn-Britt Retter, a Norwegian who defends the interests of the Sami people in the Arctic Council. Members of the Inuit Circumpolar Council are also displeased.

Monday's meeting is the second time the five Arctic states have met behind closed doors. The first took place in May 2008 when Denmark invited the Arctic heavyweights for a get-together in the town of Ilulissat in Greenland. Following talks in the Hotel Artic overlooking iceberg-filled Disko Bay, the ministers released a statement saying that the existing legal framework "provides a solid foundation for responsible management by the five coastal States." The statement also emphasized that "We ... see no need to develop a new comprehensive international legal regime to govern the Arctic Ocean."

A Polar Strategy of its Own

The text was carefully crafted. After all, interest in the Arctic has grown rapidly in recent years and is no longer limited to just those countries which border the Ocean. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) recently released a report documenting China's increasing interest in the far north. The European Union has even put together a polar strategy of its own. The 27-nation bloc was not successful in its first attempt to become a permanent observer on the Arctic Council, but its application will be reviewed anew next year.

Monday's meeting, insisted Cannon, "will reinforce ongoing collaboration in the region, including in the Arctic Council." Those who have been excluded, however, fear that the opposite will result. "That is the very reason Iceland has protested this meeting and will continue to stress the importance of the Arctic Council in matters of the High North," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Urdur Gunnarsdóttir wrote in an e-mail to SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Indeed, those not receiving invites are left to hope that the bucolic house on Meech Lake lives up to its somewhat dubious reputation. Willson, as it happens, was not the only victim. The 1987 constitutional reform, born out of talks in the isolated villa, collapsed even before it could come into effect.

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