Arctic Council

06/10/2021 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 06/10/2021 05:52

Time witness reports: A RED TELEPHONE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

Hans Jakob Helms represented the Greenland Home Rule Government and was an advisor for the Danish delegation during the negotiations of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy and the Arctic Council. One of his main ambitions was to push for the Arctic Indigenous peoples to have a voice in these new cooperation forums - and he came up with a simple idea as discussions reached a deadlock. In this conversation, he walks down memory lane and revokes the challenges and breakthroughs that eventually led to the establishment of the Arctic Council.
Hans Jakob Helms (Photo: Anna-Lene Riber)

Hans Jakob, how did it all begin?

In the late 1980s there were growing concerns about the environment in the Arctic and about what we would do if something major happened in the environment. Everybody realized at that time that we had to work together if there was to be an accident in the Arctic. The negotiator from the Russian Federation therefore always said that we were setting up a red telephone on the environment - referring to the hotline that was established between the Pentagon and the Kremlin during the Cold War.

Would you say that the Arctic Council was a child of its time?

The growing concern of environmental catastrophes in the Arctic certainly boosted the discussions in the first place but I would say the Arctic Council was ahead of its time. Our work was breaking history. There had not been any formal cooperation across the walls of the Cold War aside from the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears.

I was in the closed meeting of the heads of delegation when I got this simple side and asked: why do we not just name them? I remember the Russian delegate looking at me and saying: brilliant.

One of your main ambitions and tasks was to open the doors forIndigenous peoples' participation. What were the challenges - and how did you find a way around?

Three Indigenous NGOs were pushing for their involvement in the process: the Inuit Circumpolar Conference as it was called at the time, the Saami Council and RAIPON. The problem was that other NGOs, especially environmental international organizations were knocking on the door. In Greenland - like Canada - we had just experienced the painful results of the campaigns to stop all trade in sealskin, which had been lobbied by NGOs. So, we faced the problem of how to include the Arctic Indigenous NGOs while not giving the same rights to other NGOs. I was in the closed meeting of the heads of delegation when I got this simple side and asked: why do we not just name them? I remember the Russian delegate looking at me and saying: brilliant. So, we ended up specifically mentioning ICC, Saami Council and RAIPON in the declaration.

Why would you say was the Arctic Council so important to the Indigenous peoples?

The borders of the Arctic have always been artificial to the Inuit as well as to the Saami. Their live across different countries but want free cooperation and trade across the borders. They liked the concept of circumpolar collaboration and in addition, they saw an opportunity to gain a new, strengthened position in the world. The outcome of the negotiations around the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy was unique, Arctic Indigenous peoples got a special place in this cooperation, which had never been seen before in any international forum. In fact, our cooperation was so groundbreaking that the follow up declaration of the 1993 Nuuk meeting was made a non-paper by the United Nations because it was too progressive and spoke of 'peoples' and the 's' would have legal implications for the international rights of Indigenous peoples. At the same meeting, the Danish Minister for the Environment, by the way also promised to set up an Indigenous Peoples' Secretariat, which exists until today.

The biggest accomplishment of the Arctic Council is bringing the Arctic world together - it is as simple as that.

What do you remember about the negotiations leading up to the Arctic Council?

I remember two specific things about the negotiations: The United States were very keen on keeping all kinds of military cooperation out of the Council and I also remember that no one wanted a permanent secretariat. Nobody was willing to put money behind the initiative. Will is a good thing but it helps when there's money behind it. But, back in those days many States perceived the Arctic as a cold place that nobody really cared about. For Greenland on the other hand, the Arctic cooperation was a big thing. The Greenlandic government wanted the Arctic States to work together also on issues including sustainable development and enhanced trade. In fact, it was Lars-Emil Johansen, the Prime Minister of Greenland who signed the Ottawa Declaration instead of the Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs who had been in charge in the negotiations. But he received a call for a meeting in Brussels on the same day as the Ottawa Ministerial and so, he asked Lars-Emil Johansen to attend and sign on behalf of Denmark.

What would you say is the Council's biggest accomplishment?

The biggest accomplishment of the Arctic Council is bringing the Arctic world together - it is as simple as that. The Council has brought the Arctic together, created a forum to develop the region in a peaceful way and the process broke down the Cold War barriers of that time. To all of us it was dream of creating this international big cooperation in the Arctic. The sky was the limit if these governments decided to do something good in the Arctic, they could do anything. And they have done