Ilulissat Two: Why Greenland and Denmark are inviting Arctic governments back this May

ANALYSIS: The Ilulissat Declaration is 10 years old. Is it time to reaffirm the principles it set forth?

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The harbor of Ilulissat, Greenland, is shown in a fall 2008 photo. Ten years after the landmark 2008 Ilulissat Declaration, Greenland and Denmark are inviting Arctic nations and indigenous groups back to for a conference that revisits the declaration’s themes. (Vincent van Zeijst / CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Greenland and Denmark, in something of a surprise move have invited U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and all other Arctic foreign ministers plus representatives of all the Arctic peoples to a unique Arctic event in Greenland in May. The ministers may not all come, but it seems certain that a large, high-powered all-Arctic gathering will indeed take place.

This is not an Arctic Council ministerial, nor are any new important agreements expected. Somewhat oddly, this event is simply to refresh promises and principles already agreed ten years ago.

Denmark and Greenland have decided that the 10th anniversary of the so-called Ilulissat Declaration of 2008 will be an appropriate occasion to reconfirm the declaration’s commitments to peaceful resolution of Arctic disputes; to the safeguarding of marine traffic and to the prevention of oil spills. And, of course, to the common understanding that the Arctic does not need any new global Arctic Treaty, U.N.-sponsored environmental protection or any other interference.

Taking into account the divisiveness of Crimea, Ukraine, accusations of Russian hacking and so forth, no one presently expects new groundbreaking accommodations between Russia and the other Arctic nations, most of them NATO members. A replenishing of the status quo —  the Arctic as a zone of peace — will be considered quite a success at this upcoming event, “Ilulissat Two.”

Denmark will miss no chance to remind its guests of the Danish origins of the 2008 Ilulissat Declaration, but two independent researchers have made sure that also the flip-sides are recalled. In a new incisive 61-page paper titled “Learning from the Ilulissat Initiative” they remind us of the controversies that were also part of the declaration from the beginning.

Like French wine

The Ilulissat Declaration came about thanks to the foreign minister of Denmark at the time, the conservative Per Stig Møller, born 1942 and thus painfully familiar with the Cold War.

In 2007, two Russian mini-submarines Mir 1 and Mir 2, planted the Russian flag on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean precisely at the North Pole (at a depth of 4,300 meters). The Danish minister “woke up in a sweat,” as put it, worrying that even stronger manifestations of brute power would lead to real unrest in the Arctic. There are still after all no clear borders indicating who owns what in the vast central parts of the Arctic Ocean.

“It could end up with countries saying: ‘Here we take the law into our own hands,” Møller told me later in an interview. “That was my biggest fear; the Arctic becoming a fait accompli. After all, in that context we are the weak nation. If someone would take the law into their own hands outside of Greenland and say: ‘We will take this’ and then e.g. drill for oil without asking for permission, what could we do? That is why I, as the Danish Foreign Minister, think of a joint initiative. The needs of neither the Americans nor the Russians are similar. It is not the strong one who needs the law. It is always the weak.”

Just eight months after the Russian dive high ranking ministers from the five states bordering the Arctic Ocean, inclusive of Sergey Lavrov of Russia and John Negroponte, then Deputy Secretary of State of the United States, signed the historic declaration in Ilulissat in Greenland. Ten years on it is still hailed as an important scaffold for peace, cooperation and the international order in the Arctic. I sometimes meet a Russian diplomat who was there and who is still involved in Arctic affairs. He keeps saying that the Ilulissat Declaration is like French wine. It only gets better with age.

More than just peace

Which indicates of course that there is more to it than peace. As documented by the two Danish researchers, who have interviewed 24 (anonymized) diplomats and politicians, the signatories promised peace, search-and-rescue and protection of the marine environment. But significantly, they also explicitly agreed that existing international law would suffice as the backbone of Arctic governance — in particular the UN Convention of the Seas, UNCLOS.

In this sense the Ilulissat Declaration became more political and surgical than the relatively simple message of peace Per Stig Møller had initially intended. The declaration now became also the tool to quell all thoughts of a global Arctic Treaty styled on that in the Antarctic. In the Antarctic, broadly speaking, no mining, military activity etc. is allowed — only science, fishing and strictly regulated tourism. The Antarctic Treaty has been a global success for almost 60 years. In 2007, environmentalists, scientists and a growing number of politicians, e.g. in the European Parliament, were calling for a similarly international Arctic Treaty —  and waiting in the wings, according to the Danish diplomats, were China, Japan and others eager to pursue their own interests in the Arctic.

Denmark and the other four littoral states meeting in Ilulissat (Russia, the U.S., Norway and Canada) were convinced they had legal title in the Arctic that would be violated by an international Arctic Treaty. While the Antarctic is uninhabited, millions of people live in the Arctic in clearly defined states bordering the Arctic Ocean. Very different sets of international law apply at the two ends of the world, even if they are comparable in other ways.

Soon, as the two researchers illustrate, the Ilulissat Declaration and the message behind extinguished all further pursuit of an Arctic Treaty. Instead, the declaration cemented the primary rights of the Arctic states to regulate in the Arctic and to pursue its oil, natural gas, minerals, fish stocks and other riches. Mission accomplished. As the two researchers put it: “The Ilulissat Declaration helped calm international fears of an unregulated Arctic and it demonstrated that an Arctic Treaty modelled after the Antarctic Treaty was both unnecessary and unrealistic.”

Iceland and Norway

The Ilulissat initiative did not at first bring the Arctic states closer together. Sweden, Finland and, in particular, Iceland were disgruntled that they were left out. The three are full members of the Arctic Council, the preferred forum of the Arctic governments — but they were not invited to the Arctic Ocean Conference, as the meeting in 2008 was called. The Arctic peoples, also firmly engaged in the Arctic Council, were not invited either — except from Greenland which co-hosted the event as part of the Danish Kingdom. Norway was perturbed, since it had planned its own initiative, which the Danes basically steamrolled.

Out of sheer mistrust in the Arctic Council’s ability to act swiftly in the eye of the Russian flag-planting, the Danish government in effect invented a new international institution, since known as A5 or the Arctic Five. This procedure secured the speedy adoption of the Ilulissat Declaration, but it also added to a lack of clarity in the Arctic. As the two researcher explain: “Arctic governance occurs at the nexus between state power and legitimate institutions. The Arctic order remains in flux as different actors continue to debate and disagree on the fundamental institutional structure in the region.” Also, the Ilulissat Declaration did not provide any clear path for the involvement of China, Japan or other non-Arctics who are still to this day not quite happy with their limited role in the region.

Arctic unanimous

Looking ahead, unity and agreement on all main points seem certain at “Ilulissat Two”. This time around invitations have been extended not only to those bordering the Arctic Ocean but also to Finland, Iceland, Sweden and to the Arctic peoples. As the two Danish researchers conclude, all key Arctic players have come to recognize the value of the Ilulissat Declaration, even if it did not solve all problems at hand. The researchers even advise the Danish government to further support the use of the A5 institution. The researchers conclude that it has proven not only useful as a supplement to the Arctic Council with its limited mandate but particularly so from a Danish/Greenlandic perspective.

When a unique, protective moratorium on commercial fishing in the central parts of the Arctic Ocean was agreed in late 2017 — also with China, Japan and South Korea — it all started with a deal among the A5 nations. The moratorium, which will run at least for 16 years, will safeguard any potential future fish stocks in the Arctic Ocean. This is obviously in the interest of Greenland and therefore of the Danish kingdom. Also, Denmark and Greenland will be keen to safeguard any unobstructed channel of dialogue with Russia. A 2014 Danish/Greenlandic claim to the seabed of the Arctic Ocean overlaps with Russia’s claim with about 600,000 square kilometers. A Canadian claim is expected to further complicate matters, so any setting in which talks with Russia can take place under soothing circumstances, is likely to be kept open.

Ilulissat is a small town with less than 4,500 inhabitants. (The 2008 conference was held in the small sports hall). The town is spectacularly located at the mouth of the world-famous Icefjord, home of Sermeq Kujalleq, the world’s most productive glacier, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ilulissat boasts, however, only a few hotels, so if you plan on going in May, make sure to order now.

Martin Breum is a Danish journalist, specializing in Arctic affairs.