The Arctic Council deserves a Nobel Peace Prize

By Heather Exner-Pirot - February 21, 2017
The flags of the eight Arctic Council Member States and six indigenous Permanent Participant organizations, at the first SAO meeting during the United States' 2015-2017 Chairmanship held in Anchorage, Alaska Oct. 20-22. (Arctic Council Secretariat / Linnea Nordström)
The flags of the eight Arctic Council Member States and six indigenous Permanent Participant organizations, at the first SAO meeting during the United States’ 2015-2017 Chairmanship held in Anchorage, Alaska Oct. 20-22. (Arctic Council Secretariat / Linnea Nordström)

A lot of instability has been inserted into the international system in the past few months, along with questioning about the Western world’s commitment to liberal democratic values. Yet as I opened my news feed last week, a different kind of story, from the Independent Barents Observer, caught my eye: Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende has officially accepted an invitation from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to attend a conference on Arctic cooperation, with Russian President Vladimir Putin the headliner, in Arkhangelsk in March — his first visit to Russia since that country’s annexation of Crimea. It marks an attempt at rapprochement between the two countries in their Arctic affairs.

The story is significant in the way that most Arctic political stories are: not because of what happened, but what didn’t. Rhetoric did not get heated. Responses were not impulsive. Short term goals were not privileged over long term ones. Ideology did not trump pragmatism.

As the Norwegian Nobel Committee gathers to consider the three or four hundred nominees for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, it is worth considering how exceptional that is, and what a model the Arctic has provided the international community over more than 20 years, though it has gone largely unnoticed. It is time to consider the worthiness of the Arctic Council, as the foremost progenitor of Arctic values, as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

The promotion of peaceful congress

The twentieth anniversary of the Arctic Council provided an occasion to identify those qualities that make the forum good: its inclusion of indigenous organizations as permanent participants, with a seat alongside the Arctic states at every table; its progressive mandate, focusing on environmental protection and sustainable development; its privileging of science, and evidence-based decision-making; its pursuit, and unfailing identification, of initiatives that are mutually beneficial among the diverse, and often diametrical, interests of the council’s membership. These are the characteristics that would dominate any nomination of the Arctic Council.

But it’s the more intangible qualities that have endeared the council to me over the past decade.

Per Alfred Nobel’s will, the Peace Prize has been awarded every year since 1901 to the person or organization that has “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

While the Arctic Council can claim lots of fraternity and peace, it precluded itself from discussing military matters with an asterisk in the Ottawa Declaration, which established the forum in 1996. This was not for any high-minded, peace-loving reason; the United States, which was not an enthusiastic promoter of the council when it was being formed, mostly wanted to avoid becoming embroiled in marginal nuclear disarmament efforts. But in the time since, it has become a convenient and magnificent excuse to maintain the region’s insulation from the broader international security and geopolitical environment.

The Arctic is often characterized as on the verge of conflict, beset by competition, and undergoing a remilitarization. But through the ups and downs of the past 20 years, including the resurgence of Russia as a great power and the conflicts of Iraq beginning in 2003, Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine in 2014, the Arctic Council has proven immune to external shocks, despite the serious and often fundamental differences its members have had in other areas. Every Arctic state has attended every Arctic Council Ministerial since its inception; there is an implicit consensus that the Arctic, and the Arctic Council, should compartmentalize itself from broader events. Miraculously, in this it has succeeded.

Greater than the sum of its parts

The Nobel Peace Prize can be awarded to either individuals or organizations. But in recent years, where an organization has been selected, the committee has often chosen a corresponding individual: Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency; Jody Williams and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

The Arctic Council is unique in this regard. There is no one person who can claim to have led, or disproportionately influenced the Arctic Council in such a way that they or the council are irrevocably associated with one another. This is because the council is truly greater than the sum of its parts, transcending any one person or member. This has made it resilient to shifts in political trends, and consistent in its mission even as the key players have changed — as they do with some frequency. How astonishing, in retrospect, that in 2004 the United States under George W. Bush accepted the findings of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, which categorically provided evidence of climate changes; or that former Russian Senior Arctic Official Anton Vasiliev signed the council’s statement of concern to his own government when Russia temporarily suspended the activities of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, a permanent participant, in 2012. The Arctic Council has demonstrated a very strong socializing effect on its participants, so unambiguous is its virtue.

The times they are a changing

Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the Arctic Council would send a strong message to the world that there is still a place where peaceful, progressive international cooperation is valued and upheld. And there is no doubt that such a message is needed. Science, and facts, have come under political pressure; but in the Arctic Council they are preeminent. Climate change is still being called a hoax; in the Arctic Council, it is an organizing principle. Pundits cast doubt on an almost daily basis whether Russia and the West can, or even should, cooperate; in the Arctic Council, it is taken for granted.

This all takes place within a context of meaningful engagement and appreciation of the effort not only of states, but of indigenous groups, local voices, NGOs, and the scholarly community. This level of international cooperation, with such a diverse set of actors, has yet to be replicated elsewhere.

The Arctic Council has gone about its work with such unassuming efficiency, that it’s easy to overlook what an accomplishment it is. We should no longer take it for granted. The Nobel Foundation allows a select group of proponents to submit nominations for the Peace Prize, but includes professors, university rectors and research institute directors in particular social sciences; and members of national assemblies and national governments. The Conference of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region, relevant members of the International Arctic Social Sciences Association and the University of the Arctic Thematic Networks should seriously consider nominating the Arctic Council in 2018.

Heather Exner-Pirot is managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook, which in 2016 examined the legacy of the Arctic Council’s first 20 years, and strategist for outreach and indigenous engagement at the University of Saskatchewan.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Arctic Now, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at)