The narration of the Arctic in Arctic law

Whenever we look into a direction, we indirectly apply our expectations in the way we perceive a specific region. This is, of course, also the same when we look ‘North’ – to the Arctic, the Circumpolar North, Ultima Thule, or whatever title we give the region in question. In public discourse, the Arctic is narrated as an unspoiled region of pristine beauty, which is under constant threat due to climate change and increased resource exploitation and which is dire need to be preserved.

Also the legal dimension of this discourse follows certain narratives. These are, however, not as embellishing and romanticising, but rather consider the Arctic as a region of ills which law is supposed to provide- and arguably capable of – remedies for. Even though soft- and hard-law regimes that appear to have been coincidentally concluded in the Arctic countries, such as the 1972 Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment or the nuclear disarmament treaty in 1986 in Reykjavík, Arctic countries and regions have served as a venue for crucial legal developments that contribute to stability and peace in the world.

Going further, the establishment of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) in 1992 and it subsequent Arctic Council (AC) of 1996, both of which have brought the eight Arctic states and Arctic indigenous peoples together, narrate Arctic law as a new type of international legal construct that (1) transcends the nation-state dominated sphere of international law, and (2) presents the region as a region of togetherness despite ongoing disputes elsewhere in the world.

By carefully considering topics and issues which are unlikely to spur dispute amongst Arctic states and peoples, Arctic cooperation and soft-law regimes have been able to deepen cooperation and to put Arctic people and peoples high on the cooperative agenda. For instance in the Barents Region, environmental, cultural or youth-related cooperation shape the work of the Barents Euro-Arctic Cooperation.

This deeply-running narration of the Arctic as a region of peace and cooperation has thus far led to the conclusion of three legally-binding agreements under the Arctic Council: on search and rescue (2011), on marine oil pollution preparedness and response (2013), and finally on Arctic scientific cooperation (2017). The Arctic states are therefore legally-bound to these regimes, ever more strengthening the discourse on the Arctic as a region of peace and stability.

For a more detailed analysis, see:

  • Sellheim, N., L.Zou & O. Inagaki. (2017). Legal ‘Arctopia’? How Arctic governance expresses a better world. In: L. Heininen, H. Exner-Pirot & J. Plouffe (Eds.). Arctic Yearbook 2017 (pp. 415—427). Akureyri: Northern Research Forum. Available here (free of charge)

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