Over the summer, the krium blog hosted a discussion series about the Potential for Conflict in the Arctic. Graduates of the Berlin Studies Centre (Studienkolleg zu Berlin) put up selected results of their research projects for debate. The six lead postings identified five key areas of conflict: (1) geopolitical, (2) economic, (3) environmental, (4) participation of indigenous peoples, and (5) appropriate governance structures for conflict situations.
Although the areas may appear diverse, the authors and commentators were in relative agreement that while the potential for conflicts does exist, there is currently no risk of these conflicts turning violent. The existing governance structures and agreements in addition to economic incentives are adequate for peacefully resolving conflicts. Media hype is usually to blame for war and crisis rhetoric. The discussion on the individual conflict areas raised the following points:
(1) While the planting of the Russian flag on the North Pole sea bed in 2007 was a dramatic action, negotiations about the still unresolved border issues in the Arctic are peacefully conducted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or bilaterally, as recently was the case in the Barents Sea dispute between Russia and Norway.
(2) The economic potential of the Arctic region is growing, primarily in the areas of natural resource exploitation, shipping, and fishery. However, the Arctic's increased economic significance has also resulted in conflicts of interest, for instance between governments, indigenous peoples, fishing companies, and environmental activists with regard to fishing quotas or relating to EU restrictions on marine mammal products. Conflicting interests also need to be balanced in the development of the Northeast Passage through Russian waters.
(3) Environmental activists and industry often tend to be at loggerheads. Environmentalists are concerned that oil and gas exploitation, in particular, could result in irreversible damage. There are also inter-industry conflicts between fishing, shipping and energy companies.
(4) The land claims and livelihoods of the roughly 400,000-strong indigenous population in the Arctic remain open issues. Linked to these is ensuring the equitable distribution of natural resource wealth.
(5) The Arctic Council, which is comprised of eight members, is the key institution for international policy decisions in the Arctic region. There is a contentious debate on the possible expansion of the Council to include permanent observers. Opponents of the move fear that efficiency and decision-taking could be impaired in a larger body.
In conclusion, the areas of potential conflict in the Arctic are manifold and require close observation. The existing mechanisms for resolving issues, though occasionally slow, are quite effective. Moreover, positive economic incentives are facilitating cooperation. (Markus Leick)
The discussion on the Arctic can be accessed (in German) at http://blog.krium.de/?cat=21
Published in: ECC-Newsletter, 4/2011