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Canada To Head Arctic Council As It Addresses Polar Issues

Ottawa, Canada Jan. 23 (RFE/RL) - Canada will be the first country to chair the Arctic Council, an organization designed to bring together the eight circumpolar nations -- including Russia -- to work out common scientific, economic and political issues in the area.

Canada's circumpolar ambassador, Mary Simon, says the Council is expected "to be up and running by June." In addition to Russia and Canada, the Council includes the United States, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark.

Simon tells RFE/RL that officials will meet in March to prepare a draft declaration establishing the Council and setting out terms of reference and a statement of objectives. The idea for the Council was first proposed by Canada in 1989.

Simon says the Council represents "a breakthrough on the international scene." She explains that the chairmanship will rotate every two years. Native groups such as Canada's Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the Russian Association of Northern Peoples and the Sami Council of Finland, Sweden and Norway "will be full participants in the Council meetings, not just observers."

Simon says the Council's initial work "will be to supervise two ongoing international efforts: the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy and the Arctic Sustainable Development Initiative." She says that Canada's foreign policy has never really addressed the Arctic in a global way that is related to environmental or sustainable development issues. "What we're talking about is trying to make changes in the Arctic that will provide for some new opportunities for the people in the region. The Council should be a forum for planning for the future," she says.

The ambassador says there are several issues related to the Arctic which have been "ticking away for decades." These include: assisting Russia in disposal of radioactive waste without dumping it in Arctic waters or burying it in unstable ground; the need for more research on the degree to which toxic pollutants affect the Arctic food chain and fragile environment; scientific studies on the effects pollution is having on the Arctic Ocean; development of mineral and other resources without environmental damage; assisting Arctic native peoples with health and social programs, better transportation and communication links and in combatting threats to native cultures; promoting economic development and tourism; and addressing territorial disputes.

Whit Fraser, chairman of Canada's Polar Commission, says that until now, there hasn't been a lot of thinking about the status of issues in 20 years ranging from freer trade to scientific research and health. He says the Council will help focus international policy on these vital areas.

There is a "real need to see these issues addressed by all the countries that have an involvement in the region," Fraser says, adding that canada has a particularly vested interest since it controls about a third of the total polar land mass.