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World: Analysis From Washington--At The Top Of The World

Washington, 24 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Ministers from eight countries bordering the Arctic and representatives of indigenous populations from the region last week overcame American and Russian resistance and formed an Arctic Council intended to deal with environmental and economic issues affecting the Far North.

Because of American and Russian objections, the native peoples -- such as the Inuit of Canada and the numerically small peoples of the Russian north -- will not have a vote on the council as the eight countries do or exercise a veto over its actions. But they will have the right to participate in council discussions and make proposals for its consideration.

And equally because of American and Russian objections, the council will not have the right, as the Scandinavians and Canadians had sought, to take up defense and security issues affecting the region. As a result, it will be able to consider the impact of nuclear pollution but not its major source: the problem-filled program of decommissioning nuclear submarines in Russia's northern ports.

Nonetheless, the formation of the council and its provisions for the representation of native peoples who do not have their own independent statehood or in some cases even autonomy within other countries represents a major development in international affairs.

In the first instance, it represents a victory for those like the Canadians and the Scandinavians who have sought a common international approach to Arctic issues and who have urged for many years that the native peoples be given a more active and direct role in such relations.

Consequently, it should surprise no one that the leader of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, the major non-governmental organization of the Arctic peoples, should have viewed the formation of the new council as a major step forward.

As ICC President Rosemary Kuptana put it, the Arctic Council is the "highest status ever achieved by indigenous peoples in an international forum."

Kuptana's remarks point to the broader implications of the creation of the Arctic Council.

Not surprisingly, governments have been extremely reluctant to share power in an international environment with any non-government groups on a regular basis.

The creation of a body such as the Arctic Council, albeit restricted in its scope and application, is thus likely to become a model for other groups who lack statehood or autonomy and who face international problems.

Aboriginal peoples and others without statehood in other parts of the world may come to see this institutional arrangement in the Arctic as an important means to solve their own problems. And they may thus make demands on regional groups of states to form similar bodies.

That broader implication of the formation of the Arctic Council means that it should receive the closest scrutiny in the future. That is because it could easily have two very different outcomes, and those different outcomes would have still broader implications.

On the one hand, if these sub-state actors are able to play a significant role in this forum and thus satisfy their aspirations, such an international arrangement may go a long way to cooling any incipient nationalist demands for independence.

If, on the other hand, these groups feel that they are being treated in a token fashion and that their own ideas about their own region are being ignored, the Arctic Council and any spinoffs elsewhere could quickly become a seedbed of nationalism rather than the reverse. But whatever the future holds, the peoples of the Arctic can as a result of the decision to form this council feel for the first time in many years genuinely at the top of the world.