Arctic Council

When asked to picture the Arctic, most people conjure images of a frozen expanse of snow and ice, with maybe a few polar bears. While there's no shortage of snow and ice, the Arctic is also home to thousands of people, and its lands are caught between world powers vying for control. For countries with territory in the Arctic circle, a supranational organization called the Arctic Council serves as a forum for discussion on Arctic issues. Keep reading to learn more about Arctic Council and its functions.

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Table of contents

    Arctic Council Definition

    The Arctic Council is a supranational, intergovernmental organization. This means it's comprised of sovereign nations that serve as members. It's also a regional organization like the European Union or ASEAN since its members are all in the same geographic region. The Arctic Council started in 1996 and comprises eight sovereign states, six Indigenous peoples groups, and observer states. As a forum for discussion, the Arctic Council has no methods of enforcing decisions itself but instead is a conduit for stronger treaties to form between countries.

    Arctic Council: A supranational organization comprised of countries with Arctic territory and Indigenous groups that meet to resolve issues facing the region.

    Since its founding, the Arctic Council has played a role in settling territorial disputes and creating international agreements over issues like search and rescue responsibilities and how to manage new shipping routes.

    Arctic Council Declaration

    The first precursor to the Arctic Council was established in 1991 with the signing of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS). The agreement comprised the current eight countries that are part of the Arctic Council and several Indigenous groups. The same year, the Arctic Monitoring & Assessment Programme was established to monitor the Arctic region regarding pollution and climate change. Finally, on September 19, 1996, in Ottawa, Ontario, the Arctic Council was formally created. The Ottawa declaration is not a legally binding treaty, but instead a voluntary agreement between the Arctic States to participate in the Arctic Council.

    Today, the Arctic Council meets to discuss issues of the Arctic. Climate change is one of the major issues currently, threatening to break up the Arctic ice pack. With this comes threats to the way of life for Indigenous people and economic interests scrambling to seize new resources.

    When European explorers first came to the Americas, there was a constant search for the so-called Northwest Passage. Explorers imagined a route from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans that didn't require sailing around the Southern end of South America. This hypothetical passage never existed, but today a new path is becoming feasible as Arctic ice melts from global warming. A winding path through Canada's northern islands to reach the Pacific is sometimes possible during summertime, with it likely to become reliably free of ice in the coming years.

    Arctic Council Members

    Under the current framework of the Arctic Council, there are eight member states and thirteen observer states. Additionally, six different Arctic Indigenous groups have a seat at the table in the form of their respective Indigenous organizations.

    Arctic Council Map of Arctic Council StudySmarterFig. 1 - Map of Arctic Council. Member states are in dark blue, observer states are in light blue.

    Next, let's review some significant Arctic Council Members.

    United States

    By far the most populous and powerful Arctic Council Member, the United States plays an outsize influence on Arctic politics and decision-making. While most of the US is not within the Arctic, Alaska makes it an Arctic country. During the Cold War, the Arctic was a domain of warfare because it was where the US and USSR were geographically at their closest. While tensions are not as high as they once were, current conflicts with the Russian Federation are again bringing attention to the Arctic.

    Russian Federation

    While tensions have heightened over the years, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia sought a new course with Arctic nations. Having the most territory within the Arctic and most people of any other nation living in the Arctic circle, Russia is heavily invested in its security and success. In the face of climate change and with ice continuing to melt, new areas for exploitation and shipping are opening up. Russia is particularly interested in securing rights for oil drilling in the Arctic, but there's sharp pushback against it over environmental concerns.


    The Kingdom of Denmark possesses the vast island of Greenland, home to tens of thousands of Indigenous peoples and one of the most extensive ice shelves in the world. Greenland is essential in preventing sea level rise worldwide because as its ice sheets continue to melt, tons of water will end up in our oceans. Denmark is particularly invested in preserving the way of life of its Indigenous people, who face threats by climate change. Regarding geopolitics, Denmark hosts The United States' northernmost military base, seen as an essential tool of NATO power projection in the Arctic.

    Indigenous Permanent Participants

    Despite its extreme climate, humans adapted to living in the Arctic thousands of years ago without the help of modern technology. They developed complex societies and unique cultures unlike anywhere else. Despite outside economic and political interests in the region, Indigenous Arctic people are ultimately the most affected by changes. With this in mind, the Arctic Council granted seats at the table for six groups representing various Indigenous Arctic peoples. Let's look at a couple of the major groups next.

    Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North

    Representing 250,000 people, RAIPON is the largest of the Indigenous permanent participants. Since its founding in 1990, RAIPON has taken stances counter to the Russian government, opposing large energy projects that disrupt the environment and their way of life. Russia threatened to disband the group at several points and prevented its leaders from attending United Nations meetings. The three largest ethnic groups represented by RAIPON are the Nenets, Evenks, and Khanty peoples, native to the Russian Far East and North.

    Inuit Circumpolar Council

    The ICC represents roughly 180,000 people across the United States, Canada, Greenland, and Russia. Inuit people are not one specific ethnic group but a group of similar cultures in the region. Predating the Arctic Council, ICC was formed in 1980. The main goals of the ICC are to ensure the human rights of the Inuit people are respected and to ensure the long-lasting health and preservation of Inuit culture.

    Arctic Council Polar populations StudySmarterFig. 2 - Map of where Arctic communities and populations are located

    Getting an organization representing thousands of people and diverse interests to function is no easy task, so let's learn about some of the Arctic Council Rules of Procedure next.

    Arctic Council Rules of Procedure

    While at first glance a seemingly dry topic, the Arctic Council Rules of Procedure play a significant role in how the Council functions and what members have power. It's essential to remember that the Arctic Council does not have any binding legal authority but instead is a forum for its members to discuss issues.

    Chairmanship and Meetings

    Every two years, one of the eight countries comprising the Arctic Council becomes chairman. Chairmanship grants broad control over the Arctic Council's agenda and discussion topics of meetings. After two years, the chairmanship switches to another country. Every six months senior officials from the eight Arctic states and permanent representatives meet to discuss progress and set goals. Every two years, a higher level meeting of foreign ministers also meets.

    Arctic Council Benefits

    Since its inception, the Arctic Council received praise for its functioning in several areas, reviewed next.

    Peaceful Forum for Discussion

    Like most supranational organizations, the Arctic Council is a place where countries can meet and resolve disputes peacefully outside of direct conflict. After decades of tensions from the Cold War, Arctic nations realized they needed a place to meet and discuss problems that impact them all away from the specter of threats and armed conflict.

    Requires Consensus

    Unlike groups like the United Nations or African Union, the Arctic Council necessitates consensus among its eight members before any decision is made. While on one hand this makes negotiating more difficult, it ensures countries are in accordance with resolving territorial disputes and setting environmental goals.

    Arctic Council Ministers StudySmarterFig. 3 - Ministers at an Arctic Council Meeting

    Recently, tensions between other Arctic states and Russia has made negotiating more challenging, and the requirement of consensus could prove more of an obstacle.

    Includes Indigenous Participation

    By giving a permanent seat at the table to Indigenous groups, the Arctic Council set a new course away from the marginalization of the past. In some cases, Indigenous groups do not have the kind of representation within their own countries in the way they do in the Arctic Council. By giving representation and a voice to these groups, Arctic states benefit from a perspective that might not be appreciated elsewhere in their respective governments.

    Arctic Council - Key takeaways

    • The Arctic Council is a supranational organization that serves as a forum for Arctic countries and Indigenous people to discuss and resolve Arctic issues.
    • Established in 1996, it doesn't have the same sort of enforcement powers as the United Nations but instead is based on voluntary participation.
    • Notably, the Arctic Council has permanent seats for six groups representing Indigenous Arctic peoples.
    • The Arctic Council requires unanimous consensus to make decisions which fosters cooperation but makes negotiating more challenging.


    1. Fig. 3: Ministers Arctic Council ( by arctic_council ( is licensed by CC BY-ND 4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Arctic Council

    What does the Arctic Council do?

    The Arctic Council serves as a forum for countries in the Arctic and indigenous peoples. The Arctic Council has meetings to discuss issues facing the Arctic and its members agree on resolutions and make decisions.

    Who are the members of the Arctic Council?

    The members include the eight countries with territory in the Arctic, six Indigenous peoples groups, and thirteen observer states.

    What is the Reykjavik declaration?

    The Reykjavik Declaration was a statement released by the Arctic Council in 2021 establishing its goals for the next chairmanship, as well as what progress was made during Iceland's chairmanship.

    What powers does the Arctic Council have?

    The Arctic Council has no power to enforce laws or regulate its members. However, it does serve as a meeting point to discuss treaties and to hear the concerns of the member states. The Arctic Council was established by a non-binding treaty and participation in it is voluntary.

    What are the benefits of the Arctic Council? 

    The benefits of the Arctic Council are in promoting peaceful cooperation between Arctic countries and resolving issues facing the Arctic. Additionally, it gives voice to indigenous groups that have been historically oppressed. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

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    What type of organization is the Arctic Council?

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    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Arctic Council Teachers

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