Poland in the Arctic: Interview with Ambassador Andrzej Misztal

By Alisa Musanovic

Alisa Musanovic 


Today, I’m with Ambassador Andrzej Misztal, who is Poland’s Arctic Ambassador. Could you start off by telling us about yourself and your career in government so far?

Well, so far, it has been almost 30 years. During my career, I was Director of the Legal and Treaty Department, Legal Advisor to the United Nations, and I was chairing the Legal Staff Committee of the United Nations on Space Affairs. Now, I’m the Chair of the Working Group on Space Resources. I work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with different issues regarding international public law, including questions of polar cooperation and the legal status of Antarctica. So, that was the beginning, when I was part of the division for international public law. Then, I was dealing with Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings. I was responsible, for example, in the early 90s, for the ratification by Poland of the Madrid Protocol on environmental protection in Antarctica and then the publication of it, as well as annexes to the Protocol. That is basically my background.

Is there a reason why you came to specialise in Arctic affairs? Was there something that kickstarted this interest?

I think you’re right, because, yes, there are very few of us who have a special, not only background, but also, dedication to polar issues. Our department was initially responsible for Antarctica; at that time, the Arctic was somehow connected to the European department, which is a department responsible for political affairs. This division was due to the different nature of both polar regions. On the one hand, we had Antarctica, which has a clear legal status and the Antarctic Treaty as a basis. On the other hand, there is the Arctic, which has only, if I may say so, a common legal background in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In fact, a part of this is that it’s a political setting. The Arctic Council is composed only of the 8 adjacent countries to the North Pole, and that’s it. Afterwards – I think it was 2012 or 2013, maybe a little bit later – one of my predecessors thought it would also be nice to have the Arctic in our department. That was a time when the political department was involved in many issues at the same time. So, they decided to concede and give us the Arctic too.

We started very actively with some new formats of cooperation. For example, there is a tradition of so-called Warsaw Format meetings. These gather, on the one hand, the countries and Observers of the Arctic Council, and on the other hand, the country discharging the functions of the Chairmanship in the Arctic Council. So, this was our idea. We hosted six meetings of that kind, and we were quite active. I say we were, because now, with the pandemic, this political asset is a little bit limited, but we want to come back to it soon, hopefully during this year. 

When I was heading the Legal Department, I was also Ambassador for polar issues. Afterwards, for a short period of time, there was another colleague who was responsible for both polar regions, especially for the Arctic. And now I’m back, so I deal with the Arctic again. We also have a special task force in the Ministry, so it’s wider than just one person dealing with these issues. Even our directors are involved in polar issues because we understand the importance of it.

It’s interesting to hear that the department started off as being specialised in Antarctica and not the Arctic.

We are very keen on territories or areas which are not ordinary, if I may say so. We also have outer space, so it’s very interesting. These are all the areas of global governance and domain, so we like them very much. And they are not fitting into any other formats in the Ministry – that’s why we have them.

What do you actually do in your role? Are there specific things you do in your day-to-day work as Poland’s Arctic Ambassador?

Yes. I’m participating in the Senior Arctic Official meetings. With Poland, of course, being an Observer country to the Arctic Council, I’m participating in some working groups and meetings with the aim of coordinating things with other states and Observers in the Arctic Council. I’m also meeting bilateral ambassadors myself, or in conjunction with the political departments in the Ministry. So, we are having a lot of cooperation, both from multilateral and bilateral points of view. 

Apart from this, I help the whole team (including with Antarctic issues) – we have now finalised a matrix of activities to which I will refer later in our meeting. Additionally, we continue with the national legislation concerning the activities in Antarctica, so I’m helping that other segment of our department. I also conduct meetings, mainly online, with colleagues from the embassies in Warsaw, but also with the Chairs of the Arctic Council, now the Russian Federation. These are mostly informal meetings online, together with other Observers. I’m participating in all kinds of interviews to re-establish or confirm Poland’s Observer status on the Arctic Council. So, all kinds of diplomatic work.

Could you tell us a bit more about Poland’s past and present specialisms in the Arctic, including activities that Poland’s been involved in?

Nobody can say it for sure, but there are people who don’t know, even in Poland, that we are very active in the Arctic. Since 1957, we have had a year-round station devoted to scientific and research activities in the Hornsund area. It has a longer name in Polish because it’s in memory of Professor Siedlecki. This is one of our longstanding activities but we have even more, because we have four other university stations in Svalbard. There are also other types of activities that are not necessarily primarily related to polar research; these other kinds of scientific interests include the social sciences, economy, and even the institutional scheme of Arctic cooperation.

We are also active in Antarctica because we have one permanent station that started operating there in 1977. It’s on King George Island, near the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s called the Henryk Arctowski Station, which is devoted mainly to the biology of Antarctica. But, we had another station in Antarctica called the Dobrowolski Station, from 1959 (when it was passed to us by the Soviet Academy of Sciences) until 1979 or so. And I’m saying that, not only for the sake of history, but to tell you that we are now revitalising this station. Very recently, a group of Polish scientists landed very close to that station and were at the station to reclaim our interest in it, which will be devoted, as it was before, to geophysics. So, our specialisms are in oceanology, glaciology, biology and geophysics, to name a few. 

In terms of the Arctic institutional landscape, it sounds like it’s quite established on many fronts. Could you tell us a bit more about the nuances of this landscape?

Yes. It’s not easy to understand, even for us, but I suggest to look at it from one fundamental issue. It’s not about the governmental administration – it’s about the people. Indeed, you can ask our colleagues from universities, from the Academy of Sciences and so on, and they will tell you the same thing. Or maybe they will be too modest to say, but they will acknowledge that we treat them as the most important people. I once said when I was the Director of the Legal Department that they are representatives of the scientific diplomacy of Poland; they are making our country visible. So, I think they understand that they are really part of our foreign policy. 

I would like to point out that we have several institutions. I think that I would be quite right in saying that the core of it is the Committee on Polar Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences. There is also a Polish Polar Consortium, which unites several institutions, both of institutional and scientific character, who are busy in our two polar regions. We have several centres in Poland in universities like the University of Silesia – I think this is the most crucial one responsible for organising and coordinating the activity of the research centres in Poland. There is also the University of Lublin, from which a colleague of mine is a member of the Committee on Polar Research. There are also others – we have institutes specialising in oceanology, biology, biophysics and so on – which are integrated into the Polish Academy of Sciences, but also operate in their own right. So, these are all part of the wider machinery of Polish activity in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Our specialists also have some influence on the polar institutional landscape of Poland because several days ago, the Ordinance of the Prime Minister came into effect, establishing a Committee for National Polar Policy. It contains representatives of the government from different ministries and will be chaired by a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but it also has representatives of the Committee on Polar Research, the three institutes that are operators of our research vessel and stations elsewhere and the Polish Polar Consortium. This is important because I don’t remember whether we have in Europe the same kind of involvement, so this is really something – that people from academia will be part of the governmental team, having the same rights, including the same voting rights, as members of the Cabinet. So, I think this is great, really. And people also appreciate this, because it’s a sign from us to them, giving them the possibility to really shape our policy. 

Apart from that, we have many specialists abroad. Polish people who are working, for example, in the University of Tromsø in Norway, the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi in Finland, and elsewhere. Sometimes, we don’t even know the network of people ourselves! And this is a movement that goes from the bottom up. It is not that the administration decrees something and then it goes to them; no, I think it’s vice versa. As an example of that, we had a so-called Polar Task Force before. There is no equivalent in Polish; we use that expression to signal the regular meetings of experts from Poland, dealing with different kinds of areas and activities – an expert voice in our polar policy. Nowadays, with this high-ranking committee that I mentioned, we are going to, in a way, preserve the Polar Task Force. Sorry for mixing up the things that are of scientific nature and those with an institutional mechanism, but I would like to stress by this, that these are absolutely connected with each other – it wouldn’t be possible to make any other sketch or image than this because of the character of the activities.

Is this recent activity that includes academics and politicians working side-by-side geared towards establishing a polar policy?

We already have a Polish Polar Policy, the three words starting with ‘Pol’ (also in the Polish language). We have had it since 11 September 2020 (sorry for the date). The Council of Ministers adopted a document outlining the history of our involvement in the polar regions, containing some institutional highlights and indications. It’s called, ‘From Past Expeditions to Future Challenges – Polish Polar Policy’. So, this document existed before any institutional action was taken. It provides for the creation and establishment of the coordination mechanism. And that Committee that I’m talking about, established by the Ordinance of the Prime Minister, is the response to the plans that were given in the ‘Pol Pol Pol’. 

So, this is where we are. We already have this strategic document, which was the first document of this kind encompassing the two regions (like the Netherlands did, for example, because they are both Observer to the Arctic Council and member of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings). That’s why we combined the two. I will tell you one thing – that document is not a final opus. It will be a living document; we will review it at any time. That’s why the Committee will also try to look at the implementation of the strategic plans that are in the policy and make any further proposals on how to enhance, strengthen and complete.

What do you see as present or potentially future sectors of cooperation between Poland and the Arctic?

I think that we will be focusing on the things that we did before. I think what we are best at is scientific research. Of course, it’s with some elements added from the point of view of environmental protection, which is now the task of everybody, I think, so that’s a challenge in itself. The scientific research that we are doing is also inscribed in that environmental protection, so it will be continued. For this, I think it’s not easy just to continue as we are, because we have to overcome some obstacles. For example, we are badly in need of a vessel. We already have some, but we need a professional vessel that would be used for logistics in the Arctic and in Antarctica. From time to time, we fly people and equipment there, but it’s even harder at this time. Sometimes, we depend on other countries. The last expedition to the Dobrowolski Station was done in cooperation with the Russian Federation. So, you can imagine it’s really challenging, but we have good cooperation with many countries, and despite any other political problems, we can handle that.

It will also be a challenge to continue our current activities because of other limitations. Svalbard, from the point of view of the Paris Treaty, is Norway. So, they are trying to introduce some limitations to protect the environment better, but these may have some impact on the activities of our station, and we have to look at them. Of course, we are not alone, because we are cooperating with people from different countries, including the Observers. It is not only us interested in saying something about Svalbard and the possibilities of scientific activity, but, you know, we are the only state to have a permanent year-round station in Svalbard. So, it’s difficult. There are players who are interested in other issues like fisheries though, including the European Commission. We are cooperating with them in order to reach consensual solutions concerning fisheries in the Arctic. There are a lot of things that have to be taken into account, but we are quite ambitious; at the same time, we know where we are. We know our capacities; it’s not just some strange eagerness to do something which is beyond our possibilities. I repeat, to continue with our normal activities is not easy, and we’ll sometimes need some extraordinary efforts to get to that point.

What Arctic and Nordic bodies does Poland work with, and how would you describe the relationship Poland has with them? The Arctic Council is probably the most obvious one – could you tell us more about that or any other bodies you work with?

Yes, I think the Arctic Council is peculiar because, as I said, it is composed of the countries adjacent to the North Pole. The involvement of Observer countries is only through working groups, but it can be very strong because if any of the Arctic countries take up our idea from the working group, it becomes a background for discussion in the Arctic Council. So, we too have the possibility to influence the Arctic Council. We are also entitled to present our statement on behalf of Observer countries, and it was done on several occasions during the meetings of Senior Arctic Officials. If you ask me, I will say that we need more. But, I think that from a practical point of view, and thinking reasonably, this is what we can expect from the Arctic countries. Nothing more, but nothing less.

Anyway, we have other formats of cooperation in the region, which can be described as wider than the Arctic, but are adjacent. To point to just several: there’s the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS), Northern Dimension and the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region. We are also participating in HELCOM (Helsinki Commission) – this is the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission. Furthermore, we have the Baltic Sea States Sub-regional Co-operation and Euroregion Baltic. So, the Baltic is seen by many as a part of the wider Arctic scene. I myself say that we are the closest ones to the closest ones because of our situation. Only the Baltic states can be seen as closer, like Estonia or Latvia, for example. Estonia is applying for Observer status on the Arctic Council, so their position is very important. But we are, because of our vicinity, the Baltic Sea region, and the convergence of all these regions considered part of the widely-seen Arctic region. We are a State-Party to the Helsinki Convention, which is at the core of the environmental protection of the Baltic Sea. We are also an original member of CBSS. We are exchanging a lot of ideas there; we have periodic meetings, and we also have a Polish representative as Director General of the CBSS Secretariat. Therefore, our cooperation there is very active and has been active for many years. 

Also, our bilateral cooperation with the Arctic countries is giving us the possibility to influence Arctic matters. The countries that we have good, profound relations with are Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Norway, to name some. Because I do remember having a lot of discussions and consultations with these countries, although this is not, of course, to exclude others. I think that bilateral cooperation is very important. We don’t always have to be directly involved in Arctic matters on the regional, multilateral level; we are just fine with the cooperation we have with these countries, as well as within sub-regional organisations in the Arctic region – this is quite important for us.

As Poland has similar experiences to the Arctic countries that share the Baltic Sea, it also helps strengthen the relationship on Arctic matters as well?

Yes, I think everybody knows that whatever happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic and vice versa. These regions are interconnected and influence each other. So, I think it’s very important to understand that the Arctic is not that far. That’s why we are not calling it the ‘Far North’, but ‘High North’ instead. A better word than far, because it’s not far anyway. It might be far for Observer countries like Singapore or India, or even China, but not for us. Therefore, I think there are better words to be used.

Speaking of superpowers or great powers that have a lot of influence in the Arctic, what is Poland’s Arctic relationship with countries like Russia and China?

From the point of view of the Arctic, these are two different cases, because of course, Russia is now the Chair of the Arctic Council, and China is one of the Observer countries. I’ll start with China, who is part of our Observer community. I think they are demonstrating a very practical approach to issues of cooperation towards the Arctic Council, even taking into account that they have a different projection of their own interests in the Arctic, when you look at their economic plans, investments, transport routes, and things like that. This is the kind of thinking that is more than Observer-like thinking, which is something you have to bear in mind. 

Sometimes, we are wondering what the approach of the Chinese authorities is to the other Observer countries, and we are still trying to understand the reasons for China’s absence during the last meeting of the Warsaw Format in 2019, before the pandemic. Maybe that was due to some personal changes in their Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I think there is no reason to draw other conclusions from this situation; we will try again next time. So, toute proportion gardée, we treat China as a common Observer country in the family of Observers. Of course, we can use the influence of all their ambitions in global policy to try and test some ideas of ours, but, as I said before, we know the limits of our possibilities.

As for the Russian Federation, we have entered the Russian Presidency in the Arctic Council with some concerns, but we were told by the Arctic countries that Russia looked quite constructive in the Arctic Council. I also heard the statement of priorities and plans of Russia in the Arctic Council, and they were a normal set of things that a chairing country would introduce and carry with them. It’s the agenda that it was before. There are a lot of activities planned for this biennium, including the involvement of Indigenous peoples in Russia and elsewhere, with some culture programmes and so on. Of course, one might say that it is only a superficial activity, but you know, to treat it bona fide, we have to admit it as it is. We know that Russia’s approach was also constructive vis-à-vis the existing Observer countries; they accepted our Observer status once again and others’. They have a different approach to the countries that are applying now for Observer status, like the Czech Republic, Estonia and Ireland. This is on hold and still hasn’t been decided. But, we will see, maybe with some kind of pressure from other countries, they will be ready. 

The position on Russia is a delicate one, because on one side, we heard a lot about their ambitions with regards to economic issues like transport routes, exploration and exploitation of resources, and of course, from the defence and security point of view. And these are all true, but the Arctic Council members say, okay, we know about that, but we have some common interests with them, so we have to deal with things as they are. So, this is a message to us, the Observers. I’m not only talking here about our own national view, but also the feeling that is prevailing elsewhere, in Germany, in the Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy – I’m talking about the Observer countries in the Arctic Council.

Therefore, this is a question of the choice between pragmatism and other approaches. We also have, if I may add, some experience in Antarctica where, even during the Cold War, there was good cooperation between the Soviet Union and US. They took part in a lot of initiatives together, and no geopolitics was involved at all. Let’s hope we can somehow search for some solutions.

What do you personally view as the greatest challenges in the Arctic?

For me, the greatest challenge in the Arctic is the environment and climate change. I think that this is marking the present state of play in the Arctic. Whatever we say about possibilities, I think all these possibilities are open due to the negative impacts of climate change. The sea, the routes, the extraction of resources – they are made possible because of climate change. Also, the flows of fish stocks and so on are all made possible because of climate change, which has a negative meaning in the case of the Arctic, but also negatively influences the rest of the world. Because of climate change, there is also a shift of population up north. For example, Norway is growing more due to the towns and cities growing in the north. So, on one hand, it’s very interesting, because there will be more populated areas with people more educated about environmental protection. But, in the years to come, they will probably be faced with other kinds of problems, not only climate, but also social and psychological.

There are also the problems of Indigenous peoples in different countries, who are losing their culture and language, and this will persist. We will have a lot of questions, and as a country, we are also called to participate in the research on Indigenous peoples to help somehow with the questions of adaptation and preservation of their culture. Nowadays, it’s a more natural problem, because they shift from less developed areas to towns and cities. You can find many documentaries on the issues of Indigenous peoples, about resilience and life, and there are a lot of questions around this.

Security is another issue. We hope that the Arctic will not be used by any country for offensive reasons or for other reasons. We hope things will stay as they are right now and that we will all focus on a really responsible approach – this is really important for humankind as a whole, not only for adjacent countries.

Also, taking into account environmental protection, we are facing measures from the Arctic Council members – for example, the actions contemplated by Norway. We perfectly know that this is part of their policy in order to prevent the environment of Svalbard from deteriorating. But, at the same time, it would, as I said before, influence the possibility of our own national research on Svalbard. So, these are the challenges that are present now. Please don’t make me use my imagination to say more about any other challenges that may occur in the future. Let’s hope. At least they are identifiable nowadays, and we can really deal with them.

To end on looking towards the future, for many countries, future Arctic engagement involves seeking Observer status on the Arctic Council, which Poland already holds. So, apart from working on maintaining this status, what is Poland’s main goal moving forward in terms of Arctic engagement?

You will probably be surprised, because what I have in my mind is to enhance and grow the community of Observer countries, which should, I think, become our national priority. Because we will continue with our scientific cooperation and activity in the Arctic; we will continue with our engagement with environmental protection there; we will continue with our sectoral research on the issues of social questions, Indigenous peoples, culture and institutions. So this will be continued for sure, regardless of the efforts to the contrary, regardless of the funding, and so on. But what we have to have in mind is to make that family vivid and growing. We think that having more countries involved in Arctic affairs will help grow the knowledge and experience of the Arctic itself. So I spoke about Singapore, India, China, but there are also other countries such as Japan that are very active. This is very important – to have countries from different parts of the world, which, in the case of Antarctica, makes a good story, because there are countries that have stations in Antarctica and are doing a great job there that are not necessarily adjacent. 

On the other hand, Canada, being, of course, an Arctic Council member, is now applying for Consultative status in Antarctica. So, there are those who are involved in both the Arctic and Antarctica. I think that this should also be a movement up north; this would help us have better understanding and experience of how to deal with the problems of the Arctic. I think some experience from Antarctica can be of great interest to the Arctic Council. The problem is that, very frequently, we have different people dealing with the two regions. In our case, it’s the same people. I think this is our flagship activity, if I may say, to disperse information about the other polar region in order to strengthen the possibilities towards another region. So, this could also be our speciality. That’s why we have to sometimes unite these approaches in order to get something that is very important.

(This interview took place on Monday, 7 February 2022)


Ambassador Andrzej Misztal is Poland’s Arctic Ambassador – or more formally, Poland’s Ambassador for the Legal Affairs of the Arctic and Antarctic – and the Director of the Legal and Treaty Deparment of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland. Formerly, he was the Head of Division of Public International Law in the Legal and Treaty Department in the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Legal Adviser of Poland to the United Nations, and representative of Poland in the 6th Committee of the United Nations General Assembly. He also served as the Deputy Permanent Representative of Poland to the United Nations Office in Geneva. He specialises in international public law, including international humanitarian law, disarmament and outer space law. He is the former Chair of the Legal Subcommittee of COPUOS.
Alisa Musanovic is a Global Leadership Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. She is a graduate of a History BA at the University of Oxford and a recent graduate of an International Double Master’s Degree jointly studied at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL and University of Helsinki. 
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