Why should Bangladesh seek an observer seat on the Arctic Council?

By Prof Kamrul Hossain

Prof Kamrul Hossain

The Arctic Council is a high-level intergovernmental forum comprising the eight circumpolar Arctic states – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. The Council was founded in 1996 through the Ottawa Declaration, the purpose being to enhance regional cooperation on protecting the Arctic environment and promoting sustainable development of the region. While the Council has a secretariat based in Tromsø, Norway, it does not possess a legal personality, as it was not established as an intergovernmental organisation that would be regulated by international law. Each of the eight member countries chairs the Council for a two-year term, with this position rotating among them. The members jointly and unanimously enjoy absolute decision-making authority. The structure of the Council allows representation from six transnationally located Indigenous Peoples’ organisations of the Arctic, called “Permanent Participants”. They sit alongside the member states and actively participate in decision-making but do not have voting rights.

There is also provision for non-Arctic states, intergovernmental organisations, interparliamentary bodies, international non-governmental organisations and the like to join the Council with the status of observer. While observers have no substantive role in the decision-making process, they make essential contributions to the work of the Council as they join in projects undertaken within one or the other of its six working groups. Among other forms of involvement, observers participate in the Ministerial meetings held at the end of each two-year chair period and, at the discretion of the chair, are allowed to present oral or written statements, submit relevant documents and offer views on the issues under discussion. They may also propose projects either through member states or Permanent Participants and, if so agreed, make financial contributions to the implementation of projects.  

Amongst the observers, the participation and the role of non-Arctic states receive specific political attention, often influenced by the prevailing geopolitical trends and interests. As observers, states enhance their political and symbolic engagement with the greater Arctic region and the Arctic states to impact the governance of the region. To date, thirteen non-Arctic states from Europe and Asia have participated as observers in the work of the Council.

While Bangladesh has not been among these countries and is located far away from the Arctic, the impacts of climate change on Bangladesh and the Arctic, in particular their severity, link the two rather closely, prompting consideration of their interrelationship. Admission of Bangladesh as an observer would offer the Council a broader understanding of the Arctic’s links with the rest of the world and reinforce a global approach to Arctic governance. Against this background, this short article explains why Bangladesh should seek observer status on the Council. Before moving to that discussion, let me briefly introduce the Arctic, with a focus on its importance as such and for the rest of the globe.

The Arctic is a geographic space consisting of over fourteen million square kilometres, accounting for 8 per cent of the Earth’s surface. Located above the Arctic Circle (66.33 degrees North), the Arctic comprises the landmasses of the eight Arctic countries and the Arctic Ocean that they surround. Of the eight Arctic countries referred to above, five have coastlines on the Arctic Ocean, and thus enjoy sovereignty and sovereign rights up to the limits of certain maritime zones in the Arctic Ocean as defined by the Law of the Sea. However, the High Sea remains an area beyond national jurisdiction; its water column is considered international waters, and it is regulated by international law. Thus, the Arctic is a blend of national and international jurisdictions. Over four million people inhabit this vast region, of whom approximately 10 per cent are Indigenous, members of some forty different groups representing the original population of the Arctic. With the exception of the Canadian North and Greenland, Indigenous Peoples form minorities in the regions where they live. The Arctic has unique characteristics: a cold climate with long winters and darkness; glaciers and ice sheets, with most of Greenland being ice covered; the frozen ground of the central Arctic Ocean; and the presence of permafrost. It is the home of cold-adapted marine mammals and animal species – including magnificent megafauna, such as the polar bear – and the site of rich biodiversity. Its sensitive ecosystems have adapted to the cold, yet are vulnerable to non-traditional human activities. The inhabitants of the Arctic, particularly the Indigenous Peoples, have traditionally relied on its natural ecosystems for their livelihoods. However, the region faces a drastic transformation driven by the impacts of climate change.

According to the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in early August 2021, the projected surface temperature of the Earth will reach 1.5 or 1.6 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels as early as 2030, a decade sooner than projected in 2018. The nearly 4000-page report mentions the Arctic over 1700 times, often referring to the disproportionate increase in the temperature in the region, which is twice the global average. Such an increase will intensify the melting of glaciers, thawing of permafrost and the loss of seasonal snow covers and sea ice. While the faster warming will impact all of the regions on Earth, the changes in the Arctic will be striking: for example, the Arctic Ocean is expected to be ice-free during the summer months by 2030. The changes in the region will have profound implications for its people, sensitive ecosystems and natural resources, and for the rest of the world as well, prompting the saying, “What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.” The impacts extend well beyond the projected rise in sea level caused by melting ice in the Arctic given the role of the Arctic in the global climate system, its influence on ocean circulation, and its impacts on mid-latitude weather. Moreover, as the Arctic Ocean gradually becomes ice-free, there will be an increase in maritime navigation through the emerging Arctic sea routes (the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route), offshore oil and gas exploration and similar human activities. The increased greenhouse gas emissions these bring with them will accelerate climate change, contributing to even faster melting of the Arctic.

Where Bangladesh is concerned, the rise in sea level will have the most drastic consequences because of the country’s location in a low-lying delta. According to current estimates, by the end of the century, the sea level will rise by 1.5 metres unless greenhouse gas emissions are sharply reduced and the global temperature rise remains well below 2 degrees Celsius. Bangladesh will be one of the hardest-hit victims of climate change, with current assessments projecting that it will lose 20 per cent of its territory by 2080, if not earlier. One study suggests that over 20 million people will become environmental refugees due to the rise in sea level. This will not only threaten existence of a large part of the country’s territory, but will also destroy the largest contiguous mangrove forests in the world, the sundarban. The area, 60 percent of which is lies in Bangladesh, and 40 percent in West Bengal, India, is an ecosystem sustaining a significant number of flora and fauna.

Furthermore, the salinisation of land and groundwater will destroy agricultural activities and cause a scarcity of fresh and drinkable water. Climate change will also bring frequent unpredictable natural hazards, such as floods, tropical cyclones, storm surges and droughts. Such events will cause not only loss of life, infrastructural damage, and adverse effects on livelihoods, but will also create large-scale population displacement, that is, environmental migration, both internally and externally. Overall, a wide range of environmental, political, and socio-economic impacts will be seen domestically and internationally.

Given the interlinkage between the impacts of climate change on Bangladesh, the Arctic and other regions in the cryosphere, such as the Antarctic and Himalayas, it would serve all parties’ interests if Bangladesh became a part of the institutional mechanisms available in the Arctic. Such an engagement would help address related issues more systematically and coherently. The Arctic Council is the appropriate venue for this, as it represents the whole of the Arctic region. The Council would afford Bangladesh a forum in which it could engage with the Arctic and express not only its own concerns and voice but also those of other low-lying and island countries of the Global South that are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Bangladesh aligns with the Arctic states in recognising climate change as a serious, collective global threat, underlining the need for a concerted effort on all fronts.

Bangladesh is located in South Asia, where it shares borders with India and Myanmar and is situated in proximity to an emerging power, China. Its geopolitical importance for regional and global diplomacy is manifest in its multilateral engagements in regional and international bodies. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is one such body, of which Bangladesh is a founding member. The body’s eight member nations are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and the cooperation among them focuses on socio-economic and political matters. Although referred to as a regional intergovernmental organisation and a geopolitical union of South Asian nations, SAARC’s status is somewhat comparable to that of the Arctic Council. Throughout the history of SAARC, Bangladesh has been ready to play an influential role in South Asian regional diplomacy. Bangladesh is also a member of the 54-member Commonwealth of Nations – representing 2.4 billion citizens of countries belonging mostly to the former British Empire – whose primary mission is to contribute to the environment and promote sustainable use of natural resources both on land and sea. The Association supports peace, democracy and the rule of law, as well as endeavours to promote social justice, by advancing education, health and gender equality. The members of the association include many island nations having concerns similar to those of Bangladesh (e.g., Tuvalu), in particular, vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. Amongst the current observer countries on the Arctic Council, India has representations in both SAARC and the Commonwealth Association, whereas Singapore and United Kingdom are members of the latter; China, Japan and South Korea are observers in SAARC.

In its conduct with all these states, Bangladesh maintains neutrality and enjoys a good status as an acceptable third country in regional power politics. It has a valuable contribution to make, as it is not involved in the rivalry and mistrust seen among other regional actors. For example, India and Pakistan are rivals and have had several armed conflicts, Kashmir being one of the main sources of the disputes. India’s relations with China have also been complicated since the former’s independence in 1947 due to the issue of Tibet. In 2020, when armed troops clashed on the Sino-Indian border in Ladakh, this further worsened its relations with China. Additionally, China’s emerging role in great power politics makes it an unreliable partner for India. What is more, China, India and Pakistan all possess nuclear weapons, another arena of rivalry among them. Recent political shifts in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s capturing of power make regional politics even more chaotic, further deteriorating bilateral ties and upsetting the balance of power among the nations in the region.

Most of the Asian observers on the Arctic Council are emerging economies. Given that the Arctic is gradually becoming a burgeoning economic frontier, these states are keen to expand their commercial and geopolitical interests into the Arctic. Its hydrocarbon resources are estimated to be one-fourth of the world’s undiscovered reserves, as revealed in a 2008 survey conducted by the US Geological Survey. The emerging sea routes for international navigation, such as the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage, are seeing increased use and attention as the shorter distances save carriers one-third of the time and energy required using older routes, such as the Suez and Panama Canals. With the development of the Northern Sea Route, commercial maritime activities between Asia and Europe are intensifying, the benefits of which are being reaped by the Arctic Council’s Southeast and East Asian observers, that is, China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. Interestingly, almost all of these nations announced their intention to become observers on the Arctic Council when the Arctic boom started over a decade ago. Various infrastructural development projects, such as building of roads, port facilities and supply facilities for Arctic hydrocarbon resources, as well as building fuel tankers, icebreakers, and ice-class ships, have immensely enhanced business opportunities for these countries. While India is somewhat behind in its competition with the other Asian observers, its Arctic policy explicitly refers to Arctic oil and gas resources as one means to meet the need to diversify its energy imports.

These countries’ engagement, driven by self-interest particularly in the case of economic and geopolitical factors, places Bangladesh in a relatively privileged position to represent the region and its concerns on the AC as a trustworthy party. Its importance in regional diplomacy and wide acceptance by regional and global actors speak in favour of its candidacy for observer status on the Arctic Council. Its ability to uphold a soft-power role in regional diplomacy has much to offer the Arctic if it is admitted as an observer. Bangladesh has shown tremendous success in its relations with both regional and global actors during the past decades. As a result, outside observers consider its diplomacy well-resourced and capable of helping to overcome the complexity of major power rivalries.

Furthermore, given that Bangladesh’ has exercised its soft-power capacity meaningfully to further a forward-looking, global purpose – the climate change agenda – the country is in an appropriate position to engage in the Arctic governance framework. Being one of the potentially hardest-hit victims of climate change, Bangladesh can present the agenda before the Arctic Council on behalf of itself, the regional actors, and other countries to be affected alike, including small island countries. Moreover, Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, almost regularly facing natural calamities such as cyclones and floods, often considered a consequence of climate change. With the Arctic also facing such natural disasters more often than before, the experiences of Bangladesh in adaptation, preparedness and response and in enhancement of community resilience form another area of expertise which it has to share.

From the regional perspective, another salient linkage that Bangladesh can bring forward is that between the Third Pole (the Himalayan region), of which it is a part, and the Arctic. Whereas the melting of Arctic’s glaciers and Greenlandic ice shields contributes to sea-level rise globally, the melting of the Third Pole’s glaciers results in particularly devastating effects on Bangladesh and other low-lying and island countries in the region. These impacts of climate change will negatively affect more than 1.5 billion people in more than 10 countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. In contributing knowledge on the changes occurring at the Third Pole, Bangladesh will contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the impact of global climate change.

One other feature that Bangladesh shares with the Arctic states is the presence of Indigenous Peoples in its population and a policy of respecting their rights and the knowledge they possess on local ecological governance. According to an official statement, Bangladesh has about 1.6 million Indigenous inhabitants – 1.8 per cent of the total population – although the unofficial claim puts the figure at approximately five million. The Indigenous Peoples comprise 28 different groups living in different parts of the country. Although Bangladesh is one of the 11 countries that abstained from voting during the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), it is a party to all major human rights instruments and explicitly supports the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Furthermore, Article 23 A of the country’s Constitution ensures a protection regime through affirmative actions to promote local culture and traditions. Additionally, Article 28 (4) prescribes the adoption of special measures favouring women and children of these groups and communities for their socio-cultural and economic advancement. Hence, Indigenous issues are also an area in which Bangladesh could promote dialogue and collaboration with Arctic nations.  

Bangladesh’s track record in exercising soft power in the issues referred to above reflects its commitment to comply with international regulatory processes and participation in institutional mechanisms. Bangladesh complies with internationally agreed norms, practices, and standards, and maintains a liberal approach to multilateralism, and offers a willingness to sacrifice short-term national interests in favour of the collective good and values in order to promote good governance. The country is already a party to major international regulatory mechanisms applicable to the Arctic, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; major regulatory mechanisms adopted by the International Maritime Organization; the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), its Kyoto Protocol and the subsequent Paris Agreement; and the Convention on Biodiversity. Bangladesh recognises the sovereignty of the Arctic states, including the sovereign rights of the coastal states in the Arctic Ocean as approved by the framework of the Law of the Sea. Being a coastal state itself, Bangladesh has successfully resolved maritime boundary disputes with India and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal. Additionally, it has filed technical, scientific data with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, delineating the outer limit of its continental shelf in the Bay of Bengal. In the Arctic, with the exception of the United States, all other coastal states have lodged their submissions to the Commission, with those of Canada, Denmark and Russia overlapping to a slight extent on the central Arctic Ocean seabed. The developments in this regard can further enhance the shared understanding and experiences between Bangladesh and the Arctic. 

The Arctic Council produces scientific knowledge on the Arctic, publishing extensive analyses of environmental concerns based on its monitoring and assessing the state of the environment from scientific and empirical perspectives. The Council offers norms and guidelines for emergency preparedness and as well as mechanisms to respond to threats arising from the changes and challenges facing the Arctic region. Bangladesh’s experiences in areas such as climate change and its socio-cultural and environmental impacts on the people, disaster management, as well as respect for the rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples and the importance of their traditional knowledge, offer opportunities for mutual learning. Collaboration in these areas will contribute to creating scientific knowledge and translating knowledge into concrete actions. The acceptance of Bangladesh and its success and capability in maintaining a relatively non-aligned position in regional and global diplomacy suggest a confidence that the country could exercise a constructive role in Arctic politics. Such a role would contribute to and promote science diplomacy drawing on the established links between the Arctic and the Global South on agendas geared to climate change and climate-induced disaster management. Bangladesh’s soft-power role in such diplomacy and in regional power politics, which accords the country a favourable position, justifies its being admitted as an observer on the Arctic Council, in which position it will be well qualified to ably represent itself and the Asian region as a whole. 

Kamrul Hossain is a Research Professor, and Director of Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law (NIEM), at the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland. He is also the lead of the Thematic Network on Law of the University of the Arctic. By training, Hossain is a researcher in the field of international law. He has been working on a diverse range of Arctic issues for almost a decade. The main focus of his research currently lies in international environmental law that applies to the Arctic, as well as in human rights law, in particular, concerning the rights of the indigenous peoples, again with a focus on the Arctic. Over the years, Hossain has published extensively in all areas of Arctic governance (climate change; marine environment, maritime de-limitation and law of the sea; human activities in the Arctic such as shipping and resource extractions including mining and, onshore and offshore oil and gas developments; marine bio-diversity conservation; and human rights and human security dimensions applicable to the Arctic) highlighting legal, institutional and policy perspectives. 
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