Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson Founds The Arctic Circle

23.4.2013
Words by Sam Knight
President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson announced the formation of a new institution designed to facilitate global discussion about the arctic at a National Press Club luncheon in downtown Washington D.C. last Monday afternoon.

Ólafur hopes the group, called the Arctic Circle, will become “the preeminent event every year where all those major players that have an interest in the arctic can come together through dialogue and discussion.”

He said the name was intended to be “a play on words” that alludes to the geographical focus of the group and “the democratic tradition of everybody coming together around the table in the same way,” and said the group will play host to different governments, think tanks, universities, public associations, and non-government organizations “with their own agenda.”

The reason for the group's foundation, Ólafur said, was that demand for such a forum was increasing.  With the climate rapidly changing—with the melting of the arctic ice freeing up shipping lanes and resources—countries relatively far from the north pole have recently expressed an interest in joining the Arctic Council as permanent observers.

Such countries, Ólafur said, include India, China, Singapore and South Korea. They would, however, be unable to have a speaking role with the Council, an intergovernmental group founded in 1996 that includes the Nordic Countries, the United States, Canada, Greenland and Russia.

But, appropriately, for an institution whose foundation was announced in a city that, officially, is home to about 12,000 lobbyists, the Arctic Circle could end up amplifying industry concerns, further elevating the corporate agenda above the public interest.

“Also the big corporations involved, whether they're oil companies or mining companies, or the others – they can come to present their case,” he said.

And the rules governing the meetings themselves, he implied, will follow the golden rule–those with the gold make the rules.

“Many of those who will come to the Arctic Circle will come through their own funding,” he said. “They will host their own meetings, their own sessions, and be responsible for the agendas of those sessions and for those meetings.”

He added that the group will look for financial contributions “from nations and from others who have an interest in the arctic,” and said that there has been a “very positive response” from prospective donors, thus far.

“For example, we know from a meeting this morning that Google is interested in being present,” he said. He added that those interested in “polar law” have expressed an interest in participating, and that the Northern Research Forum, another “international platform for an effective dialogue” whose foundation was inspired by Ólafur in 1998, “has already agreed to organize meetings and sessions within the Arctic Circle.”

Ólafur added that he did not expect the Arctic Circle to have “a particularly big budget compared to many other initiatives because it hopes to be a facilitator.”

Despite the possibility that the institution could advance the interests of foreign governments and multinational corporations, Ólafur, seemed sanguine about the prospects of Iceland defending its sovereignty.

Ólafur shrugged off the idea that the free trade agreement with China, which was announced earlier in the day, would enable Chinese companies to exploit Icelandic resources.

“No, I'm not afraid of that. We are a pretty independent lot in Iceland,” he said with a grin, as the crowd laughed. “I think we can be trusted to govern our own resources. It's one of the main stumbling blocks in our negotiations with the European Union,” referring to fishing rights.

He claimed that in his meetings with Chinese Presidents –from Jiang Zemin to Xi Xipeng – he had never encountered any desire, on their part, “to control Icelandic resources”; a claim that might queried by Icelanders skeptical of former Communist Party propagandist Huang Nubo's efforts to buy around 300 square kilometers of land near Grímsstaðir.

Whatever their intentions, Ólafur cited the Cod Wars, and Iceland's struggle for independence as evidence that Icelanders wouldn't roll over to a country with a population larger by a factor of over 4,000.

“So we are not going to surrender these rights to the Chinese,” he said.

But Ólafur did mention that he wanted President Obama involved. He said that the announcement was being made in Washington D.C. – under half a mile from the White House – because the presidency of the Arctic Council will be in North American hands for the first time ever; first with Canada and then the United States.

He said that it would be “very interesting” if Obama turned up to more symposia on the arctic.

Soon, he will have additional opportunities to do so.

The inaugural meeting is set to take place in Reykjavík this October. Board members thus far include Ólafur, Prince Albert II of Monaco, Greenlandic Prime Minister Kuupik Kleist, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Russian explorer Artur Chilingarov.

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