An Arctic Role for OSCE?

Mar 30, 2018 | Rachael Gosnell

As the Arctic becomes increasingly accessible and as Arctic and Non-Artic states explore their strategic interests in the region, the potential for misunderstandings or even conflict rises. The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum that includes all Artic-bordering states, has been an effective coordinating mechanism for many of the region’s challenges, but its mandate precludes it from addressing security issues. The Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) is in a good position to be able to fill this gap.

The Arctic is particularly relevant to the OSCE, given that the eight Arctic states – Canada, Iceland, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States – are all members of the organization. As such, the organization has been working throughout the past decade to get ahead of any potential conflicts that could arise as the region’s concerns evolve. The OSCE has explored the potential security implications of a warming Arctic and has passed resolutions on the region at Annual Sessions, including the 2010 Oslo Declaration and 2013 Istanbul Declaration. A 2010 brief to the Environment and Economic Officers Annual Staff Meeting noted that concerns stemmed from three dimensions: environment and economic, politico-military, and human. Specific concerns revolve around resource claims, transportation routes (overland and at sea), and the potential for environmental degradation, as well as impacts on indigenous communities. Territorial claims and militarization of the Arctic were also noted concerns. 

In December 2015, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly recognized the need to further examine Arctic challenges and appointed the Norwegian parliamentarian Ola Elvestuen as the assembly’s Representative for Arctic Issues. With a mandate to raise awareness regarding Arctic issues, as well as promote cooperation, the representative faces the challenge of confronting all of the geopolitical, environmental, economic, and human-rights related issues raised by the warming region. 

Yet more can be done. The OSCE could join the Arctic Council as an observer – thirteen intergovernmental and inter-Parliamentary Organizations have already been granted Observer status – and perhaps more importantly could look to provide a forum to discuss arctic security on its own. The biggest barrier to greater OSCE involvement in Arctic governance is the Council itself. In 2008, the Canadian Delegation to the OSCE noted that “Canada would be hesitant to expand the OSCE in this area due to the effectiveness of existing mechanisms and limited organizational expertise in this area.” The delegation further cited the effective coordinating mechanisms in existence through the Arctic Council to focus on governance and environmental security. The United States and Russia have also been hesitant to open the region to third parties.

While the Council has been an effective coordinating mechanism for many facets of the region, its limited mandate and lack of enforcement mechanisms constrain its ability to prevent the militarization of the region and avoid inadvertent security competition. Related discussions have occurred in the Arctic Security Forces Roundtables, but Russia’s involvement has been limited due to post-Crimea sanctions. Given that Russia accounts for about half of both the Arctic coastline and population, its participation is critical in security cooperation discussions. In contrast, the OSCE—with its Forum for Security Co-Operation (FSC)—is well-suited to address these issues given that it is an established forum for dialogue, an inclusive body, and has a comprehensive mandate and approach.

Indeed, Arctic security cooperation may provide a useful mechanism for OSCE member states to improve relationships and build confidence with one another. A European policy expert noted in 2016 that the “EU needs to find a new modus vivendi for dealing with Russia that should be based on pragmatic co-operation in areas of common interest, including both global and European issues (e.g., infrastructure, energy sector, research, Arctic).” 

All OSCE member states share an interest in ensuring the stability of and peace in the Arctic region. If the organization summons the requisite political will it could provide a suitable forum to discuss security concerns, improve transparency, and allow for confidence building measures that would lower the risk of an inadvertent escalation of conflict in the region.