Keynote speech at the Human Rights and the Arctic 29.9.2017

 7th Symposium on Human Rights and science, House of Estates, Helsinki 29.9. 2017


In any debate on arctic issues there are usually three different ways of approaching the issues concerned:

These are the

  • the environment
  • economic evelopment
  • human rights

What we need is a comprehensive approach to arctic issues which does not separate these into different categories as if they were independent of each other. The Human Rights approach is a good tool for this.

But I will start with the environment.

This can also be motivated by the fact that if it were not for climate change and the vast and potentially disastrous effects it can have on the Arctic we would not be such a great focus on the Arctic as we have today. This is the case not only in the eight member countries of the Arctic Council but also outside it, with an ever increasing number of also quite far-away countries seeking to join the Council, at least as observers.

I think we are all very well aware of how dramatically climate change has already effected the Arctic. Pictures showing the increasing speed at which the polar ice has been melting are familiar to us all. While the landmark agreement reached in Paris in 2015 on climate change has been welcomed, it is not nearly enough to stop climate change from proceeding. It is also almost certain that the stated goal of limiting the scale of global warming to not over two degrees centigrade as a global average cannot be reached even if the treaty is strictly implemented.

Obviously, with the Trump administration and the US in a state of climate change denial this looks very uncertain, even though the US is so far adhering to the Arctic policies inherited from the previous Obama administration. Of course, things, attitudes and readiness to really come to grips will inevitably change with time, except that time is exactly what we do not have, as climate change calls for more urgent action.

And remember that a two degree rise in average global temperatures will translate into a four degree rise in Arctic temperatures, which again will accelerate the melting of the polar ice cap and the permafrost in the Arctic leading to new methane emissions into the atmosphere which again will accelerate global warming.

This is a real vicious circle we are witnessing in the Arctic, and moreover one that cannot be broken by what we can do in the Arctic alone. This is of course no reason for inaction, but only a recognition of the fact that we are dealing with a truly global challenge.

The ironic tragedy of the Artic is, that while many of us have become starry-eyed about the new possibilities for investment and economic development in the Arctic, this is almost completely due for the wrong reasons. It is climate change and ice melting which is opening the new opportunities for natural resource exploitation and for new transport routes in the Arctic.

These new opportunities will also mean new threats and challenges for the Arctic environment. Yet to be discovered oil and gas reserves are expected to be abundant and, if exploited, may put of some years or decades the inevitable exhaustion of these fossil fuel resources.

First there is the vulnerability of the Arctic environment. An oil spill in the tropics is always bad enough, but when it occurs in the Arctic it will take decades rather than years for the natural environment to recover, and in many cases the damage could be irreparable and permanent.

Identifying and assessing the risks to biodiversity is a complex and difficult task anywhere, but it is particularly so in the Arctic. But what we do know for certain that climate change caused by human activities is by far the worst threat to biodiversity in the Arctic.

The real issue is, if we are to take the challenge of climate change seriously, how can we even think of exploiting these resources if we are aiming for a carbon free future, which is necessary for reaching sustainable development?

Not that exploiting Arctic reserves will be cheap and easy. Low oil prices have been so far the most effective brake on Arctic exploitation, so the natural question is; why not direct the resources available for Arctic drilling into investment in renewable energy?

In fact the more far-sighted energy companies are already doing this. But I think we should seriously start preparing international agreements which will make Arctic regions closed for any kind of fossil fuel exploitation.

As for other economic activities such as mining, these too need to be regulated with clear rules, which have to take into account the particular nature and vulnerability of the Arctic environment as well as the relationship to the rights of the indigenous people living in the Arctic.

The prospective opening of the Northwest and Northeast passages as commercial transport-route is not quite around the corner yet, and the initial enthusiasm for these has somewhat cooled in the last years, as the difficulties and dangers involved once again proved to be greater than expected. Nevertheless, given the potential saving in transport time of the Northern passages, they will surely be taken into use as climate change proceeds. What risks this entails for the environment and people both living in the arctic or passing through it, does not need to be spelled out.

So why have talked so long about the environment at a symposium on Human Rights?

I have done so not only because environmental degradation and pollution very concretely affects the health and wellbeing of people and, as the UN environment Programme UNEP reminds us, ”More than 2 million annual deaths and billions of cases of diseases are attributed to pollution. All over the world, people experience the negative effects of environmental degradation ecosystems decline, including water shortage, fisheries depletion, natural disasters due to deforestation and unsafe management and disposal of toxic and dangerous wastes and products. Indigenous peoples suffer directly from the degradation of the ecosystems that they rely upon for their livelihoods. Climate change is exacerbating many of these negative effects of environmental degradation on human health and wellbeing and is also causing new ones, including an increase in extreme weather events and an increase in spread of malaria and other vector born diseases. These facts clearly show the close linkages between the environment and the enjoyment of human rights, and justify an integrated approach to environment and human rights.”

Not only is the environment a pre-requisite for the enjoyment of human rights (implying that human rights obligations of States should include the duty to ensure the level of environmental protection necessary to allow the full exercise of protected rights), but I would go further and say that the right to a safe, healthy and ecologically-balanced environment is a human right in itself.

Respect for Human Rights should also have a central place when furthering economic development and business opportunities in the Arctic. We like to think of the European Union and its Member States as forerunners in promoting the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Finnish Action Plan on the UN Guiding Principles was approved by the Government in September 2014. It is one of the first national action plans adopted worldwide.

Transparency and openness are important tools for ensuring respect of these principles. Certain human rights, especially access to information, participation in decision-making, and access to justice in all decision-making are essential for this.

Human Rights are, by definition, universal and have to be respected for all people. But the people in the Arctic regions who are most immediately concerned are the indigenous peoples living in the North.

Historically all the indigenous peoples in the North have suffered at best from benign neglect and in the worst case from discrimination and abuse of their Human Rights, even in the democratic Nordic countries.

On the international level the International Labour Organisation ILO has been working with indigenous and tribal peoples’ issues since the 1920s. It is responsible for the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, No. 169 , which is the only international treaty open for ratification that deals exclusively with the rights of these peoples. It was agreed in 1989.

Norway was the first country in the world to ratify the treaty already in 1990, but among the 22 countries that have ratified the convention Norway and Denmark are still the only Nordic and only member countries of the Arctic Council to have done so.

If there is any acceptable reason for tardiness in ratification it is, that we in Finland take our international treaty obligations seriously and this means that we always want to see to it that all the legislative changes that international treaties may require should be in place before ratification. Not all countries share the same position regarding respect for their international commitments, to put it mildly.

Here in Finland the ratification of the ILO Convention has been in the programme of already quite a few governments, but none of the governments have been able – and maybe not even especially interested in – pushing the ratification through Parliament, where it is still waiting. But this is not because our legislation is in in contradiction with the Convention. The opposition has mainly come from some of the Non-Sami people living in the North. Also the issue of how to determine who is Sami and thus entitled to exercise the rights covered in the Convention, has impeded progress.

On the other hand there is also a growing recognition of the need to enhance respect for the rights of the Sami people and of the historical wrongs inflected in the past on the Sami people. These were also highlighted by the report with international comparisons by a group of international researches and judicial experts published at the beginning of this year. Their conclusion was, that irrespective of the ratification of the ILO Convention both the Finnish constitution and existing international law require better safeguards for Sami rights in our legislation.

Another very interesting development in this respect is the proposal to set up a National Truth and Reconciliation process, which was raised at a meeting between the Prime Minister and the leaders of the Sami Parliament last May. Work on this proposal is ongoing, but as yet nothing more concrete has been said about it. As president of Historians without Borders in Finland I will commit our organisation to support the establishment of and to contribute to the work to be done in such a process.

Negotiations have been ongoing for some time already between the governments of Finland, Norway and Sweden on a Nordic Sami Convention, which would strengthen and consolidate the rights of the Sámi and cross-border cooperation. A preliminary result from the negotiations was reached at the end of 2016, but before the States can sign the Convention, the Sámi Parliaments in Norway, Sweden and Finland, who have been consulted in the process, will have to formally decide on whether to accept it.

Quite a few important decisions are in the pipeline that, when adopted and implemented, can significantly improve the Human Rights of the Sami people.

Finally, to sum up this introduction, I will want to refer to a very central ingredient in Human Rights. As you may know Finland has for many years running been ranked in the yearly published Index of Failed States as the “least failed state in the world”. I like this, because it does not deny that we too can have failures and that we always can do better, as is certainly the case with our Arctic policies also.

When challenged to name the single most important factor in any relative success we have in these international beauty contests, my answer is always Gender Equality and the full implementation of Women’s and girls’ rights in education, public service, politics, business, civil society etc. Not that we are perfect in this respect either, but I believe that we can point out to some experiences that others could also benefit from.