The Icelandic knowledge society takes the lead in Arctic affairs

A unique opportunity to shape the focus for the benefit of the region and its peoples
The Icelandic knowledge society takes the lead in Arctic affairs

In a recent issue, the American news magazine Newsweek discusses the important role that Iceland plays in international co-operation on the Arctic issues. Especially now that the country holds the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which is the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation in the Arctic; a home to roughly four million people. Arctic issues are particularly important for Iceland, and the Icelandic Chairmanship of the Arctic Council has proved to be a unique opportunity to formulate priorities for the benefit of the region and its peoples. 

In Akureyri, there is substantial activity related to Arctic research and international coordination of Arctic science, as the Icelandic government has in recent years explicitly invested in the development and solidification of Arctic institutes, all based at the campus of the University of Akureyri. It is valuable for the country and the nation to create strong knowledge societies, and our experts in Akureyri have certainly taken the lead in knowledge work that supports the work of the Arctic Council. Especially with regard to the issues that concern the well-being of people and communities. A Newsweek journalist contacted three leading scholars in Akureyri, Eydís Kr. Sveinbjarnardóttir, Associate Professor and President of the School of Health Sciences at the University of Akureyri, Embla Eir Oddsdóttir, Director of the Arctic Network of Iceland, who currently leads two expert groups under the auspices of the Arctic Council, and Rachael Lorna Johnstone, Professor of the Faculty of Law at the University of Akureyri. 

Rachael, has made a name for herself as one of the nation's leading experts in Arctic law and governance in the Arctic. "The Arctic is unique and different, but it is not necessarily special. A lot of things that we see in the Arctic are parts of global patterns and can also provide substantial knowledge to other regions as well. The Arctic is part of a global economy and international law, as law of the sea is crucial. It can be part of international security questions, as it is a theater for international security since the Cold War, even if it has been quieter ever since. It is part of a global climate and global environment," says Rachael. 

Eydís and Embla have been busy, not least due to the fact that the pandemic COVID-19 has called for further cooperation and dialogue between the member of nations od the Arctic Council. 

"I want to emphasize on the fact that there have been people habiting the Arctic for a very long time. They have a long history behind them and they have been surviving pandemics before. As a psychiatric nurse, I have both professional and personal interest in mental health. The psychiatric population here in the Western world shares the important message with the indigenous peoples of 'nothing about me without me'. Both these groups are tired of others telling them what is right and wrong to do. We have to be really careful in terms of the measures that we think are helpful. Our obligation is to listen to the people and taking seriously into consideration their culture and needs," says Eydís. 

Last summer, the Council published a report analyzing the impact of COVID-19 in the Arctic region, especially rural and remote communities, as well as how countries can best co-operate on COVID-19 responses and actions, and tackle long-term adverse effects. The work continues, but the pandemic reminds us that the Arctic is far from isolated from the outside world, as Rachael emphasizes in the interview. The importance of the Arctic has long been known when it comes to rapid climate change and environmental change that is now visible in many parts of the world. The continued adaptation of communities in the Arctic to these changes is without a doubt one of the most important tasks we face today, but other changes have been no less noticeable in the region, where human activity and resource exploitation have greatly increased. 

"We need to be careful not to underestimate its importance. I think it is important now that we are seeing an increase in tensions in the region between great state actors. We should not underestimate the value of the Arctic Council as a forum for conversation, especially in times like these. The chairmanship of Iceland is a recognition of Iceland's role in the Arctic Council's, as well as how important it is for Iceland, as a small island state, to be part of the regional dialogue on sustainable development. It also helps us put issues that we feel are priorities on the table, raising their visibility on the agenda. Green energy is, for example, obviously extremely important for us and we believe that Iceland can contribute to the topic. In terms of the marine environment and safety at sea, through to pollution, plastics, and acidification, we want to look toward innovative solutions. Focusing on sustainable uses of marine products is an important component to infuse into the chairmanship themes. In terms of the theme of people and communities, you will find that there is an emphasis on indigenous populations," says Embla.