The delicate environmental and political balance that composes the Arctic has made it one of the most hotly contested regions in the world. This fragility poses a direct threat to the traditional lifestyles and fundamental human rights of peoples indigenous to the region. While Antarctica is regulated by a strong treaty system, uninhabited and under international jurisdiction, the Arctic is inhabited by four million people, roughly 10 percent of whom identify as indigenous peoples, and its government is balanced among the eight countries with territory in the region—the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Russia. Decisions regarding the Arctic undergo a complicated process involving local governments, central governments, indigenous councils, and the Arctic Council—an international forum of Arctic states and interest groups. With its many levels and stakeholders, the system is far from efficient or effective. A high number of competing interests, including environmentalist groups, industrial sectors, local governments, and indigenous peoples, vie for influence in decisions about the region. As a result, the rights of indigenous groups in the Arctic lag behind those of non-indigenous groups in the same country. The Arctic governance system as it stands cannot be left unaltered, as it highly favors states with interests in the region and gives too little political consideration to those indigenous peoples who call the Arctic home.

Layers of Governance

The current system governing the Arctic is state-centric, but contains multiple levels. International law operates in the Arctic under the framework of state territory on all levels of government. All territorial and most maritime boundaries in the Arctic have been firmly established, giving every state the right to its own land and waters in the Arctic. Under international law, each state maintains the right to sovereignty over territory and has an inalienable right to "dispose of its natural wealth and resources in accordance with its national interests, and on respect for the economic independence of States." National governments then determine environmental laws, economic policies, and the rights of different minority groups such as indigenous peoples within that territory. Depending on the country in question, authority in the region then falls to more local governments, such as provinces or territories in Canada, the state of Alaska in the USA, or republics in Russia. While these regions generally have a locally elected leader and maintain control over their own populations, national or international interests are determined by the central government. Subnational regions, on the whole, rarely influence more significant decisions such as trading rights or environmental policies in the Arctic—Greenland, under Denmark’s sovereignty, is the only notable exception. As a result, populations directly affected by changes in the Arctic generally have minimal say in the politics of the region. Federal governments of the Arctic states make the majority of a region’s decisions, based on the needs and interests of their nation as a whole rather than the Arctic region alone.

This traditional hierarchical system is complicated by several factors. One is the existence of political systems by and for indigenous peoples, such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) in North America and the Sami Parliaments in Scandinavia. These groups are created by and for indigenous groups, with different levels of affiliation with national governments. The Sami Parliaments, for example, are elected constituencies who can advise their national government and denote a high level of recognition for the Sami peoples. Another complicating factor is the Arctic Council, which is an international body whose members are the 8 Arctic states listed above. The members have final decision-making power within this organization; however, a high number of indigenous Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) such as the ICC have permanent participant status within the council, including key groups from all Arctic regions. This means that the member governments recognize and respect the elevated status of indigenous groups in regard to Arctic politics. Thus, an international forum within which Arctic states and indigenous people can interact does exist; this situation is a dramatic improvement over past decades. Lastly, tying together these diverse levels of governance is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), finalised and passed in 2007 and used as a basis in courts such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. This document is not binding international law, but sets a standard for the rights and wellbeing of indigenous groups, giving them formal and specific rights in the international system.

Indigenous Rights: A Theory, Not a Reality

Despite this intricate system of different levels of legal platforms, indigenous rights are respected more on paper than in practice. In reality, this complex system of Arctic governance masks a glaringly important fact: none of the established systems create a binding effect on the Arctic states to respect indigenous rights or wishes. Regions heavily populated by indigenous peoples have minimal impact on national policy. NGOs or indigenous local governments have no way to pressure the government into acknowledging their interests, as they have no veto power and minimal international influence, especially in terms of policy formation. For instance, the many indigenous groups who enjoy permanent participant status on the Arctic Council are marginalized in comparison to member states, as permanent participants have only consultation rights, without the power to vote on decisions or the resources to fund their participation.

The rights of indigenous peoples in the Arctic are therefore in a constant state of flux, dependent on the interested groups at play in any given situation and never truly guaranteed.

Even when indigenous groups are able to influence the Arctic Council, their power is heavily diluted by the Arctic Council’s inability to make legally binding decisions to which all Arctic states must comply: its decisions are soft law at best. State membership on the Council is voluntary, meaning that the Council’s decisions are essentially just recommendations to these states, and are determined by the votes of the states themselves. In fact, the only binding legal document in place in the Arctic is a treaty regarding polar bears in the wild. All rights given to indigenous populations depend on the state in question, and can be taken away by that state. Even the UNDRIP, as it was created so recently, has not yet been incorporated into standard international law and human rights courts in the way that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has: though it has widespread support, it must be institutionalized and viewed as legally binding before it will have true legal power. Many of the policies regarding the Arctic, both national and international, are therefore shaped by the Arctic states in the way that best suits their interests, whether they be economic or political, and indigenous rights are often a side note in this process.

This is not to imply that the Arctic states have no regard for the rights of their indigenous peoples; it is simply to point out that the states in question have been highly reticent in affording more concrete power to their indigenous populations, and can consider the wishes of indigenous peoples when it suits their interests and ignore them under other circumstances. The rights of indigenous peoples in the Arctic are therefore in a constant state of flux, dependent on the interested groups at play in any given situation and never truly guaranteed. The crux of this problem is the question of sovereignty. Rights such as free, prior, and informed consent on the part of indigenous groups are highly contentious, because they imply veto power for indigenous groups. If an independent group within a territory has veto power, the state no longer has final sovereignty in that area, and the independent group essentially controls its own quasi-state.

Similarly, if the state affords indigenous groups full control over natural resources for their own, traditional use, the inalienable right of every state to its own resources, as recognized by international law, is no longer upheld. These issues are highly politicized and sensitive to the governments of the Arctic states, as giving ground on these fronts means sacrificing power and sovereignty as a state. This does not begin to take int account economic interests in the region, as the resource-rich Arctic provides substantial wealth to these states, and few of them are willing to restrict their activities in the area at the behest of small indigenous groups. Because these issues are ones on which the nations are unwilling to make dramatic changes, and because the rights and wishes of indigenous peoples in the region are generally at odds with the interests of Arctic states, conflict in the region is often resolved at the cost of the rights of indigenous groups.

Costs of the Situation

This lack of a concrete foundation of regularly enforced rights has been highly detrimental to indigenous populations. Under the UNDRIP, indigenous people are guaranteed the following rights: freedom from discrimination; self-determination; autonomy; control over decisions that affect them; use of traditional lands and resources; health and life; practice of cultural traditions; fair redress; mitigation of negative environmental, social, or cultural impacts; and many more. Nonetheless, Arctic communities have reported numerous failures to uphold these rights. In reality, marginal autonomy is granted in some regions, indigenous groups are often in charge of their own education systems, and some treaties are in place regarding cultural rights (such as the Sami reindeer trade in Scandinavia), but where economic or political incentives conflict with these rights, those other incentives take priority.

A major issue that repeatedly arises is that indigenous peoples wish to preserve the environment and develop it sustainably using traditional knowledge, while industrial sectors wish to develop the environment to make a profit. This often leads to a clash between indigenous and other stakeholders. For instance, the ICC petitioned the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to take action against climate change, especially the US’s high levels of pollution: they claimed environmental destruction violated the right to practice cultural traditions because those traditions were inextricably linked to their physical surroundings. The petition was eventually dismissed. Specific organizations have also been implicated in indigenous rights cases, such as the World Bank, which has faced multiple charges of failing to obtain consent from indigenous groups affected by economic programs, but as the charges were informal and led by indigenous protests, no consequences were imposed. There is an unsettling pattern, briefly exposed in the cases above: even where rights are violated, indigenous peoples do not have the power to secure those rights. Several of these rights are clearly not fulfilled, such as self-determination. Only in Greenland are indigenous Arctic groups close to achieving self-determination. In fact, the entire system of governance in place is in constant violation of the right to self-determination and autonomy, stated clearly in Articles 3 and 4 of UNDRIP, because its state-centric nature prevents indigenous groups from controlling all decisions that affect them or voting for their own sovereign government.

Self-determination is by no means the only violated right, however. Environmental practices of the Arctic states consistently endanger the cultural traditions of indigenous peoples. As previously mentioned, various indigenous groups have claimed that environmental practices interfere with their culture. For instance, exploitation of natural resources in northern Scandinavia greatly disrupted the Sami reindeer trade before a series of agreements were put into place. Global warming is melting permafrost into impassable swamps or thinning ice sheets to the point that ages-old hunting grounds can no longer be used—many hunters have fallen through the ice in once-safe areas. Even well intentioned actions, such as the European Union ban on the seal trade in the 2000s, negatively impact indigenous peoples, as many Inuit whose occupation was the seal trade fell on hard times, and felt the ban to be an attack on their culture. To make matters worse, many factors indicate that climate change and resource exploitation in the Arctic will only increase in coming years. A US geological survey predicted that 25% of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas may lie in the Arctic, and in addition, Canada’s Northwest Passage and Russia’s Northern Sea Route have recently opened with the melting of sea ice.

The irony is that the people so negatively impacted by Arctic climate change, indigenous peoples of the north, are among the least polluting groups in the world. To say that the impacts of climate change are non-equitable—especially considering that the US, an Arctic state, is the world’s second-highest polluter—would be an understatement. Some of the very states that benefit economically from the current system are the ones with sovereignty in the Arctic and voting power on the Arctic Council. Companies have pointed out that this increase in Arctic activity could mean benefits for Arctic inhabitants, as they would profit from the increases in trade associated with more activity, but this argument fails to consider the interests of indigenous groups.

The degradation of indigenous environment, undermining of traditional values, and destruction of homes take an immense psychological and social toll on indigenous groups, such as a rise in rates of substance abuse, depression, and suicide rates. It is worth noting that while the suicide rates of indigenous populations in several Arctic countries are higher (in some cases even four times more) than the national average, the suicide rates of elderly indigenous are often lower than the national average. This suggests that elders, more steeped in the cultural traditions, have a significantly lower risk of suicide: there is a correlation between degradation of culture and suicide. In fact, the death rate among young indigenous men in the Arctic has been compared to that of an active war zone. Communal hunting, a staple of traditional indigenous activities in which elders pass on societal values to the youth, has also become far more difficult. In addition, the health of many indigenous groups is also declining, as the loss of hunting grounds and the slow extinction of traditional prey cause malnutrition or loss of livelihood.

Addressing the Issue

These indigenous rights are upheld to varying degrees across different Arctic regions. In general, indigenous enjoy the fewest rights in Russia and the most in North America and Greenland, with Scandinavia falling in between. In the latter areas, the extreme lack of basic human rights described above is less visible or applicable. Indigenous groups are often more assimilated into local politics, even if they lack a say in the central government or only maintain consultation powers. Regardless, the fact remains that these indigenous groups lack power over decisions that concern them. Indigenous peoples across the Arctic have taken action to represent themselves, from the ICC to the Sami Parliaments to the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North. Their actions are often unsuccessful because they have few points of leverage to use against large corporations or state governments: they have a minimal role in the traditional global economy and no hard governmental power. In states such as Russia, where economic incentives outweigh the importance of a small minority group, indigenous rights are often entirely ignored. Even in states more willing to compromise, areas that wish to grow their economies come into conflict with indigenous groups. On the whole, indigenous rights are not afforded the respect or legal power that all human rights should merit.

Several potential solutions to this issue do exist, though all would require political shifts or concessions on the part of the Arctic states. The key issue is sovereignty: many indigenous groups are fully or partially autonomous, but do not hold sovereignty. A change that would ameliorate this situation, without encroaching heavily on the rights of the Arctic states, would be to allow permanent participants to the Arctic Council veto power, or creating a precedent of free, prior, and informed consent. As Arctic Council decisions are not binding, this would not directly threaten state power, but would institutionalize indigenous control and demonstrate high levels of respect for their opinions. Another solution is demonstrated by Denmark’s approach to Greenland, allowing independence in a territory whose population is 90 percent indigenous. This option is less attractive to nations such as Sweden, where indigenous represent 2.5 percent of the population. It also comes into direct conflict with state sovereignty. A more moderate proposal would be to create local indigenous governments, ultimately subjected to the national government, which maintain significant control over their area. A third option is to create national park areas, where resource extraction is banned or limited, to maintain the traditional environment of these groups; as the UN admits, the cultural survival of these groups depends heavily on their rights to traditional lands and resources. Restricting the development of these areas and their wildlife would grant cultural security to the groups in those regions. Binding international laws would also ameliorate the situation, rather than volunteer efforts that can be halted at any time. As one scholar eloquently put it, “[international management] does not pose a threat to sovereignty. Just like states accept other international obligations, the Arctic, too, will be subject to international obligations.” This will be achieved if the UNDRIP becomes as institutionalized in international law as the UDHR has, or if all Arctic states sign a binding agreement to respect the rights and lives of their indigenous populations.

The key issue is sovereignty: many indigenous groups are fully or partially autonomous, but do not hold sovereignty.

A vast array of possible solutions exists, both political and environmental. Whatever the solution, the current situation is in violation of standard international law. Fundamental human and indigenous rights are subjugated to the interests of states, especially economic incentives. Though the governance of the Arctic and its native peoples is admittedly complicated, and a treaty system like that of Antarctica would never function with eight different states claiming sovereignty in the area, binding international obligations are required to protect these people who have gone without a voice for too long.