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Permanent Arctic Council Secretariat opens Monday

The offices of the new permanent Arctic Council Secretariat, which will open in Tromsø on Monday.

TROMSØ: As Arctic sea ice melts, so the workload of the Arctic Council grows. But starting Monday, there’ll be more people around to help.

Location

That’s when the Arctic Council’s new permanent secretariat opens its doors in Tromsø in northern Norway.

As the scope of the Arctic Council has grown in recent years—it now has more working groups, meetings and observer states than ever before—the workload required to support its work has increased to match.

The chairmanship—that heads the Arctic Council—will continue to rotate between the eight circumpolar states, but the new secretariat will be the Council’s permanent administrative center.

New director Magnus Johannesson says that in the Council’s early days, it was common to have about a dozen people attending each working group meeting. Now, that number has swelled to more than 50 people participating in an average meeting. He says that’s a result of the growing importance of the organization.

I think it shows that the work of the Artic Council has been extremely comprehensive and extensive,” he says, so there is “a greater need than before to have a permanent secretariat.”

Johannesson, who started in February, is the former Secretary General of the Icelandic Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources. But he’s no stranger to the Arctic Council, having chaired one of the working groups and co-chaired an experts group.

While the chair and the member states make decisions, the secretariat will be responsible for all the tasks required to put those decisions into practice, from arranging meetings to answering questions. It will also act as an important archive of the goings-on of the now 16-year old organization.

Although Tromsø has housed a temporary secretariat for the last six years—during the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian chairmanships—this new permanent version is officially a part of the Arctic Council and is charged with serving all member states. 

In addition to Johannesson, there will eventually be about five people permanently employed by the Secretariat. Costs will be shared by all Arctic Council members.

The Arctic Council brings together countries from around the globe under an ever-shifting leadership, so having a single administrative base will help smooth the transition between chairmanships and allow each new chair to hit the ground running. 

But the establishment of a permanent Secretariat is also motivated by a need for more information. The Arctic Council is first and foremost a forum for discussing and studying environmental and social change in the high north, but Johannesson says not everyone knows that. 

“I think that’s a common concern in the Arctic Council,” he says, that too few people know about the work that they do.

“This portends to the world as a whole,” he adds, “because a lot of the challenges that we have in the Arctic are also relevant to other countries.”

As a result, a big part of the new Secretariat’s job will be communication and outreach.

And they’re in a good place to do that. The new secretariat is located in the Fram Centre—otherwise known as the High North Research Centre for Climate and the Environment—a building right on the water in Tromsø that is home to many of the world’s leading polar experts. It’s a fitting location for a secretariat focused on the North.

We are in the same building as the Norwegian Polar Institute,” Johannesson notes, “so it’s a very good working environment.”

But at the end of the day, the secretariat is all about taking care of the administrative details that comes with Arctic Council work, to free up the circumpolar states to focus on what’s really important: discussing the future of the Arctic.

“If we can do that,” Johannesson says, “we will be quite satisfied.”