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(Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
(Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Michael Byers

Why Stephen Harper should fly to Greenland Add to ...

Stephen Harper is facing the first diplomatic dilemma of his new majority government.

On Thursday, foreign ministers from seven other polar countries will meet in Nuuk, Greenland, for an Arctic Council summit. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be there. So, too, will Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

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But Mr. Harper doesn't have a foreign minister to send. Lawrence Cannon was defeated in last week's federal election, and a new cabinet won't be sworn in for at least another week.

No MP possesses Mr. Cannon's knowledge of Arctic foreign policy or has such impressive diplomatic contacts. Mr. Cannon had forged strong relationships with the key Russians, Americans, Norwegians and Danes. He had also been the force behind last summer's Arctic Foreign Policy Statement, which emphasized negotiation and co-operation and was approved by the cabinet.

So what should the Prime Minister do?

The Arctic Council is too important for Canada to send anyone other than a senior minister.

Canada led the establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996 as a means of promoting diplomacy between Russia, the United States and other northern countries in the uncertain period after the Cold War.

This week's summit includes a milestone in that process: the signing of a new multilateral search-and-rescue treaty that was negotiated under the joint leadership of Moscow and Washington. The agreement will require Arctic countries to co-ordinate their responses in the event of a plane crash or other accident, so that assets and personnel from either side of an international boundary will be available to help save lives.

The summit will also include an important discussion of whether to accord permanent observer status to the European Union and China. Two years ago, consideration of applications from the EU and China was postponed in response to the EU's ban on the importation of Canadian seal products. Yet, the EU and China are potentially important allies for the Arctic countries, since both have recognized the considerable rights over oil, gas and fisheries held by Arctic states under the Law of the Sea.

The issue of offshore oil-and-gas development will figure prominently in the discussions - so much so that U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will also attend.

Canada has strong interests here, with oil companies lobbying hard for regulatory certainty on both sides of the disputed boundary between Canada and the U.S. in the Beaufort Sea.

A Scottish company is already drilling for oil on the Greenland side of the Canadian-Danish boundary in Davis Strait, creating environmental risks for the coasts of Nunavut and Labrador.

The Inuit Circumpolar Council, one of six indigenous groups that hold "permanent participant" status at the Arctic Council, is about to issue a declaration that calls on the Arctic states to set up an emergency fund for dealing with oil spills.

The ministers will also discuss whether to create a permanent secretariat for the Arctic Council. Administration of the council currently rotates every two years among the member states.

The creation of a permanent secretariat would transform the council from an ongoing series of meetings into a fully fledged international organization. A stronger council would provide a forum for the negotiation of additional treaties on critical issues such as fisheries management in the Arctic Ocean. It would also eliminate the need for alternative arrangements such as the Arctic 5, a grouping of Arctic Ocean coastal states that has met twice against the objections of the other three Arctic countries - Iceland, Sweden and Finland - as well as the Inuit.

For years, any move toward the creation of a permanent secretariat was blocked by Washington, which worried that a new international organization might interfere with its security interests. But it recently changed its position, with Ms. Clinton expressing support for a permanent secretariat during a meeting in Chelsea, Que., last year.

Canada, which takes over as the chair of the Arctic Council in 2013, will wish to advance Ottawa as a possible host city for the permanent secretariat. But it will be difficult to make the case effectively without a senior minister in attendance at the Greenland summit.

Fortunately, there's a solution. One minister with the necessary stature and knowledge is already in place: The Prime Minister should attend the Arctic Council summit himself.

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He is a project leader with ArcticNet, a federally funded consortium of scientists from 27 universities and eight federal departments.

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