by NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on security prospects in the High North

  • 29 Jan. 2009
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  • Last updated: 09 Feb. 2009 12:27

Prime Minister,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for those kind words of introduction.

Prime Minister, allow me to start my comments this morning by thanking you for having organised this conference in cooperation with NATO and the NATO Defence College. The Alliance’s agenda recently appears to have been dominated by events in Afghanistan, the Caucasus and the Horn of Africa - areas that can rightly be described as “hot”. So it is very welcome to shift our attention to a colder region. Having said this, the very reason we are focusing on the High North is because it may not remain so cold in the future. Here in the High North, climate change is not a fanciful idea – it is already a reality – a reality that brings with it a certain number of challenges, including for NATO.

Today’s conference provides a unique opportunity for us to take a detailed look at some of those challenges; for us to consider potential developments; share views on the likely security implications; and identify possible roles for NATO. And I have to say that I am certain that the quality, and the quantity, of the attendees here today, is a guarantee for a most interesting and productive meeting.

Two weeks ago, Foreign Minister Støre of Norway treated the North Atlantic Council to an excellent presentation on a number of issues relating to the High North. Jonas, as you are speaking here later, I don’t want to plagiarise anything that you said on that occasion, nor to steal any of your thunder for later this morning. But your briefing certainly did improve my understanding of the issue, and allowed me to further develop my own thoughts.

I should therefore like to use my remarks this morning to provide some additional food for thought. Naturally, I would hope that there will be unanimous agreement with my views -- although experience tells me that that is an unlikely scenario. But, irrespective of your individual opinions, this seminar provides a most timely opportunity to learn more about a geographic region that has always been of great importance for the Alliance. And although the long-term implications of climate change and the retreating ice cap in the Arctic are still unclear, what is very clear is that the High North is going to require even more of the Alliance’s attention in the coming years.

Let me start, then, with some of my ideas on where to focus that attention from my perspective as Secretary General of NATO.

First, navigation. Certain sea routes that are currently only open for very limited periods of the year, or only useable with highly expensive ice-breaker ships, could become accessible for longer periods and without recourse to special vessels. Similarly, certain routes that are currently completely impassable might become commercially viable. And totally new routes might be discovered. All of these scenarios offer significantly shorter, and therefore cheaper, sea routes than many of those that currently require passage through the Suez or Panama canals.

An obvious conclusion is that we should expect to see increased shipping activity in the Arctic region. With increased human activity, the potential for accidents requiring search and rescue missions will also rise. With potentially more energy supplies being shipped rather than piped, we could equally see an increased risk of ecological disasters requiring relief operations. In both of these cases, I believe NATO has a clear role to play. Allied nations have the necessary capabilities and equipment to carry out such tasks, and our Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre has the necessary extensive experience to coordinate any relief effort, and support search and rescue operations.

The second issue is resources. As the ice-cap decreases, the possibility increases of extracting the High North’s mineral wealth and energy deposits. The estimates on the extent of these deposits vary considerably, as do the assessments over the commercial viability of exploration and extraction. Even if the temperatures should rise, this will still be a hostile climate and the resources far away from the markets. But if we do see increased activity in this sector, and in energy in particular, then the Alliance, although not exclusively, will need to take this into account.

At our Summit in Bucharest last year, we agreed a number of guiding principles for NATO’s role in energy security, as well as five specific areas for possible NATO involvement: information and intelligence fusion; projecting stability; advancing international and regional cooperation; supporting consequence management; and supporting the protection of critical infrastructure. These are all tasks, given by NATO Heads of State and Government, where NATO has a clear value-added to offer. And I believe they all have a particular relevance in the context of any increased energy activity in the High North.

The third issue is territorial claims. The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas is the legal framework that applies to the Arctic Ocean – a fact that was reiterated by the five Arctic coastal states at their meeting in Greenland last May. However, it is already clear that there are certain differences of opinion between the five states over the delineation of the 200 nautical mile limits of the Exclusive Economic Zones, as well as over the extension of the continental shelves. And as a former student of law, I am fully aware that many lawyers get rich from those kind of differences.

I am not for a moment suggesting that NATO should be an arbiter in any of these differences in opinion, nor over how to interpret the law. But I do believe that NATO provides a forum where four of the Arctic coastal states can inform, discuss, and share, any concerns that they may have. And this leads me directly onto the next issue, which is military activity in the region.

Responding to the changing environment, several Arctic Rim countries are strengthening their capabilities, and military activity in the High North region has been steadily increasing. It is understandable, and fully legitimate, for Allied nations to ask how we should approach, as an Alliance, but also as an international community, the military aspects of the High North.

Today’s seminar provides a perfect opportunity to consider some of the options.

Should NATO, as an organisation, as an Alliance, discuss the possibility of stepping up its focus in the region? And if so, what form should this take? It might be worthwhile conducting practice search and rescue operations, or even disaster relief exercises, addressing some of the possible scenarios I mentioned earlier and to acquaint the relevant staffs and personnel with the unique challenges presented by the Arctic conditions.

But irrespective of the options taken, I think we need to ensure transparency, build trust and work towards cooperation when it comes to these issues. And that includes with Russia. There is a solid foundation of cooperation, until now, between the Arctic countries. That should continue.

I think that NATO might also have a contribution to make. Of course, the Arctic Council should remain the focus for much of the discussions and cooperation amongst the Arctic rim states. However, once the conditions are right for resuming normal business with Russia in the NATO-Russia Council, and I hope we will see that development soon, I see merit in using that particular forum for including Russia in wider cooperation, and also as vital element in building mutual confidence. The Alliance and Russia have already acquired shared experiences in search and rescue, as well as in disaster management. I believe that these experiences could usefully be built upon, and expanded, to address common challenges in the High North region.

Before I conclude: The changes caused by the progressive melting of the ice cap are of concern to many countries beyond those of the Arctic Council and NATO. Indeed, the whole of the international community stands to be affected by many of the changes that are already taking place. In this situation, NATO needs to identify where the Alliance, with its unique competencies, can add value.

If the most appropriate role for NATO in the High North is as part of a “comprehensive approach”, involving other players like the Arctic Council and the EU, then we will need a better understanding of what is already happening, and what is likely to happen in the future. NATO should continue to monitor the developments, upgrade our knowledge and look for opportunities in our day to day business.

I would like to add a note of caution. The indivisibility of the security of Allies has always been a core principle of NATO. And it’s a principle we ignore at our peril. Clearly, the High North is a region that is of strategic interest to the Alliance. But so are the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean. There are many regions -- but there is only one NATO. And we must ensure that, as we look today at the High North, and perhaps in the future at other regions, we do not get drawn down the path of regionalisation – because that is the path to fragmentation. And that is a path we must avoid at all costs.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me to conclude.

Prime Minister, again, thank you for having taken the initiative and for having organised today’s seminar. As you have already reminded us, we are here today, not in response to a specific threat, but in response to a change, and with a view to developing a better understanding of that change. Today’s seminar is a valuable opportunity for us all to learn more about some of the challenges faced in this unique and vital region for the Alliance. And it is a most timely opportunity to consider how NATO can add value to the international community’s efforts to address those challenges.

I shall look forward to your discussions, and wish you all an enjoyable and informative day.

Thank you.