Worldwide: The Arctic Council’s Search And Rescue Agreement: A Milestone

Last Updated: December 28 2011
Article by Robert Wilkins

Most Read Contributor in Canada, September 2016

The Arctic Council (consisting of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the U.S.A.) achieved a milestone in its short history on May 12, 2011 by concluding, in Nuuk, Greenland, the "Agreement on cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic". This "SAR Agreement" is the Council's first legally binding international agreement, and resulted from years of effort by the Council's staff and the governments of the Arctic Council's Member States (the "Parties").

The Agreement aims to strengthen cooperation and coordination in the Arctic in aeronautical and maritime search and rescue operations carried out on the "territory" of the Parties (meaning their respective land areas, internal waters and territorial seas, together with the superjacent airspace). Such operations are to be carried out on the basis of the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue 1979 (the "SAR Convention") and the Convention on International Civil Aviation 1944 (the "Chicago Convention"), with additional guidelines provided by the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue Manual (the "IAMSAR Manual").

Search and rescue regions are defined for each Party, which are required to establish, operate and maintain an "adequate and effective search and rescue capability" within precisely defined areas of their territory. The "Competent Authority" of each Party is also identified, Canada's being the Minister of National Defence. The agencies responsible for search and rescue are also identified for each Party, which in Canada's case are the Canadian Forces and the Canadian Coast Guard. The aeronautical and maritime "rescue coordination center" ("RCC") of each Party is identified. In Canada, the RCC is the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Trenton, Ontario.

Parties may request permission to enter the territory of other Parties for search and rescue purposes (including refueling), and must be advised as soon as possible whether such entry has been permitted and, if so, under what conditions, if any, the mission may be undertaken. The most expeditious border crossing procedure possible, according to law and international obligations, shall apply in such cases.

The Parties are required by the Agreement to exchange information that improves the effectiveness of search and rescue operations (e.g. re communications; search and rescue, fueling, supply and medical facilities; airfields and ports and their refueling and resupply capabilities). They must also promote cooperation, giving consideration to collaboration on many matters (e.g. exchanges of experience and visits, sharing of observations, ship reporting systems, information systems, support services, joint research and development initiatives and exercises). The Parties must meet regularly to consider and resolve issues of practical cooperation. Joint reviews of major joint search and rescue operations are encouraged after such operations have been conducted.

It is to be hoped that the Arctic Council States will implement this Agreement quickly and that it will contribute significantly to enhancing the safety of both shipping and aviation in the far northern regions of our planet. The adoption of the Agreement suggests that in future, the Arctic Council will play a more significant role in creating a new, cooperative and constructive legal regime for the Arctic. In this regard, it is significant that the Council, in its Nuuk Declaration, announced its intention to establish a Task Force to report to Senior Arctic Officials on the development of an international instrument on Arctic marine oil pollution preparedness and response. It also urges the IMO to complete its work on the long-awaited mandatory polar code.


In addition to adopting "SAR" in the Arctic, the Arctic Council set forth the specifics of its work program for the next few years, in its Nuuk Declaration of May 12, thus setting the course for the Council's future work in improving the life of the Arctic peoples and their circumpolar environment. The following are some highlights of the Nuuk Declaration:

Establishing a permanent secretariat for the Arctic Council, in Tromsø, Norway, no later than 2013, when Canada again assumes chairmanship of the Council.

  • Establishing a task force to implement decisions strengthening the Arctic Council.
  • Adopting criteria to evaluate pending applications for observer status in the Arctic Council (e.g. from China and the European Union).
  • Developing a Strategic Communications Plan for the Council.
  • Recognizing the need to improve the physical and mental health and well-being of the Arctic's indigenous peoples and residents and to assess human development in the Arctic.
  • Instructing Senior Arctic Officials (the body that directs the Council's work, meeting every six months) to consider how best to follow up on the recommendations made by the "SWIPA" Report on "Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic", in view of climate change as it affects the cryosphere.
  • Supporting the reduction of black carbon and other emissions and establishing a "Short-Lived Climate Forcer Contaminants project steering group" to conduct circumpolar demonstration projects to reduce such emissions.
  • Supporting intergovernmental negotiations of the UN Environment Program towards a global agreement on reducing mercury emissions.
  • Approving use of traditional knowledge of the Arctic's indigenous peoples in measures to address climate change.
  • Establishing an expert group on ecosystem-based management of the Arctic environment.
  • Working on an Arctic marine oil pollution preparedness and response agreement; calling for the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group to develop best practices for the prevention of marine oil pollution; and encouraging Senior Arctic Officials to consider that Working Group's report, "Behavior of Oil and Other Hazardous Substances in Arctic Waters".
  • Supporting the SAR Agreement and urging the IMO to complete its mandatory polar code for Arctic shipping.
  • Fostering the Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks (SAON) process for enhancing scientific observations and data-sharing and promoting the "Knowledge to Action" Conference in Montréal in 2012 (the concluding event of the International Polar Year).
  • Inviting Senior Arctic Officials to consider supporting the proposal for an "International Polar Decade" to undertake further research on the Arctic environment, in light of the speed of climate change.
  • Encouraging continuing support for the University of Arctic on its tenth anniversary.
  • Reiterating the need for adequate financing of circumpolar cooperation and the participation of the six Permanent Participants (indigenous groups) in Arctic Council structures and projects.
  • Committing the Arctic Council to continued cooperation with "other relevant bodies".

The Arctic Council's work program represents a major strategic plan for addressing a host of concerns.

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