The Agreement on Cooperation in Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic – otherwise known as the SAR Agreement – signed by the eight Arctic States (Canada, United States, Russia, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden) in 2011 is wrongly considered binding on the Arctic Council. In fact, it is binding on the signatory states.

However, if it were not for the working groups and task forces of the Arctic Council that are dedicated to wrestling with issues that impact the Arctic (the climate, the people and the ecosystem), such a common sense agreement would likely not have come to fruition so quickly – especially remarkable given that the Arctic Council makes decisions by consensus, a process not known for speed and collaboration.

The SAR Agreement is modest by all accounts. Essentially, it is an agreement to: a) share information about the search and rescue capabilities each state has, including where these assets are positioned; b) to agree to come to the aid of each other when national capabilities are overwhelmed, poorly positioned, otherwise occupied, etc., and c) conduct joint exercises to improve/establish interoperability between different militaries and civilian search and rescue agencies.

The Arctic Council and its working groups (for example, the sustainable development working group) will help to coordinate much of the background work that will ensure that the eight states can honour their commitments. The SAR Agreement is not, however, an aberration to established rules with respect to maritime, land and airspace boundaries or any relevant national laws. First and foremost, it underlines the customary understanding about disasters in a polar geography that kills – the closest available asset (public or private) rescues first and deals with the ins and outs of compensation, jurisdiction and the like, after.

Point A – to share information – is often dismissed as simply a data collection exercise. However, this is a major undertaking that includes the whereabouts and status of airfields, facilities, personnel, hospitals/clinics, fueling and supply services, coordination centres and communication assets, not to mention sharing procedures, training practices and information about equipment. And more important than the accounting is the requirement of states to analyse national capabilities, hopefully encouraging renewed and sustained attention to them, and promote their establishment, operation and maintenance.

Point B – to aid others – while common sense, is largely thanks to the goodwill and spirit of cooperation that the Arctic Council engenders. Considering that five of the eight states are NATO members while three (Russia, Sweden and Finland) are not was thought to be an impediment to sharing (often military-related) information, let alone agreeing to allow foreign SAR agencies to operate in national jurisdictions. The SAR Agreement, however, emphasizes that all SAR activities will respect the laws of the state in whose jurisdiction the disaster occurs, that the incursions will be temporary and communicated to the state in question, and for the sole purpose of rescuing people and vessels/aircrafts/other craft regardless of nationality.

Point C – to participate in joint exercises – is a boon for all search and rescue agencies around the world. Lessons learned from these activities (for example the table top exercise held in Whitehorse in 2011 with the eight Arctic states) highlight invaluable lessons that can then be communicated via other international organizations like the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and various UN agencies as well as other states. For example, an identified problem is how to land/takeoff new, larger, commercial aviation fleets on the gravel Arctic runways. The answer is they cannot or rather, should not, but not everyone is aware of these limitations. The same can be said of the need for tourist vessels to sail in tandem. The joint exercises prompted under the aegis of the Arctic Council are invaluable to further knowledge and cooperation.

So what role does the Arctic Council play now that the Agreement is signed? The answer is a continued and very necessary role. For example, the Institute of the North has prepared for one of the Arctic Council working groups a survey entitled: The Arctic Maritime and Aviation Transportation Infrastructure Initiative (AMATII), an inventory of critical assets in the Arctic’s aviation and maritime environment. The Institute brought together Arctic states, private businesses and technical experts to begin the analysis.

It would be a duplication of effort to have every state create an Arctic inventory of other state capabilities. And to task the IMO, ICOA and other organizations to tease out only the Arctic-relevant asset information would be hopeless; such a request would likely languish in someone’s inbox for months and months.

However, the Arctic Council is uniquely suited and prepared, especially now that it has a permanent secretariat, to help to ensure such inventories are completed. And given that all indications suggest increased activity, development and operations in the Arctic, keeping the lists of capabilities up-to-date in a timely manner will require the sustained attention of a smaller committee like those of the Arctic Council.

So what is Canada’s role vis-à-vis the Agreement, especially given its upcoming chairmanship of the Arctic Council beginning in May 2013 to 2015? Canada’s role internationally, via the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Minister Leona Aglukkaq and our Senior Arctic Representative, Ms. Sigrid Anna Johnson, is to ensure that the Arctic Council’s committees and task forces have the funds and resources to complete their work and to continue to help remind the eight Arctic states to complete their SAR analyses, especially evaluating capabilities. (Liaising with other organizations, for example with the IMO and ICAO, may be appropriate, although the Arctic Council has no observer status with these organizations and vice versa.) Ensuring the SAR Agreement is ultimately implemented, however, falls to the eight states, not the Arctic Council.

For National Defence and the Canadian Forces, it means that they must continue to coordinate with civilian counterparts in the Coast Guard, Transportation, RCMP, Meteorological Service of Canada and Parks Canada to ensure interoperability and that appropriate agreements – for example, can the CF commandeer private assets, like runways and equipment, to aid rescues? – and communication links are in place.

One of the major misunderstandings about SAR in Canada is that the CF is the lead agency for all rescues – in most cases it is Transportation or Fisheries and Oceans (via the Coast Guard) or provincial and local municipal police. What the SAR Agreement adds is the potential for additional linkages to be made with foreign military and civilian agencies. In practice, this is done routinely, especially given Canada’s close collaboration and binational arrangements with the U.S. It is highly conceivable that, in the future, the CF would pilot one of its patrol vessels while carrying onboard Canadian and foreign search and rescue personnel from other departments, for example, personnel from the Danish Maritime Authority given the close proximity of Canada to Greenland.

The CF and DND would be comfortable with such an arrangement – they routinely work with foreign personnel. For the Canadian public, however, this will be a rude awakening. Many have no idea about programs like Shiprider or the fact that military exercises routinely involve foreign military (not to mention the number of foreign military officers Canada hosts from Asia, the Middle East, Europe, etc., via its Staff College).

The most difficult part about the SAR Agreement (besides the usual funding and resource bêtes noires) will be managing Canadian political and public expectations concerning the CF’s role. And given the current government’s predilection to use alarmist rhetoric to describe all operations in the North as military-like or military-led means the busiest DND and CF personnel will be in public relations.

Andrea Charron is assistant professor in the Political Studies department at the University of Manitoba. She holds a PhD from the Royal Military College of Canada and completed her postdoctorate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University (