A snapshot of Greenland and international law

Just who are the Greenlandic peoples and how should they see themselves in the world? Issues of colonisation, self-identity and nationality were discussed with heart and soul during the question time of a public lecture by international human rights lawyer Professor Gudmundur Alfredsson yesterday.

Held at the University of Greenland, the public lecture on international law and the rights of indigenous peoples easily filled out the university’s largest lecture theatre containing about 65 seats. It’s easy to see why it’s a sensitive topic. On one side, it’s accepted that Greenland was colonised and is still integrated in the Kingdom of Denmark. Although it became a self-governing country a few years ago, its national budget is still heavily financed by Denmark. National matters such as security, the judicial system and education are also governed by Denmark, although it’s widely accepted that Greenland is working its way towards independence. Recently however, there has been a political rise in discussion that Greenland should be for Greenlanders, with a total rejection of its colonial past.

From what I can understand, Greenland seems to be riding a big wave of nationalism having just had its national election. The majority of the people living outside the capital city voted in the new government, which had aligned itself firmly on the side of the traditional hunters and fishermen and ‘Greenland for Greenlanders’. The previous government was tougher, moving to make economic and social reforms to the country that would allow it to progress in this global society. However, the government didn’t communicate their efforts well enough to those living in the settlements. In effect, many people didn’t understand how the former government’s attempts to change policies would benefit them. So they lost their vote.

How Greenlanders see themselves and should strive to be seen by the world was a theme in the lecture; and Icelandic Professor Alfredsson used a framework to show different levels of self-determination. Refugees and migrant workers have the least influence to decide their place in the world while indigenous groups under international law have traditional rights which cover land and resource rights. ‘Peoples’ sit at the top of the ladder. These are usually nations, who have the greatest right to self-determination.


According to current law, the Greenlandic people are an indigenous group of Denmark. However, Alfredsson argues that Greenland should be considered a ‘people’ with the right to self-determination because there was a flaw during the process of integration of Greenland into Denmark in 1953. By international law, the Greenlanders were supposed to be included in the consultation process but weren’t.

If recognised as such, they would have three choices as a nation-state: to seek independence from Denmark (like when the Soviet Union broke up), seek free association, (like Puerto Rico and the USA) or to integrate (like Tahiti and France).

The idea of responsibility was raised. Why did the Danes list Greenland as a colonial society in 1945 but exclude the Faroe Islands, another part of the Kingdom? Alfredsson suggested that perhaps a form of reverse racism existed. Since the Faroese were also white, the Danes were more prone to believe that the Faroese were capable of looking after themselves. Meanwhile, the people of Greenland needed protecting because they were a ‘darker’ skinned’ people. I wonder if it’s more complicated than that.

To conclude, Alfredsson proposed more questions: when in time Greenland gets complete independence, would those in power have to protect the rights of different indigenous groups within the population? Also, would they continue to politically and economically associate with Europe, or shift into a North American identity? These are large looming questions for the future, which would help to shape Greenland’s place in the next century.

I was very much looking forward to question time, expecting more controversy surrounding these topics. Somewhat surprisingly, there was no lively debate of Alfredsson’s more general, non-legalese statements as the audience proved a very agreeable one. I guess I’m used to the Australian events where contention of the speaker’s points is expected to make way for an informed and critical discussion. The consensus was that if Greenland wanted to be independent, they needed more highly educated people, including lawyers and international workers who could help with moving in this direction. Another development discussed by the University’s Rector Tine Pars during question time was the establishment of a law school in Greenland – to develop the heavily needed human capital.

I think I ended up with more unanswered questions than answers from this lecture, but hope that more thought provoking public events like this will be available for people to attend. It’s something debated in politics, so it should also be debated in the public sphere!



6 thoughts on “A snapshot of Greenland and international law

  1. Pingback: A new era for mining in Greenland: uranium ban lifted | The Fourth Continent

  2. Pingback: One second video: Two months in Greenland | The Fourth Continent

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