23 November 2009
I would like to thank all of you for participating today in this seminar on “Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Greenland.”
It is a great honour for me to share my thoughts with you about the rights and responsibilities of Greenlanders and the roles that must be played by the international community – as well as the Greenland government – so that these rights are recognized by them.
The organization that advocates for the rights of Inuit in Greenland and in fact advocates for the rights of all Inuit across the Arctic is the Inuit Circumpolar Council, or ICC. ICC represents 160,000 Inuit on matters of international concern, the Arctic environment and human rights. ICC is active within many international bodies, including the eight-nation Arctic Council, where we and five other indigenous peoples’ organizations have permanent participant status, which means we sit at the same table as ministers and senior Arctic officials and contribute at all levels of the Arctic Council’s activities. ICC is the only indigenous people’s organization in Greenland and the only one in the kingdom of Denmark. It plays an enormously important role in drawing the world’s attention to indigenous peoples and the invaluable contributions they can make to international processes for global peace and prosperity.
The Inuit Circumpolar Council was founded to promote Inuit unity, to promote the protection of the Arctic environment, and to make sure Inuit are involved in policy-making and in the development plans others have in mind for our homeland.
Throughout the centuries of being ruled by Denmark, the Inuit of Greenland have struggled to gain recognition and respect as a people. In 1979, Greenland became a self-governing area of the Danish Commonwealth and a form of Home Rule was established.
In the November 2008 referendum, we voted overwhelmingly in favour of greater autonomy. On 21 June 2009, the areas of Greenland’s self-government expanded greatly, to include judicial affairs, policing and natural resources. The Danish State recognized Greenlanders as a people, as understood in international law, and Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) became Greenland’s sole official language. These changes represent the latest steps in Greenland’s journey toward full independence from Denmark.
In our ongoing journey toward autonomy and self-government, Greenlanders recognize that our capacity to achieve sustainable development, in the face of many enormous challenges, is dependent on our ability to work in partnership with the international community. Active partnerships with governments, NGOs, and leaders in the science and business communities can produce economic benefits for us and help to ensure that the Arctic’s physical, cultural and social environments do not suffer irreversible harm. But to be successful, these partnerships must be founded on a deep and mutual understanding of, and respect for, the rights of all human beings and the particular rights of Inuit as an indigenous people.
Immense changes have taken place in the last 60 years in the degree of global awareness and understanding of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples themselves have learned a great deal about the concerns of indigenous peoples in other parts of the world, and the international community has increasingly acknowledged these concerns.
In 1965, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination affirmed in 1997 that it continues to monitor all signatories to the Convention and to remind them that all appropriate means must be taken to combat and eliminate any discrimination against indigenous peoples.
In 1966, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, stating that “all peoples have the right of self-determination,” was adopted by the UN General Assembly. The Covenant also states that “in no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.”
In 1975, a historic meeting of indigenous leaders from around the world was held in Port Alberni, British Columbia, Canada. We found that many of us had similar stories of oppression to tell – stories of our languages being eliminated, our cultures stolen, our people eradicated. We shared too the ways in which some of our cultures were flourishing. We shared our hopes and concerns and made a commitment to work together toward our common goals.
The International Labour Organisation Convention 169, also entitled the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, was passed in 1989 and states that governments shall acknowledge indigenous peoples’ right of ownership over their traditional lands and the natural resources obtained from their lands so as to protect the economic, political and spiritual interests of indigenous peoples. It also emphasizes that the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples shall be obtained before any development projects are approved.
In 1992, the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights was held. There we met and agreed to push for a high-level United Nations body that would put indigenous peoples front and center – inside and near the top of the UN decision-making process, and not at the bottom, lost in the huge UN bureaucracy. In July 2000, after a decade of organized work and focussed resolve, we established the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), where eight members nominated by indigenous peoples sit on equal footing with eight members nominated by member states. Together, these sixteen members listen to thousands of indigenous individuals and organizations that gather at UN headquarters for two weeks every year. The Permanent Forum makes decisions and recommendations that are put forward directly to the UN’s Economic and Social Committee (ECOSOC), which in turn reports to the General Assembly.
Since 1983, indigenous peoples from around the world have been working with UN member states to draft a UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. After much compromise and difficult negotiation, we finally had a draft that was adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in June of 2006. Then the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the Russian Federation actively lobbied African states and others to vote against it in the UN General Assembly, asking for further study. The Declaration simply calls for indigenous peoples globally to have what others have – access to lands and resources, for example. Finally, in September 2007, the Declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly. It was a huge victory and there was great celebration. Still, the struggle leading up to this Declaration was long and painful. So much compromise was required for it to be adopted by the UN General Assembly that many indigenous peoples did not want to support it, and quite a few countries abstained from voting.
There is still a long, arduous road ahead. An enormous, long-term effort on the part of indigenous peoples and their supporters will be required to ensure that indigenous peoples participate as active partners in the international system and that the rights, roles and responsibilities of indigenous peoples are fully recognized and accommodated in international partnerships.
Efforts on the part of Inuit to participate in domestic and international political systems have faced enormous obstacles. For a very long time, Inuit were largely ignored by governments and industry when it came to decision-making about our lands and territories. Time and time again, political and development decisions were taken without consulting us. We did not have a say. And these decisions had often unwanted and sometimes disastrous effects on our education, economic development and cultural expression.
In 1977, Eben Hopson, an Iñupiaq leader from the north slope of Alaska, invited a small group of Inuit from Greenland and Canada to meet with Inuit from Alaska. They shared similar organizing stories, and they created the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (now called the Inuit Circumpolar Council or ICC) to represent all Inuit.
Inuit are a people. We span a geographical area from Greenland to Arctic Canada, Alaska and the coastal regions of Chukotka, Russia. And we include several thousands of Inuit living in Denmark and in urban areas of Alaska and Canada. We are 160,000 strong, have one language, share one culture, and approach matters related to our Arctic environment in similar ways. ICC was created to not only foster and celebrate Inuit unity – something that had eluded us for hundreds of years due to the artificial boundaries drawn among us – but also to represent all Inuit on matters of international concern, environment and human rights. We knew these matters needed a collective response, especially in the Arctic.
Since its creation, the Inuit Circumpolar Council has used its UN consultative status and its role as a permanent participant on the Arctic Council to promote the international interests of Inuit. Today, Inuit enjoy the rights of all peoples recognized by the Charter of the United Nations, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, the Human Rights Council, the Arctic Council, and the Organization of American States. Inuit also enjoy the rights of all indigenous peoples recognized by the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
Though the international community increasingly acknowledges the rights of Inuit as an indigenous people, we continue to face enormous challenges that threaten our very survival.
Greenland is a country undergoing change at an unprecedented rate. The decisions we make over the next few decades will have an enormous impact on our survival and identity as an indigenous people.
The problem is that we are currently basing many of our decisions on the shifting interests, values and priorities of the larger world outside Greenland, rather than on the ancient and long-standing values of our Inuit culture. To build our future on a solid foundation, we need to understand who we are and who we have been as an indigenous people. We need to understand our position and our role as a people recognized, in national forums and in the international system, as indigenous. We need to ask some very hard questions about who we want to be in the future, about the nature of our rights and the rights of all living beings. We need to ensure that our decisions and the decisions of the global community are informed by a better understanding of our culture, our traditional knowledge, our rights, our responsibilities, and our identity as an indigenous people. And we need to forge meaningful and mutually respectful partnerships with scientists, policy-makers, business leaders and other indigenous peoples to meet the challenges that face our Inuit communities in Greenland and the entire global community.
While various institutions in Greenland are conducting research and educational activities that are relevant to these concerns, there is currently no institution in Greenland solely dedicated to addressing domestic and international policy issues from the perspective of the indigenous culture of Greenland and our rights as an indigenous people, our fundamental rights as human beings, our human rights. There is an enormous need for a focussed effort to ask and answer the difficult ethical questions surrounding the survival, well-being and rights of Greenland Inuit as an indigenous people. There is an enormous need for a better understanding, particularly among our young people, of the nature of Inuit culture and traditional Inuit knowledge and the ways in which we can draw strength from our traditions to help us successfully address the formidable challenges facing us now and in the future. There is an enormous need for Greenland Inuit to be heard on the global stage and to be able to contribute their expertise to decisions that will affect the global community.
To meet these needs, ICC Greenland has made a commitment to develop an Arctic Centre for Human Rights. This Centre will play a unique and crucial role in the decision-making processes of Greenlandic and international bodies by drawing attention to the importance of indigenous communities and the contributions they can make to the well-being of the planet and its peoples.
There should be no doubt in our minds that Greenland culture is an indigenous culture and that the majority of Greenlanders are an indigenous people with a long history of adaptation to changing physical environments and social circumstances, a valuable store of traditional knowledge, and an enormous capacity to contribute to solutions proposed by the international community to address global problems. Our government must embrace the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it must use the Declaration to ensure that our rights, responsibilities and identity as an indigenous people inform all decisions made on our behalf, and it must form partnerships with other governments, communities, experts and indigenous peoples to meet the challenges that face Greenland now and in the future.
Greenland has long been a beacon of hope for indigenous peoples around the world. It is an inspiration to other indigenous peoples who long to exercise their right to self-determination and regain the autonomy they had before they were colonized.
The Government of Greenland should lead the world in implementing the human rights instruments pertaining to indigenous peoples. I challenge the government directly on this, and I challenge us as Greenlanders to hold them to it. Greenland should take immediate steps to sign on to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other relevant international agreements, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the ILO Convention 169 (which was ratified by Denmark in 1996 after Greenland was heard). Our government officials must become familiar with the articles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ensure that each of the rights enshrined there is respected in our country.
The human rights instruments described earlier uphold the right to self-determination and the responsibility of governments to obtain free, prior, and informed consent from indigenous peoples before approving development projects on their lands. The Government of Greenland is obligated to obtain free, prior, and informed consent from the communities affected by development initiatives and projects. I hope that the Government of Greenland will show leadership by ensuring that this principle is not only upheld, but championed and promoted.
The Government of Greenland should also be a world leader in stewardship of the environment and in taking a truly sustainable approach to economic development. Inuit have been living in the Arctic for millennia. We need to develop in such a way that we can be healthy and prosperous for many generations to come. If our communities, our hunters, or our elders question the sustainability of a development project, we should listen to them and demand that industries meet higher standards of sustainability.
As we move forward into an uncertain, challenging future, ICC Greenland will continue playing a leadership role in promoting the rights of Inuit and indigenous peoples internationally. And we will continue to challenge the Government of Greenland to consider how its policies and actions affect Inuit in Canada, Alaska, and Russia, and how they affect indigenous peoples globally.