The Danish government is violating agreements on indigenous peoples’ rights by not dealing with American pollution in Greenland

By Vittus Qujaukitsoq - October 19, 2016

Along the coasts and under the ice sheet of Greenland, extensive pollution has been left behind by the Americans over the 75 years where they have had military installations in our country. As an indigenous people and in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the people of Greenland have the right to conservation and protection of the environment of our lands, territories and resources. This right may be put to the test unless the question about the responsibility for clearing up after the American military camps and bases is resolved very soon.

Greenland’s Minister for Industry, Labour, Trade and Foreign Affairs Vittus Qujaukitsoq (Department of Foreign Affairs / Government of Greenland )
Greenland’s Minister for Industry, Labour, Trade and Foreign Affairs Vittus Qujaukitsoq (Department of Foreign Affairs / Government of Greenland )

This can come as no surprise to the Danish government. In 2003, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency mapped various types of abandoned military facilities in Greenland that were likely to contain abandoned waste, environmentally harmful substances, oil or other pollutants. The mapping showed that there were more than 30 different installations of American military origin across Greenland.

This summer, a much quoted international report entitled ‘The abandoned ice sheet base at Camp Century, Greenland, in a warming climate’ by William Colgan et al was published in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters. The report documents that at one of the abandoned American facilities in Greenland, more than 9,200 tons of physical waste have been left behind as buildings and railway, along with 200,000 liters of diesel fuel and PCBs, and more than 24,000,000 liters of sewage water and low-level radioactive wastewater (coolant from an American nuclear generator) stored in unlined sumps.

The report also documents that in case of further ablation of the ice sheet in Greenland, there is a risk of leakage and pollution. As the scientists point out in their report, unfortunately neither the waste disposal nor the radioactive pollution of the area is remarkable in a Greenland context.

While major efforts have been made to remove similar pollution – particularly PCBs – from the majority of the 63 former American Distant Early Warning (DEW) bases constructed across the Arctic Circle, especially in Arctic Canada and Alaska, Camp Century is one of five abandoned bases in the area around Thule Air Base where no effort has been made in relation to PCBs and other environmentally hazardous substances.

In relation to the actual radioactive pollution at Camp Century, the scientists’ report further notes that while radiation from the low-level radioactive wastewater at Camp Century is non-trivial in absolute terms, the radiation from here remains small compared to the radioactivity dispersed at the plane crash in 1968, which also happened in this part of Greenland.

This fact is of small comfort to the people who still live in the area today. These are typically people whose livelihood is based on hunting and fishing in nature and who have had to accept an enormous uncertainty throughout all these years about the security of their livelihood and their health in the environment in which they live.

According to the scientists, the most serious environmental and health hazard at Camp Century is not radioactivity, but the oil and PCB pollution. To the Government of Greenland, the fact that Camp Century is just one of more than 30 abandoned military installations across Greenland where similar problems may be found is a source of very deep concern.

Here in Greenland, we have been requesting a clarification from the Danish government for several years. Particularly since January 2014 after being alerted by independent scientists to the risk of leakage from Camp Century, Greenland has repeatedly sought a clarification from the Danish government as to when Denmark will honour its responsibility for the abandoned waste from the American military installations in Greenland.

Since 2014, we have specifically demanded to be informed about the impact of the pollution on the environment, marine life and, not least, on the present and future generations of Greenlanders and their health. These questions have yet to be answered, and so far, nobody has been held responsible for their activities in Greenland.

The government of the United States of America has formally handed over the military installations to Denmark. And this is why Denmark is formally responsible for handling clearing up and any due compensation for damages, unless something else has been agreed between Denmark and the USA, of which Greenland has no knowledge. Having waited in many cases more than 70 years for the polluter to take care of clearing up or paying for such operations, Greenland is losing its patience with changing Danish governments’ vague response.

Pursuant to the Act on Greenland Self-Government of 2009, Denmark has recognised the Greenlandic people as a people in accordance with international law. This means that in accordance with ILO Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, Denmark is under an obligation to protect the Greenlandic people as an indigenous people. This also involves, among other things, our right to our natural resources in connection with our lands, as well as our right to own and possess the lands that we have traditionally controlled.

The ILO Convention instructs governments to take measures in collaboration with the peoples concerned with a view to protecting and conserving the environment in the areas in which these peoples live.

In addition to the ILO Convention, Denmark is also subject to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from 2007. The Declaration establishes the importance of the environment to indigenous peoples, including indigenous peoples’ right to redress for damages in their lands and territories.

The United Nations Declaration recognises the right to claim compensation in relation to the lands and territories that have been destroyed, and which as a result are now unsuitable for use for us as a people, e.g. through fair compensation for the lands, territories and resources that we have traditionally owned or in other way occupied or used, and which have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without our “free, prior and informed consent.”

In reality, there are only very few places in the world where the rights of indigenous peoples, including their right to self-determination, are fully respected. This is most evident when governments and large, private corporations in other countries far from Denmark freely and without permission take land and natural resources from indigenous peoples. But is this how Denmark wants to act?

It would seem that the situation places Denmark in a dilemma. At any rate, the Danish government has not as yet wanted to comply with its obligations under international law as outlined in the ILO Convention and the United Nations Declaration.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Denmark’s entering into the first defence agreement with the USA concerning Greenland. At the time, Greenland was a colony – it was not until 1979 with the introduction of the Home Rule that Greenland gained limited autonomy and thus contributory influence on decisions concerning our own country. However, it is only following the Itilleq Declaration from 2003 and now with the introduction of self-government in Greenland that we have even begun to be included in defence policy decisions that have extensive consequences for our country, our environment and our health.

Today, only one of the USA’s many military installations in Greenland remains in operation – Thule Air Base. Negotiations with the USA are currently in progress to secure Greenland and the Greenlandic society continued returns and benefits from the American military presence in Greenland. The Government of Greenland will continue its work to secure benefits in relation to the USA’s activities in Greenland, including in relation to an unambiguous clarification of the environmental liability for abandoned American military installations in Greenland.

On the part of Greenland, the necessity of collaboration with the USA is not called into question. But forced relocations, radioactive pollution in the open country, continued spreading of PCBs, oil and radioactive wastewater pollution in Greenland can no longer be accepted.

The polluter, or in this case those who have accepted and approved the pollution, must and will have to clean up the pollution.

Vittus Qujaukitsoq is Minister of Industry, Labour, Trade and Foreign Affairs for Greenland.