It has taken many years of negotiations, but on next Wednesday, 25 November 2008, the people of Greenland will finally get the opportunity to decide in a referendum whether the current system of self-administration under the Kingdom of Denmark, should extend to autonomy also in determining economic and foreign policy, and gradually in complete independence from Denmark. Greenland is the largest island in the world, but its northerly location means that is very isolated. Although large in size, it is still colonized by Denmark, the largest remaining European colonial power.
The answer to the issue of potential independence of Greenland appears straightforward from international law point of view. Even though Greenland has had a home-rule government under Denmark, like the Faroe Islands, it appears that is time for people of Greenland to exercise their right to self-determination under ICCPR and other international documents and to decide freely on future of their country. The United Nations declaration 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960, on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples, states in its operative paragraphs that “the subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and cooperation” and that “All peoples have the right to self-determination, by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” In other words, Greenland remains at present a colony of Denmark and Greenlanders have right to exercise their right to self-determination. Further, there is no rule prohibiting holding a referendum or plebiscite under international law on the question of potential independence of a given territory. Once people of Greenland form a government with effective control over its people and territory, they can put forward a claim for statehood. Additionally, international recognition by other states cannot be seen as a precondition for the creation of states. It is the principle of effectiveness, which defines statehood. That recognition can only be seen as one of the criteria for statehood, has gained some acknowledgment in the past decades; however it is argued that effective control over a territory and people is sufficient to identify a ‘state’ in international society.
The decision on the referendum will be binding on authorities in Nuuk and Copenhagen. However, albeit the Danish authorities approved the referendum in Greenland, it seems that Denmark has not shown any keenness to give up their largest and richest island in natural resources without decent diplomatic dispute.
When the first settler in Greenland, Erik the Red, according to old Icelandic sagas, named the new country Greenland to attract other settlers there. The residents of Greenland – the Inuit – deserve to call it their country, if they wish so, Kalaallit Nunaat, which means the land of the people, and to find their place in the pluralistic international community of various actors.
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