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By Erica M. Dingman

On May 12, the 7th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting convened in Nuuk, Greenland. The Arctic Council is a high-level intergovernmental forum created to promote cooperation among the Arctic states. Its members are Canada, Denmark (via Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States. Permanent participants include indigenous organizations such as the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) and the Saami Council. Unlike member states, permanent participants do not have voting rights.

The meeting, attended primarily by foreign ministers, produced the first legally binding agreement arrived at by the Arctic states since the formation of the Council in 1996. This agreement requires states to cooperate on search-and-rescue operations, including giving permission for all states to traverse foreign waters when necessary. The eight Arctic states also formally agreed to jointly develop measures for oil pollution preparedness. Finally, the Nuuk Declaration also noted that the Arctic sea ice is melting at a faster rate than previously predicted, accelerating access to oil and gas reserves and opening up new sea routes for commerce and tourism.

But on the day of the meeting, WikiLeaks published a U.S. diplomatic communiqué that provided some more interesting insights. In a cable sent by the American Embassy in Copenhagen to the U.S. State Department, a senior Greenlandic official is quoted saying that Greenland is “’just one big oil strike’ away from economic and political independence.” The cable’s author, a U.S. diplomat, also explained that he had introduced Greenland’s then-Premier Hans Enoksen—a prominent Inuit politician—and Denmark’s Minister of Finance and Foreign Affairs Aleqa Hammond to some top U.S. financial institutions in New York, presumably with the goal of attracting financing for oil and gas exploration.

Energy-sector development could lead to financial independence for Greenlandic Inuit. Yet Enoksen’s reported presence at these financial meetings signifies a potential division between Inuit in Greenland and those in Canada, Alaska and Russia. The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), which links Inuit communities in all four places, has backed strong climate-change mitigation efforts.  Enoksen’s reported meetings with financiers for oil and gas development suggest that he might be willing to compromise on the ICC’s stated principles.

As expected, the ICC released its Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Responsible Resource Development Principles in Inuit Nunaat two days prior to the Arctic Council meeting. In addition to providing resource-development guidelines, the Declaration asserts that Inuit should be the primary beneficiaries of development in a manner that would enhance Inuit society. 

When the Arctic Council’s agreement was announced, the president of the ICC, Aqqaluk Lynge, demanded to see more “ethical standards” as well as an acknowledgment on the part of all developers that Inuit are no longer the “cartoon character Eskimos of 300 years ago.” While it is welcome news that the Arctic Council has been strengthened (and will now have a full-time Secretariat based in Norway), indigenous people still stand to lose out, with their voices relegated to that of second-class stakeholders. Although Inuit have declared their intentions to pursue their fair share of mineral and hydrocarbon revenues, there is no guarantee that the Arctic nations will agree to their request. To date, none of the Arctic Council nations have even acknowledged the existence of Inuit declarations.

Clearly, Inuit have become vocal stakeholders in Arctic politics. However, the Arctic nations have yet to recognize Inuit as full partners in the decision-making process. As long as the ICC and the other Arctic indigenous groups have no voting rights on the Arctic Council, the Inuit homelands will remain undemocratically subject to the policies of decision-makers far removed from the realities faced by Northern peoples.


Erica Dingman is a freelance writer and researcher whose work focuses on the Arctic, Inuit, and Canada-United States relations. She holds a master's in International Affairs from The New School.

[Photo courtesy of flickr user Colin Mitchell]

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