1) Asthe Guardian news service revealed in an exposé, clothes laundering in Europe and North America are the probable sources of microplastic fibres being found in the Arctic Ocean. As researchers have argued, this plastic pollution is not only damaging to the natural environment, but is also threatening the lives of local animals. Some specialists have called upon the clothing industry to develop more environmentally friendly materials, as plastics remain a serious environmental challenge to the seas in the far north.
2) The High North News published an article consisting four interviews with the representatives from several major Arctic conferences. The interviewees shared their viewpoints on the flexible arrangements being made for upcoming regional assemblies this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with virtual attendance now being seen as a more viable option.
3)The Economist provided a summary of the Kvanefjeld (or Kuannersuit) rare earth mining project inGreenland. The piece outlines the uses of the rare earth elements, the divided opinions about the project within the nearby populations, and the potential obstacles for the start of operations, given the misgivings about the mine in Denmark.
4) The Government of India has published its draft of the Arctic policy paper, the first of its kind, and currently welcoming comments and feedback on the document. In recent years, other non-Arctic states in Asia, including the governments of China, Japan and South Korea, have also published policies relating to the Arctic.
India was one of the five Asian governments which were accepted by the Arctic Council as formal observers in 2013, along with China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. Although Beijing received most of the international attention after that announcement, due to China’s size and concerns at the time about whether Beijing would soon engage in revisionist policies in the Arctic, India’s inclusion was nonetheless significant. As with Singapore, the state is about as far away from the Polar Regions, geographically, as possible.
Nonetheless, from a policy viewpoint, India had been seeking to develop its expertise at both poles for years, and has often referred to the Himalayas, a ‘third pole’, as part of the basis for its Arctic and Antarctic interests. This mountain range, which straddles northern India as well as parts of China and Pakistan, and dominating the geography of Bhutan and Nepal, includes the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest. As with the Polar Regions, the Himalayas are also losing ice at an accelerated rate due to climate change, raising questions about the future of an expanse which provides fresh water to millions of people in Asia.
As with many other non-Arctic states which have deepened their interests in the region over the past few decades, India has been engaging in extensive scientific diplomacy in the far north. This was undertaken to better understand the connections between the Arctic and issues closer to home, and to have a greater say in a region which is attracting global attention not only due to its environmental changes but also questions about its emerging resources and the possibility of a more pronounced geopolitical competition for Arctic influence.
As with many other countries, India maintains a permanent research base at Svalbard. The Himadri station is based at Ny-Ålesund on the island group, and has been operating since 2008. The Himadri facilities, and India’s Antarctica stations, Bharati, opened in 2012 and Maitri, in place since 1989, all operate under the aegis of the country’s National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research, based in Goa. In 2014, India also launchedIndARC, an underwater moored observatory, constructed to examine local maritime conditions and their connections with monsoon activities, in Svalbard’s Kongsfjorden Fjord.
This month, India became the fourth country within the ‘Asia-Arctic Five’ in the Arctic Council to publish to governmental white paper on its regional policies, (Singapore has yet to do so). The document, in draft format, was recently posted via India’s National Informatics Centre for public comments, which can be submitted online until 26 January before the final version is confirmed.
As the covering letter accompanying the document explained, India wished to ‘leverage’ its overall scientific expertise, as well as specific studies of the Himalayas, to nurture its role in the Arctic and to ensure that future economic developments in the region take place in a sustainable fashion. Unlike some recent regional policy documents by other non-Arctic governments, India’s White Paper did not directly address the subject of hard / military security in the Arctic, and instead there was a focus on the current and future development of relevant knowledge bases and expertise in diverse fields of Arctic science.
The paper summarised India’s Arctic interests as resting on five pillars: science and research, cooperation and economic and human development, promotion of transportation and connectivity, governance and global cooperation, and national capacity building. In regards to India’s scientific programmes in the region, the document noted that Indian representatives were active in three of the Working Groups overseen by the Arctic Council, (namely the programmes dedicated to Arctic Contaminants Action, Arctic Monitoring and Assessment, and the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna).
Beyond the Council itself, India’s activities in climate change research and renewable energy studies, as well as current and future Track II initiatives, including the Arctic Circle and Arctic Frontiers conferences as well as the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC), were also mentioned as part of the country’s regional credentials.
In regards to emerging Indian goals in the far north, there was an emphasis on further development of cooperation initiatives in climate change research, education, ‘third pole’ interests, and sustainable development. There was also much attention in the policy statement about the connections between the Arctic and space activities, given India’s growing interest in developing its outer space capabilities, but also in cooperating with Arctic actors to develop satellite monitoring of regional land and maritime spaces as well as improved internet connectivity.
The White Paper generally kept to neutral ground on the subject of optimal participation of non-Arctic states in Arctic affairs, (although there was the notation that ‘India regards the Arctic as the common heritage of mankind’). This stance was in noteworthy contrast to China’s longstanding ‘near-Arctic state’ policies in the region, (which earlier this week were subject to an eleventh-hour and 59th minute rebuke by outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, criticism which was subsequently brushed off as irrelevant by the Chinese Foreign Ministry).
India’s policies towards Arctic governance, as outlined in its document, explained its adherence to the Arctic Council and local legal regimes, including the Law of the Sea and the Svalbard Treaty, (which then-British India signed in 1920). The Indian government also affirmed that it would continue to seek out new means of improving multilateral cooperation with Arctic states in various areas.
However, although the document reflected a light touch on the subject of Arctic politics and Indian participation in regional governance, the government of Narendra Modi had previously signalled an interest in developing greater policy visibility in the far north. For example, when Prime Minister Modi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok in September 2019, their joint statement included India’s wish to play a greater role in the Arctic Council, and to cooperate more closely with Moscow in Arctic affairs. One editorial in an Indian news service published at that time even suggested that an ‘Indo-Arctic policy’, with Russian cooperation, could serve as a balancer to American and Chinese strategies in the region. As with other non-Arctic governments seeking to increase their visibility in the circumpolar north, separating science from politics in that part of the world has become an ever more complex endeavour.
[Author’s Note: I have just published a chapter on the subject of views by non-Arctic states concerning Arctic security in a new book entitled The Arctic and the World Order (ed. Kristina Spohr and Daniel S. Hamilton, a.ed. Jason C. Moyer) by Brookings.
On 8 December 2020, Mette Frederiksen, the Prime Minister of Denmark, formally apologised on behalf of her government for a so-called ‘cultural experiment’, (kulturmut tunngatillugu misiliineq in Greenlandic; kulturelt eksperiment in Danish), which took place starting in 1951. That year, twenty-two Greenlandic children were separated from their families in Greenland and sent to Denmark, where they started an unexpected phase of their lives, which led to consequences which spanned many decades afterwards. After over half a century, the victims, many of whom have already passed away, received a belated official apology from Denmark.
What Happened in 1951?
In 1951, two years before Greenland, a then-colony of the Danish Kingdom, was incorporated into the Realm by a unilateral decision from Copenhagen, twenty-two young Greenlandic children were chosen to participate in an ‘experiment’ by the Danish government. The plan was arranged specifically by the then-Greenland Department, a bureaucratic entity under the Government of Denmark, along with two non-governmental organisations, Save the Children Denmark and Red Cross Denmark. The initial plan only included local orphans, however, it ended up expanding to other kids such those with single parents. It was hoped that they would grow up to become a new cohort of Danish speaking elites in Greenlandic society when they returned to the island. The expected length of stay for the children would only be for one year and they would return to Greenland after that. The children were from several towns around the island, and they were between five to eight years old.
Six were adopted by their foster families in Denmark, and the other sixteen were sent back to Greenland in 1952. However, the children who returned to Greenland were seconded to an orphanage in Nuuk and continued their lives there, and one of the major considerations was that the single parents were regarded as being unable to support the children who might probably have access to better conditions in the facility, and so their families could only visit them on Sundays.
A Long Way Before the Official Apology
An historical investigation into the affair was launched by both the Government of Greenland (Naalakkersuisut in Greenlandic) and the previous Danish government, the Third Cabinet of Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen (VLAK-regeringen in Danish) in 2019.
This case has been studied in Denmark in different ways. In 2010, Experiment (Eksperimentet in Danish), a Danish film based on the case, premiered in both Greenland and Denmark, and the movie was conceived in order to better educate the public about this incident. Ellen Hillingsø, one of the lead actors in the drama, had previously criticised then-PM Rasmussen for his unwillingness to publicly apologise for the forced removals.
In 2019, before assuming office, Mette Frederiksen had promised an official apology, and she further confirmed that intention after she came to power, but stated that it would be delivered once the investigation report was completed. However, this delay was criticised, (especially in Greenland), as some argued that there was already sufficient proof for an official apology to be issued without waiting for the official report to be concluded. For example, both representatives of Greenland to the Danish Parliament, Aki-Matilda Høegh-Dam and Aaja Chemnitz Larsen, had insisted that it was high time for the Danish government to apologise without a postponement.
On 8 December last year, an historical study was published by both the Greenlandic and Danish governments based on their joint effort of the investigation for the case. This document included the background of the ‘experiment’, the children who were selected and why and how, and their experiences as well as the consequences.
On the same day, PM Frederiksen conveyed an apology on behalf of the Government of Denmark. In her speech (in Danish), she noted that, ‘we can take responsibility and apologise to those we should have taken care of but failed. I have sent a personal letter to the six living people, in which I, on behalf of Denmark, give them – and the others – an apology.’
As well, each of the six individuals received a letter of apology from the Prime Minister.
Kim Kielsen, the Prime Minister of Greenland has since praised the apology, stating that it represented a significant step in reconciling past grievances between Copenhagen and Nuuk.
Indeed, opinions on how best to examine the colonial history of the Kingdom have varied within Danish society. On this specific case, Mai Mercado, a Danish politician as well as a former minister for Children and Social Affairs, commented a few years ago (in Danish), ‘Even though there were good intentions behind it, there is no doubt that the process has had major negative consequences for a number of the children. (…) It is not about placing blame, but about us all becoming wiser about our common history, so that together we can face the past. I think that is also important for the people who have been affected by this case.’
Juliane Henningsen, a then-Greenlandic representative in the Danish Parliament (Folketing in Danish), requested an official apology for the case when PM Rasmussen, who was in office in his first term in 2009. However, the Prime Minister rejected the call, as in his view, the relationship between Denmark and Greenland had evolved greatly in recent decades. He also responded that (in Danish), ‘at the same time we must state that the way of thinking both in Greenland and in Denmark was significantly different at that time. And we must understand it in such a way that the children’s stay was initiated on the basis of good intentions among the parties involved in Greenland and in Denmark.’
However, there are differing views on this period from some local scholars, such as Lars Jensen. In his article entitled Forsoningskommission og selvransagelse – ’never the twain shall meet’ (Reconciliation Commission and self-examination – ‘never the twain shall meet’) published in 2014, (even though not necessarily criticising Mai Mercado or Lars Løkke Rasmussen), he suggested that European powers in general were reluctant to fully face up to the aggression they condoned during the colonial era, and that there is still the tendency to use nuance to downplay the harm caused to colonised subjects.
The Decades-long Consequences
According to the report, the consequences of the ‘experiment’ for the children did not only manifest themselves during their childhood but also well into adulthood. When returning to Greenland and continuing their lives, the loss of their mother tongue simultaneously cut ties with their surrounding Greenlandic communities, and resulted in much peer pressure such as teasing from other kids. What was worse, they were not perceived as ‘real Greenlanders’ by many of their Greenlandic-speaking fellows.
Helene Thiesen, one of the youths involved in the case, had been fighting for years for an official apology by publishing her stories to the public both within the Kingdom of Denmark and abroad. As she explained to both local and international media, the children involved in the experiment were ultimately deprived of their family, language, home and roots.
Ironically, the result of the experiment did not satisfy the expectations of the organisers, as the majority of the children did not become the new bilingual ‘elites’ in the Greenlandic society as they were expected for. Today, when the official apology finally came, only six out of the twenty two children chosen for the ‘experiment’ were still alive, almost seven decades after the case happened.
A Variation between Greenland and Denmark? For better or worse?
The relationship between Denmark and Greenland appears to have become smoother after Mette Frederiksen took office. Compared to her predecessor, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, she has demonstrated a comparatively greater understanding of the rationales behind the independence movement of Greenland, and in 2019 had famously declined a maladroit proposal from then-US President Donald Trump to actual purchase the island, stressing that ‘Greenland is not for sale. Greenland is not Denmark. Greenland is Greenlandic’ (Grønland er ikke til salg. Grønland er ikke dansk. Grønland er grønlandsk. in Danish).
The question now is whether this important apology will assist in addressing the considerable political rifts between Greenland and Denmark at a time when discussions about Greenlandic independence remain highly visible and often contentious.
Mingming would like to thank Marc Lanteigne and Mikkel Schøler, CEO of Sikki, for their valuable assistance during the preparation of this article.
The last quarter of 2020 has witnessed a flurry of activity in the area of Arctic governance and cooperation, including the recent publication of revised regional white papers by both Norway [in Norwegian] and Sweden, (with an updated Arctic policy from Denmark soon to follow). As well, it was announced this week that the Arctic Economic Council (AEC), based in Tromsø, would be appointing Mads Qvist Frederiksen, formerly of the Confederation of Danish Industry, as its new director.
The Norwegian White Paper on the Arctic, the first of its type in nine years, was anticipated in many quarters, given the questions of recent political divides between the central government and the Norwegian north, such as the controversial merger of Troms og Finnmark, created from the two most northern counties in the country, as well as some dissent [in Norwegian] over plans to permit the docking of US nuclear submarines in the northern Norwegian port of Tønsnes, near Tromsø, which were criticised [in Norwegian] by Tromsø’s municipal government in October this year. There were also questions about the effects of new security concerns in Norway’s updated Arctic strategy, given the country’s attempts to walk a delicate line between its commitments to NATO and its interests in maintaining links with next-door Russia.
As expected, there was a considerable emphasis within the white paper of human development policies including innovation and businesses on the Norwegian Arctic. As one recent commentary on the paper argued, the Norwegian north is facing population decline, questions over the protection, promotion and development of Sámi self-government and culture, and a growth in popularity in northern areas of the Centre Party (Senterpartiet), which has agrarian roots but has also developed a platform of promoting greater government decentralisation, reflecting the omnipresent north/south divide in much of current Norwegian politics.
Sweden’s Arctic White Paper was also developed as an update of its previous far northern strategies, building on Stockholm’s 2011 regional policy document. The revised policies were based on the interests of the Swedish government to promote the issues of ‘människorna, freden och klimatet’ (‘people, peace and climate’) in the Arctic, including in cooperation with other regional actors and the European Union, as well as under the aegis of international law.
As with the Norwegian white paper, there was also a section on Sweden’s concerns about the changing shape of regional security, including concerns about a far northern arms race, an uptick in Russian regional military activity and the growing presence of non-Arctic actors, notably China, in the region. On 16 November, the Arctic Circle organisation hosted a virtual seminar with Swedish Foreign Minister Anne Linde, who presented the paper and took questions regarding the directions of her government’s polar interests.
New policies have also been put forward in the past few weeks by the Russian Federation, as that country prepares to assume the Chair of the Arctic Council early next year. Via its ‘Strategy for Developing the Russian Arctic Zone and Ensuring National Security through 2035’ (О Стратегии развития Арктической зоны Российской Федерации и обеспечения национальной безопасности на период до 2035 года) strategy [in Russian], Moscow has sought to redesign its Arctic strategies for the next fifteen years, with an emphasis on energy and resource extractions, the development of the Northern Sea Route, and improving living standards of the country’s Arctic peoples.
The Russian government has also provided additional information regarding policies which it will pursue as Council Chair during 2021-3, including climate change and sustainable development issues, as well as pursuing a more ‘comprehensive inclusive approach’ to regional governance. It was also confirmed last month that Yury Trutnev, Deputy Prime Minister and Presidential Plenipotentiary Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District, would be taking point on the crafting of Moscow’s blueprints for Council policies.
As for the next Arctic Council Ministerial, Einar Gunnarsson, Ambassador of Arctic Affairs for Iceland, has expressed hopes that the global health situation will have improved to the point where the next Council Ministerial meeting can be held in Reykjavík in May next year. The official plans for the ministerial are now due to be announced in January, and it was noted that on the meeting’s agenda were talks on sustainable development areas and youth issues. The concept of a sustainable Arctic has also been a pillar of Iceland’s Chair since 2019, along with protection of the north polar marine environment, community building, and green energy alternatives.
In addition to Russia, the United States will also be a focus of attention at the Iceland meeting. There will likely be a quiet sigh of relief amidst the Council assembly, given that a repeat of the pugnacious statements made by now-outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the previous Council Ministerial in Rovaniemi in May 2019, which included a strong rebuke of other members and observers, and a rejection of climate change as something which actually exists, will not occur. As well, the Joe Biden administration has promised to re-enter the Paris climate accords and to rebuild American multilateral relations, including with Arctic governments.
The appointment of former US Secretary of State John Kerry, the recipient [video] of the Arctic Circle Prize in 2019, and the force behind the ‘World War Zero’ environmental campaign, as climate tsar further underscored that Washington would begin the process of moving away from the corrosive Arctic policies of the Trump government.
One common question which appears during the biennial Council Ministerial gatherings revolves around potential new observers in the organisation. In 2019, only one entity, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) was granted formal observer status, and the last government to attain that standing was Switzerland in 2017, at the Council Ministerial meeting in Fairbanks. In the past month, the governments of Estonia and Ireland have confirmed that they are seeking to be added as observers next year. In addition to being ‘Arctic adjacent’ states, the two European countries are also seeking to bring their specific areas of polar expertise to the Council and to its Working Groups.
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu confirmed his government’s intention to apply for Council observer status in November 2019, noting that Estonia is the ‘northernmost non-Arctic country’. The application was then submitted in November this year, with a briefing paper [pdf] published in tandem by Tallinn. The document outlined Estonia’s longstanding ties to the Arctic, including culturally and linguistically, and its interests in contributing to the understanding of local climate change and adding to various areas of scientific research, including in the physical sciences and in areas of regional social anthropology.
Much interest was also expressed in expanding Estonia’s considerable expertise in information technology and digital governance to develop an ‘e-Arctic’ platform, such as in the area of remote healthcare provision to far northern communities.
On 30 November, Estonia’s Arctic credentials were further promoted in a hybrid virtual event, featuring a keynote speech by President Kersti Kaljulaid, who detailed the historical contributions of Estonians in furthering knowledge of the region, as well as the present day issues how Arctic climate change is affecting Estonia and how the country is seeking to increase local knowledge across many sectors. Other speakers at the virtual event, including Foreign Minister Reinsalu and specialists in Estonian international affairs, technology, ethnology and architecture, participated in the discussion about the application and Estonia’s current and future Arctic roles. [Author’s note: I was also a speaker at this webinar, discussing the current history and development of the Arctic Council- M.L.]
The Government of Ireland had also been contemplating making a formal bid for observer status earlier this year, and this month it was confirmed by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney that Dublin was embarking upon its own application process. In addition to participating more directly in dialogues surrounding Arctic climate change, fishing interests were cited as a major impetus for Ireland’s decision, especially in light of retreating Arctic sea ice.
Ireland is the current chair of the OSPAR (Oslo-Paris) Commission, which oversees initiatives to protect the marine environment of the North Atlantic Ocean, and also hosts a number of Arctic-specific initiatives, including NARI, the Network of Arctic Researchers in Ireland, founded in February 2020, with the support of the country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry and Maritime Institute (Foras na Mara). Ireland’s Arctic Council observer application was expected to be submitted to the Arctic Council by the end of this year.
On a related note, it was also reported this month that Malcolm Noonan, a junior minister with the Irish Green Party (Comhaontas Glas) was throwing his support behind Ireland acceding to the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). Ireland’s international visibility has grown considerably in 2020, helped in no small part by its election in June to a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council during 2021-2.
As the Arctic, like much of the world, hopes to put the coronavirus pandemic behind it during 2021, the year is shaping up to be an eventful one in the realm of Arctic politics, and events within the Arctic Council next year are certain to reflect the political shifts in the region which have appeared in the past few months.
[The author would like to thank Elisabeth Bauer, Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv and Dakota Holmes for their assistance during the preparation of this article.]