Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 611, 8 March 2024

Denmark: Greenlandic Inuit's call for colonial justice
Anu Maria Joseph

In the news
On 4 March, the Associated Press reported that 143 indigenous women belonging to the Inuit community in Greenland sued the Danish Ministry of Health for forcing them to be inserted with intra-uterine contraceptive devices (IUDs) during the 1960s and 70s. Besides, they have demanded USD 6.3 million in compensation for human rights violations against them. One of the women, Naja Lyberth, was stated to have told Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa (KNR), a Greenland-based media: "As long as we live, we want to regain our self-respect and respect for our wombs."

On 4 March, the lawyer representing the Inuit women, Mads Pramming, stated: "My clients believe they were subject to a human rights violation because they have had IUDs inserted against their will, and in most cases when they were children."

On 4 March, a case was filed against Denmark's Ministry of Health. The Minister of Health, Sophie Lohde, stated: "This is a deeply unfortunate case that we must get to the bottom of, and therefore an independent investigation has also been initiated." 

Issues at large
First, a background to the Greenlandic Inuit community. Inuits are indigenous people from the Arctic regions of North America. They reside in Greenland, the US, Canada, Denmark and Russia. The Inuits of Greenland represent close to one third of the total 155,792 population worldwide. The Greenlandic Inuits or the Kalaallit constitute 89 per cent of Greenland's population. Greenland became a self-governing entity of Denmark in 1979. However, Denmark, its former colonial power, controls its foreign and defence affairs. 

Second, the complaints against Denmark’s colonial policies. During the 1960s and 70s, the island's population was increasing due to its better living and health conditions. According to the Danish authorities, nearly 4,500 women and girls were subjected to the IUD implant. Several were under the age of 12, and many are still unaware of what had happened. In 2022, the Danish government launched an investigation that is due in 2025. In 2018, a group of Inuits, who were taken away from their families for a failed social experiment in 1951, demanded an apology from the Danish authorities. Then, as part of an experiment, around 22 children, now in their 70s, were removed from their families to be re-educated as model Danish citizens. A formal apology was given by Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, in 2022.

Third, the refusal and reconciliation. The Danish government refused to be a part of the Greenlandic Reconciliation Commission in 2013, investigating the legacy of colonialism in Greenland. The Danish authorities cited the reconciliation commission as an “insult” to Denmark. In retrospect, the then authorities sought a reconciliation, ignoring acknowledgement and apology. This refusal to take responsibility changed during the recent years. In 2022, Denmark, for the first time, accepted and apologised for its atrocity against the Inuits. 

Fourth, the continuing marginalization of the Inuits. Although Greenland enjoys autonomy, it faces several economic, social, health and environmental challenges. The traditional life of the indigenous group has been threatened by forced urbanisation that started during the 1970s. It resulted in increased immigration of Danes and disruption of Inuit kinship. Meanwhile, climate change in the polar region with rising sea levels, rapid warming, melting ice and animal extinction have affected the community's livelihood. A rapid shift in their way of life accounted for multiple health issues. Besides, the presence of rare earths has attracted the investments of external actors including the US and China, which are initiated by the Danish government and marginally benefit the Inuits. In 2023, the UN recorded a lack of effective mechanisms to implement Inuit's rights to free, prior and informed consent in Greenland regarding "tourism concessions, implementing business projects and adopting legislative and administrative acts in Greenland." 

In perspective
Denmark’s reconciliation with the Greenlandic Inuits needs more seriousness and a swift response. A slow acknowledgement, apology and reparation from the Danish authorities implies that an effective reconciliation is far from reality. Although the autonomy of Greenland from Denmark was hailed as the self-determination and preservation of the community, the continued influence of the Danish government against the interests of the Inuits implies that complete self-determination and preservation is far from reality. The Danish authorities would likely take another three years to accept its colonial atrocity against the women. However, the case of Greenlandic Inuits is an encouragement for indigenous communities across the world to fight for their rights and justice.

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