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Greenland and the Arctic are caught in a legal minefield

The environment and the inhabitants are at risk of losing out as a result of the exploitation of Arctic resources. Researchers at Aarhus University have been set the task of finding legal issues in order to ensure that societies and the environment will not suffer.

2013.09.30 | Andreas G. Jensby

Panorama from the top of Kvanefjeld mountain. Photo: Alexander Bartels, GEUS

Panorama from the top of Kvanefjeld mountain, hiding valuable deposits of rare earth and uranium. Photo: Alexander Bartels, GEUS

Kvanefjeld seen from Tasseq. Photo: Alexander Bartels, GEUS

Kvanefjeld seen from Tasseq. Photo: Alexander Bartels, GEUS

For the first time ever, Danish legal advisers will review all the different regulation systems with a view to establishing the legal basis within the parts of the Arctic that are under Danish jurisdiction. A new research group at Aarhus University have been set the task of clarifying and accounting for the legal framework and elements of danger surrounding e.g. the extraction of raw materials and the new opportunities brought about by climate change in the Danish parts of the Arctic, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and the Arctic Ocean.

The researchers will examine the interplay between international legislation, Danish legislation, European legislation and local legislation in the parts of the Arctic that are under Danish jurisdiction. Their work will be based on several judicial approaches such as contract law, criminology, environmental law, international law and public law. And in doing this, the researchers really need to watch their legal steps, explains professor of environmental law Margrethe Basse from Aarhus University.

“There are a lot of uncertainties inherent in this research area that we will be dealing with; for instance, in relation to the extraction of raw materials, including the extraction of uranium. The new Greenlandic legislation has not been drawn up accurately enough, which is problematic, as it is part of a complex interplay with Danish legislation. For instance, is it possible for development in Greenland to continue without Greenland violating international obligations on behalf of Denmark? A particularly hot topic at the moment is the potential extraction and trading of uranium. And in relation to this, we have to make sure to settle all the legal issues in a responsible manner, thereby making sure to protect the state of society and the environment in Greenland,” she says.

A dangerous situation for the environment and the inhabitants

One of the great challenges is based on the fact that, as Greenland gained the status of an autonomous Danish dependent territory in 2009, the Greenlanders earned the right to independently regulate a series of internal affairs, taking charge of, for instance, the extraction of raw materials, the environment and energy supply and later may take over the legal system from the Danish Ministry of Justice. But Denmark remains responsible for Greenland in an international context, which means that the country has to abide by the conventions that govern e.g. working conditions, child labour, freedom of association and social security, which have been laid down by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

According to Ellen Margrethe Basse, a potentially dangerous situation could arise, as the Greenlanders now manage so many areas of jurisdiction and responsibility that used to lie within Danish jurisdiction. But they do not have all the necessary resources to handle it, and they are unaware of the possible consequences. Among other things, this applies to the pitfalls inherent in Greenland’s Large Scale Projects Act and the Raw Materials Act.

“All decisions regarding environmental protection that are of significance to the extraction of raw materials, including the extraction of uranium, oil and gas on land and in the ocean territory, are made by Greenland’s Ministry of Industry and Mineral Resources and not the Ministry of Housing, Nature & Environment. This means that the authority in charge of securing revenue, profit growth and industrial development also makes decisions on issues related to the environment. Thus, it is safe to assume that in the instance of a conflict of interest, financial interests will gain precedence over environmental considerations. If a great oil spill happens, the Self-Government Act states that the Greenlanders themselves must handle the situation, but they simply have no chance of being able to handle it properly.  Denmark provides assistance in the ocean territory, and there are currently eight Danish ministries involved in the Danish supervision and effort in Greenland. As the Public Accounts Committee have recently pointed out, this could lead to dangerous situations,” explains Ellen Margrethe Basse.

Private companies can carry out public sector consultancy

The Raw Materials Act holds another possible bone of contention in terms of legislation: According to the Raw Materials Act but utterly in defiance of Danish tradition, the Ministry of Industry and Mineral resources can leave it up to private players to make the decisions.  Moreover, the new Large Scale Projects Act enables investors to decree that working conditions for a group of employees should be determined based on the current legislation in their country of origin, e.g. China. This could potentially have incalculable legal consequences

“Private companies have a completely different agenda, and they lack insight into long-term public priorities. Legal jurisdiction and qualifications are required if we want to make sure to safeguard and maintain consideration for the indigenous people, the environment, the foreign players, Greenland’s economy as well as Danish legislation,” says Ellen Margrethe Basse. 

She thinks it is about time for the involved parties to start looking through long-term legal lenses.

“It is imperative that the legal framework be properly laid out and described. The matter of who is to assume responsibility for the development remains unresolved and is currently divided between various legal regulatory systems and government agencies. Even though Greenland and the Faroe Islands are not members of the European Union, the EU also has a role to play in this, as they can force Denmark and Sweden to adhere to the policies and legislation of the EU. Moreover, the EU market is central to both Greenland and the Faroe Islands. This has given rise to legal disputes regarding fishery and sales of seal products; a dispute that has prevented the EU from being accepted as a permanent observer in the Arctic Council. The council plays a central role in the development of the Arctic area, which is of global interest - so the EU is very keen to be included. And how does this affect the current legislative situation? This is very interesting. Our goal is to try to answer that exact question from a Danish perspective,” relates Ellen Margrethe Basse.


Facts about Aarhus University and Greenland

In addition to the new INTRAlaw, the Arctic Research Centre (ARC) at Aarhus University also does cross-disciplinary research on Arctic issues. The DCE - Danish Centre for Environment and Energy, which is likewise anchored at Aarhus University, has agreed with Greenland’s Self-Government to deliver research, supervision and research-based public sector consultancy for use in environmental management within the field of raw materials. The centre is also engaged in research on transboundary pollution.

The interdisciplinary research group INTRAlaw will be conducting research within the following four fields:

  1. New points of intersection in Scandinavian Law
  2. The globalised business community
  3. Transnational human rights
  4. Legislative development in Greenland and the Arctic


Further information

Public/Media, Aarhus BSS