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Between the Atlantic and Arctic oceans, Greenland is both the world's largest island and its least densely populated country. An autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark, the predominantly Inuit people of Greenland have substantial domestic independence and elect members for both their own and the Danish parliaments.
Located in the far north of the Atlantic ocean, Greenland is physically part of the North American continent, but culturally and politically is usually considered European. Centred around the world’s largest island, its closest neighbour is Canada, to the west. In addition to the central island, Greenland also incorporates more than one hundred smaller isles, mainly along its rugged coastline.
The climate is arctic, with the entirety of the interior covered by an ice sheet. Human habitation is nearly entirely restricted to the coast lines, predominantly along the west which is also the site of the capital city Nuuk. The far northern coast is largely uninhabited and is the site of the worlds largest national park.
Population and Language
Greenland’s population only numbers 56,695, as of 2012, making it the least densely populated country in the world. The majority of the population, around 88% are Greenland Inuits, many of whom are from the Kalaallit people. The remainder of the population are predominantly of European, mostly Danish, descent.
The official languages are Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic) and Danish, with the latter still remaining the main language of politics. Kalaallisut is an inuit language and is widely spoken across the country. English is also common and a few other Inuit languages persist amongst groups in the north and east of the country.
The majority of the population in Greenland is nominally Lutheran Christians, following the widespread conversion of the population in the 18th century. Some elements of traditional shamanic beliefs still persist in parts of the country.
History and politics
Greenland has been settled by various groups since approximately 2500 BCE. These pre-inuit groups came from the west and established various settlements along the coasts, but often eventually died out due to the harsh conditions of the arctic island. European Norse settlers began arriving around the end of the first millenium, with Icelanders and Norwegians building settlements along the far south west coast. The norse settlements endured along this coast for centuries, at times becoming quite prosperous, but disappeared some time during the fifteenth century. The explanation for this is disputed, ranging from climatic shift to plague, environmental collapse or invasion and destruction by the Inuit. The latter began migration from modern day Canada during the 1300s, settling first the west and north coasts before eventually re-settling the lands previously occupied by the Norse.
Though there had been no contact for centuries, and any expedition sent after them came up empty handed, Denmark maintained an ambition to reconnect with its lost colonies in Greenland and asserted sovereignty over its territory. In the eighteenth century, hoping to ward off potential rivals to the north atlantic territory, Denmark organised and dispatched an expedition to look for these lost colonies. In addition to the political and economic advantages of this policy, Denmark was also keen to bring the religious changes of the reformation to any surviving settlers. Upon finding the ruins of the old settlements, the Danish set about attempting to convert the Inuit and fighting off other European attempts to settle there. A new colony was built on the South West coast at Godthåb.
During the following centuries, Denmark would maintain control and a trade monopoly over Greenland, more or less isolating it from much of the rest of the world. Danish sovereignty was disputed, at first by the United States and later by Norway, who even occupied a portion of the eastern coast during the 1930s. This latter claim was ruled invalid by the League of Nations international court. With the occupation of Denmark by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, Greenland’s governor took direct control and worked closely with the United States to keep the island supplied and to utilise it as a staging post for the North Atlantic. With the restoration of Denmark, the experience of self-governance during the war inspired a home rule movement, which Denmark made gradual concessions to throughout the late twentieth century. During the 1950s and 1960s the United States took a great interest in Greenland as a site for bases, even launching a failed secret project to create nuclear missile bases deep in the ice sheet.
Denmark’s 1953 constitution reclassified Greenland as a “country” within the Danish Kingdom. With this came a policy of aggressively asserting Danish culture which in turn inspired protests and re-assertion of the Greenlandic identity in response. The independence movement grew and by 1979 Denmark was willing to grant a greater degree of autonomy, creating a Greenlandic legislature, while maintaining control of external affairs and keeping the Danish crown as head of state. In 2008 Greenland voted in a referendum for even greater self rule, assuming control of policing and resources and gaining recognition as a distinct people under international law.
Greenland is now a self governing overseas division of Denmark, with its own prime minister and parliament. The Danish Queen remains nominal head of state, acting through her High Commissioner, but day to day executive power mainly resides with the Prime minister. The parliament, known as the Landsting, has thirty one seats and electoral politics is dominated by three main parties - a social democratic party, a pro-independence socialist party and a conservative pro-union party. While having broad autonomy over domestic arrangements, Greenland is still represented internationally by Denmark in some situations - notably through embassies and in many international organisations.
Greenland’s economy is small and faces an uncertain future. GDP per capita, which peaked at more than $37000 in 2007, shrunk to only $22508 by 2009. The economy is heavily dependant both on subsidies from the Danish state - which are now declining, after the extension of home rule - and on exports of fish and crustaceans to foreign markets. The latter, while currently lucrative, is very vulnerable to changes in foreign markets. The election of the Social Democratic Siumut party in 2013 has opened the possibility of increased access to the mineral resources beneath the ice sheet, including rare earth metals and uranium. This could represent a potentially lucrative new source of income for Greenland, though at the risk of environmental degradation. Greenland also has hydrocarbon reserves which are still be explored and potential as a site for high energy use industries seeking to take advantage of its abundant hydroelectric power potential.
Due to its small size, Greenland’s civil society is still developing, but is particularly active on a number of issues. Some of the organisations active in Denmark also operate in Greenland, though growing independence has led to the foundation of some new ones as well, such as the Greenland Council on Human Rights. Greenland is not usually assessed independently of Denmark on measures of press, civil and political freedoms. Standards are usually considered to be comparable to those in Denmark - that is, very good.
Child Rights and Human Rights
Greenland is not usually assessed indepently of Denmark by Human Rights bodies. Commentary on Greenland is usually included within the main human rights recommendations addressed to Denmark - due to its small population size, these are rarely substantial. Some concerns do exist, however. Due to its largely inuit population and the nature of the relationship with its colonial power, Greenland has historically had some shared human rights issues with other North American indigenous groups, particularly regarding cultural autonomy and preservation of identity. Concerns have been raised about womens rights as well, which are considered to be below the very high standards of Denmark. A high number of teen pregnancies, a lack of coordination and absence of data have also been raised as issues by the CRC.
- Robert Petersen, Colonialism as Seen from a Former Colonised Area - A discussion of the impact of colonialism on the indigenous people of Greenland