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Danish Arctic strategy



The Kingdom of Denmark

By Lassi Heininen, University of Lapland


The Kingdom of Denmark’s Strategy for the Arctic 2011–2020 was adopted by the Government of Denmark, the Government of the Faroe Islands and the Government of Greenland and launched by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in August 2011 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2011).


The Kingdom of Denmark has recently become an active and influential player in the Arctic region, not least because of the new jurisdictional position of Greenland. It was already becoming apparent with the May 2008 publication of a joint draft strategy by Denmark and Greenland “The Arctic at a Time of Transition: Draft Strategy for Activities in the Arctic Region” (Namminersornerullutik Oqartussat, Udenrigsministeriet, May 2008), and later approved as the actual strategy. The draft strategy, which was a first for a joint Greenlandic-Danish Arctic policy document, contains a series of policy objectives, which broadly fall into two categories: first, supporting and strengthening Greenland's path towards greater autonomy and self-government, and second, maintaining Denmark’s (i.e. the Kingdom’s) position as a major player in the Arctic.


The draft strategy document is clear on the domestic model by which Denmark and Greenland will share these interests and duties. The idea for this kind of comprehensive strategy came from the need to balance Greenland’s stronger legal status of Self-Government, based on the 1979 Home Rule Government of Greenland, which Greenland achieved in 2009. By 1985 the Home Rule Government was already strong enough to authorise a referendum by which Greenland withdrew from the European Union (which it had joined in 1973 along with Denmark). Following the withdrawal from the EU Greenland was granted the status of Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTs). From that time relations between the Union and Greenland have been strained, especially in connection with sealing and trade in Arctic wildlife products, but also climate change and international climate policy, and exploitation of hydrocarbons. However, the EU has recognised Greenland as a relevant Arctic actor through, for example, the Greenlandic initiative on the ‘Arctic Window’ within the EU’s Northern Dimension policy and the proposal for enhancing “Arctic-related cooperation with Greenland” in its Communication on the Arctic Region in November 2008.


There may be a connection between the content and release of the draft strategy on one hand and Denmark and Greenland’s joint hosting of the Polar Sea Conference for the five littoral states of the Arctic Ocean in May 2008 in Ilulissat, Greenland, on the other: The Ilulissat Declaration, signed at that meeting, provides an indication of how the Arctic coastal states intend to pursue their interests as well as indicating their willingness to work together. The declaration can thus be considered a success when it comes to relations among the littoral states and a milestone in Arctic cooperation. The subsequent draft strategy released more or less at the same time supports the Declaration’s statement of cooperation. Correspondingly, the Kingdom of Denmark’s 2009–2011 chairmanship of the Arctic Council was focused on making sure that the Council’s position as an important international actor would not be changed and on ensuring that the work to facilitated Greenland’s evolution towards territorial autonomy would be recognised globally for its accomplishments on indigenous rights, rather than as an exit from the Arctic arena. Parallel to this, the process of finalising a strategy on the Arctic region looking ahead to 2020 continued; the Kingdom of Denmark, it was said, would in the near future formulate an Arctic strategy with objectives for Denmark, the Faroe Islands and Greenland. The strategy was presented in August 2011.


The Kingdom of Denmark’s Arctic Strategy 2011–2020 is comprehensive and covers all relevant fields in substantial detail. Its primary focus is on Copenhagen’s new relations with the self-government of Greenland and what can be done to strengthen the Kingdom of Denmark’s status as a player in the Arctic. Correspondingly, its objective is twofold: first, to react and respond to the significant environmental and geopolitical change(s) in the Arctic and the growing global interest in the region; and second, to redefine a (new) position for the Kingdom of Denmark and strengthen the country’s status as a player in the Arctic.


According to the Strategy document, the Kingdom of Denmark “in an equal partnership between the three parts of the Danish Realm”, Denmark, Greenland and Faroe Islands – which serves to add further legitimacy to the use of the term “Kingdom of Denmark” when it comes to Arctic affairs – will work for “A peaceful, secure and safe Arctic; with self-sustaining growth and development; with respect for the Arctic’s fragile climate; and in close cooperation with our international partners.” The document describes the Strategy as “first and foremost a strategy for development that benefits the inhabitants of the Arctic”. It has a clear global perspective in its view of the vast changes in the Arctic as one of the most significant of global issues, and because “[T]he world has again turned its attention to the Arctic”, the aim must be “to strengthen the Kingdom’s status as global player in the Arctic” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2011, 9–11).


The four chapters of the Strategy, each of which lists a certain number of tasks under each of the above-mentioned objectives, consider the three parts of the Danish Realm, emphasising the positions and roles of the Faroe Islands and Greenland, particularly Greenland’s new status, as the northern-most part of the Danish Realm.


The first chapter, “A Peaceful, Secure and Safe Arctic” discusses the following three goals: resolve maritime boundary disputes in accordance with international law; enhance maritime safety; and enforce sovereignty and undertake surveillance. The Strategy clearly indicates the importance of international law, particularly the UN’s Convention of the Law of the Sea, and of peaceful (international) cooperation in, and for, the development of the Arctic. Maritime safety is mentioned as is the urgent need to improve infrastructure and implement preventive safety measures, such as “global rules and standards for navigation in the Arctic” (ibid., p. 18). The Strategy includes the priorities (and task) of enforcing sovereignty “by the armed forces through a visible presence in the region where surveillance is central” (ibid., p. 20).


The Strategy emphasises the importance of sovereignty and national security, as indeed do the strategies of the other littoral states of the Arctic Ocean. Denmark’s, however, is the only one to highlight the importance of NATO and cooperation among the ‘Arctic 5’. A more sophisticated picture is revealed as the Strategy marks the importance of sovereignty and national security, in underlining the linkage between security and protecting the economic base of Greenland’s economy.


The long list of tasks in the second chapter, “Self-sustaining growth and development”, includes exploiting of mineral resources under the highest international standards; increase the use of renewable energy sources; harvest living resources in sustainable ways; exploit new economic opportunities in the Arctic (in close cooperation with industry); to maintain a leading role internationally in research; and promote Arctic cooperation on human health and social sustainability. Indeed, the Strategy mentions in particular “new” economic activities and industries in the Arctic in addition to fisheries, the most important in historical terms. These new industries include hydropower, mining, tourism and exploration of other minerals, particularly off-shore fossil fuels and other energy resources that are viewed as critical to the development of Greenland. Shipping, transport and new sea routes receive less attention than other priorities and objectives. The Strategy can be seen as a means to attract industries to Greenland, and investments in them.


Although the exploration of off-shore hydrocarbons is viewed as critical to Greenland’s development, the Strategy encourages high standards and use of renewable (marine) resources. The Strategy’s wording concerning “the use of renewable energy resources” where it urges the sustainable, science-based harvesting of living resources (ibid., p. 23) indicates a more comprehensive and sophisticated method of linking utilisation to the sustainable use of natural resources, as well as to environmental protection. Here, whaling is described as a somewhat unique economic activity as the Kingdom’s three parts “each has its own whaling policy” (ibid., p. 33).


Growth and development are described as knowledge-based; international research cooperation as well as Greenland’s prominent role in such cooperation are consequently highlighted. The Kingdom will strive, for example, “to maintain its leading role internationally in a number of research fields reach concerning the Arctic”, particularly in fields dealing with global and regional impacts of climate change. Research must, however, “also help to support the cultural, social, economic and commercial development” (ibid., p. 36). Finally, the Strategy stresses Arctic cooperation in the field of public health and social coherence.


The third chapter, “Development with Respect for the Arctic’s Vulnerable Climate, Environment and Nature” urges the pursuit of knowledge on climate change and its (global and regional) impacts. Research must be strengthened, and the natural Arctic environment must be managed according to the best scientific knowledge and standards. In mentioned the Arctic’s fragile climate, the Strategy gives priority to anti-pollution measures, to be accomplished by learning and understanding more about climate change and its impact globally, regionally and locally. It recognises a clear connection between climate change, increased accessibility and exploration opportunities while again stressing the Arctic’s vulnerable climate, whereas the draft strategy suggested that climate change would make exploration easier. In this respect, the final Strategy is somewhat more sophisticated in emphasising knowledge and knowledge-building concerning climate change and its impact.


The Strategy also discusses the protection of the environment and biodiversity, and basing the management of the Arctic environment “on the best possible scientific knowledge and standards of protection” (ibid., p. 43). It is important, it continues, to promote international cooperation while promoting “the rights of indigenous peoples in negotiations on a new international climate agreement” (ibid., p. 44).


The main tasks listed in the final chapter, “Close Cooperation with our International Partners” include prioritising global cooperation in relevant fields, particularly climate change, environmental protection, maritime safety and  indigenous peoples’ rights; enhancing cooperation in the Arctic Council, with the EU and regional councils, and  among the ‘Arctic 5’, an essential regional forum;  and upgrading bilateral cooperation and dialogue. The chapter has a sub-title, “Global Solutions to Global Challenges” (ibid., p. 49), which is a clever way of expressing the aim to prioritise global cooperation in fields relevant to the Arctic. This clear global dimension of the Strategy as well as the Kingdom’s global policy finds expression in a long list of worldwide organisations, such as the UN and its sub-organisations, UNFCCC, UNEP, Convention on Biological Diversity, IMO and WTO. UNCLOS and the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf are also mentioned.


When it comes to (enhancing) regional cooperation, the Strategy flags the importance of the 2008 “Polar Sea Conference” and its declaration. Here the Kingdom “will retain the ‘Arctic 5’”, but also strengthen the Arctic Council in cooperation within the Council. The EU and Greenland’s good relations with the Union (through not the EU’s Northern Dimension) are mentioned. It does also mention with regard to indigenous peoples, the UN, the UN Human Rights Council and Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples. ICES, NAMMCO, NAFO, NEAFC and IWC are mentioned in the context of fisheries and hunting. Finally, in terms of bilateral cooperation, the Strategy mentions Canada (in connection with the continental shelf), the USA (the Joint Committee cooperation between Greenland, Denmark and the USA), the Nordic countries, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea.


The Kingdom of Denmark’s Arctic Strategy represents “an important milestone towards 2020 and beyond” (ibid., p. 57). To ensure implementation the Strategy  declares an intention to form a cross-disciplinary steering committee for the Arctic Strategy and its evaluation, i.e. a mid-term evaluation in 2014 –2015. An updated strategy will likely be prepared in 2018–2019.


Given the four aims and four chapters, the priority areas and main tasks of the Strategy are first, to enhance maritime safety and enforce sovereignty; second, to exploit mineral resources and new economic opportunities and use renewable energy, while maintaining a leading role in Arctic research, and promoting Arctic cooperation on human health; third, to learn more about climate change, and manage the natural Arctic environment based on the best scientific information; and finally, to prioritise global cooperation, and enhance cooperation in the Arctic Council and ‘Arctic 5’. The Strategy in that sense has a twofold focus and ultimate aim: on one hand, to strengthen Greenland’s new position in its status as a self-governing entity and (re)define a new position of the Kingdom of Denmark in the Arctic as a “global player”; and second, to react and respond to recent significant environmental, geo-economic and geopolitical change(s), as well as growing global interest in, the Arctic region. Indeed, the Strategy has a clear global perspective.

See also Lassi Heininen, “Arctic Strategies and Policies - Inventory and Comparative Study”. The Northern Research Forum & The University of Lapland, Akureyri, Iceland, August 2011 ( /Arctic Strategies).


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