COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Greenland plans to force former colonial ruler Denmark to confront past human rights abuses against the island’s indigenous Inuit people such as the confiscation of ancestral hunting grounds, its prime minister said.
A new commission will begin this month to investigate the abuses, which also include removing children from Inuit families in the 1950s for better integration into Danish society. But the creation of the commission has already stirred anger in Denmark.
The overwhelming majority of Greenland’s 57,000 people are of Inuit decent, thinly spread out across the vast, barren North Atlantic island that is a quarter the size of the United States.
Greenland, first colonized by Denmark in the 18th century, gained greater autonomy from Copenhagen in 2009 and its main political parties favor eventual full independence, but the economy remains heavily dependent on Danish financial subsidies.
“Reconciliation is very important on a path where Greenland strives for independence,” Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond, herself born to an Inuit family, told Reuters in an interview in Copenhagen on Thursday.
“For a country that moves toward greater autonomy and independence its people need to know about their own story,” said the 48-year-old Hammond, who has tried to reassert Greenland’s Inuit identity since her election last year.
Greenland, which ceased to be a formal Danish colony in 1953, has started tentatively to open up to new investment in mining, despite local concerns about rising Chinese influence and about environmental damage.
Many Danes still work as civil servants and business leaders in Greenland and there have been inter-marriages. But tales of colonial-era abuses still provoke anger among the Inuits.
For example, scores of Inuit children were removed from their families in 1951 as part of a Danish government program. Most of them never returned to their families but were eventually sent to an orphanage in the capital Nuuk, according to published histories and documentaries.
In 1953, the Danish government removed more than 100 people from their homes in Thule to make room for the installation of anti-aircraft defenses to protect a newly-built U.S. air base. The Inuits was given three days to pack their belongings and move, according to historians.
“They were not even allowed to hunt in their own hunting grounds. Such things are in the minds of people and hurt many families that have been relocated,” said Hammond.
The new commission has caused controversy in Denmark.
“I see the Danish realm as a family. We’ve made mistakes together, we have created progress together, and therefore I see no need for a reconciliation commission,” said Christian Friis Bach, a senior member of the Social-Liberal Party which is part of Denmark’s ruling coalition.
“I think (the commission) is a deadly insult to Denmark,” said Soren Espersen, spokesman on Greenland for the right-wing Danish People Party.
Denmark provides an annual grant to Greenland of about 3.6 billion Danish crowns ($668.77 million) - equal to about half the island’s national budget.
But despite such economic dependency and its continued reliance on NATO member Denmark for defense, Greenland has begun to steer a more assertive course under Hammond.
Last year it removed a ban on exporting uranium, a byproduct of rare earths processing, in a move that irked Denmark, worried about the security and environmental implications.
Hammond said the commission’s aim was not to blacken Denmark’s image but to allow a frank evaluation of the past.
“This is not a question of making Denmark (look) bad, this is a question of bringing our lives and a discussion of our history to a higher level,” said Hammond, speaking in English.
“It would be nice with openness and a reaching hand, but instead I met a wall.”
“I’m working toward independence,” she said, adding that she did not know when that would come.
“I hope it will be at a time when I still can dance”.
($1 = 5.3830 Danish Crowns)
Additional reporting by Ole Mikkelsen; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Gareth Jones