• Indigenous peoples in Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland)

    Indigenous peoples in Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland)

    The indigenous peoples of Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) are Inuit and make up a majority of the Greenlandic population. Greenland is a self-governing country within the Danish Realm, and although Denmark has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Greenland’s population continue to face challenges.

The Indigenous World 2024: Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland)

Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) has been a self-governing country since 1979 within the Kingdom of Denmark (or Danish Realm), which consists of Denmark, the Faroe Islands and Kalaallit Nunaat. The country is a 2 million km2 island in the Arctic whose population is 88.9% Greenlandic Inuit out of a total of 56,562 inhabitants (May 2022).[1] The majority of Greenlandic Inuit refer to themselves as Kalaallit (Kalaaleq in singular). Approximately 17,000 Kalaallit live in Denmark.

Ethnographically, Kalaallit consist of three major groups: the Kalaallit of West Greenland, who speak Kalaallisut (west Greenlandic); the Iivit of Kangia (East Greenland), who speak Iivi oraasia (east Greenlandic) and the Inughuit/Avanersuarmiut near Thule who speak Inuktun (north Greenlandic). Kalaallisut is the official language, which the majority of people speak, while the second official language of the country is Danish. The economy includes subsistence hunting, commercial fisheries, tourism, and emerging efforts to develop the mining industry. Greenland has a per capita GDP of approximately USD 52,500 (approx. EUR 48,000, approximately 50% of the national budget is financed by Denmark through a block grant).

In 2009, the Act on Self-Government was inaugurated, which gave the country further self-determination within the Kingdom of Denmark. Together with the Danish Constitution, the Self-Government Act articulates Greenland’s constitutional position in the Kingdom of Denmark. The Self-Government Act recognizes the Greenlandic people as a people under international law with the right to self-determination.

Greenland’s self-government consists of Inatsisartut (Parliament), an elected legislature of 31 elected members, and Naalakkersuisut (Government), which is responsible for overall public administration. The Government of Denmark, on behalf of the Kingdom inc. Kalaallit Nunaat, voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007 and subsequent Danish governments have committed to its implementation. Greenland and Denmark jointly prepare reports regarding good practice on the implementation of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, as described in the UNDRIP and other international human rights instruments. The Government of Greenland had a decisive influence over the Kingdom of Denmark’s ratification of ILO Convention 169 in 1996, as Greenland has prioritized actions to establish Indigenous Peoples’ collective rights to land and resources in their territories. 

Kalaallit Nunaat and land rights 

There is no privately-owned land in Kalaallit Nunaat. In the traditional nomadic existence, Inuit (across the Arctic) followed the migration routes of game animals, which made it difficult and impractical to divide hunting areas into smaller privately demarcated areas. Hence, the basic principle was that the land was collectively owned, and use was subject to general territorial rights.

Customary law is part of the Inuit legal culture whereby the right to participate in the utilization of resources is rooted in the membership of a local community. In this context, there are two types of right: 1) the general territorial right, which is collectively utilized by a settlement, and 2) the individual preferential right or right of use to e.g. a special fishing spot or similar that could be acquired through inheritance from the family who had had the right to use the place for several generations. The latter kind of right could be assigned from the residents of the settlement to outsiders[2] if deemed so.

However, with the colonization of Kalaallit Nunaat and the meeting with the outside world and modernization, especially in the post WWII-era, this concept has been challenged. When Kalaallit Nunaat had its formal status changed from colony to county in 1953 and was included in the Danish Constitution, the provisions of the Constitution were extended to the entire kingdom, including that “personal freedom is inviolable”; that “the home is inviolable”, and finally that “the right to property is inviolable. No one can be obliged to give up his property, without where the public good requires it. This can only be done by law and against full compensation.”

Future Constitutional framework for Kalaallit Nunaat

On 31 March 2023, after six years of work, the Constitutional Commission of Inatsisartut handed over its draft of a constitution for Kalaallit Nunaat to Inatsisartut and Naalakkersuisut at a ceremony at Ilisimatusarfik (the University of Greenland).[3] The Self-rule Act currently in place for Kalaallit Nunaat already has provisions in place on independence stipulating that: “the decision on Greenland's independence is made by the Greenlandic people”; that “independence must be approved by a referendum in Greenland”; and that the “Greenlandic parliament, Inatsisartut, and the Danish Parliament must reach agreement on independence”.

The follow-up work on the draft constitution now lies in a specific ministerial portfolio on “statehood” that has been added to the portfolio of Naalakkersuisoq (minister) for Foreign Affairs. Naalakkersuisut has proclaimed that the follow-up work will entail a dialogue with the population of Kalaallit Nunaat about their views on a constitution and an independent Kalaallit Nunaat.

UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples

The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNSRIP), Francisco Cali-Tzay, visited Denmark and Kalaallit Nunaat in February 2023 to gain information, including on the conditions of Kalaallit living in Denmark.[4] His report (presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 28 September 2023) gave a pronounced and unequivocal criticism of Denmark for the racism that is taking place against Kalaallit living in Denmark. This is supported by surveys and reports from the Danish Institute for Human Rights showing a widespread prejudiced attitude among Danes towards Kalaallit and a general group stigmatization.[5]

In the UNSRIP report, some of the Kalaallit he met in Denmark are quoted as having said that they see themselves as “invisible ghosts” in Denmark who have nowhere to go for advice and assistance. The report also made recommendations on how to accommodate these challenges, including that Denmark should establish a central unit that works to ensure equal treatment of Kalaallit in Denmark.

There is still room in Denmark for ensuring that the social, cultural, religious, and spiritual values ​​of Kalaallit in Denmark are recognized and protected, and that the challenges they face – both as a group and as individuals – are worked through in a dedicated manner.

The Danish government has stated that: “the report points to pertinent challenges in ensuring a just and equal society for all Inuit, whether they live in Denmark or in Greenland”[6] but has not put any actions into place in the wake of the report.

Placement of Greenlandic children outside the home

Another critical example also addressed by the Special Rapporteur was the placement of Greenlandic children in Denmark outside their homes. The risk of Greenlandic children in Denmark being placed in foster care is seven times higher than for any other children in Denmark. Not only is the statistical difference significantly high but placing a child outside the home is a grave intervention in itself. The Danish Institute for Human Rights has shown that psychological tests related to assessing the children’s parents’ parenting abilities have been problematic.[7] The tests were developed in Western countries for Western populations and are not adapted to the culture of Kalaallit, leaving them in a weaker position when answering many of the questions in the tests. It also appeared that interpreters are not used sufficiently when Kalaallit meet with the Danish authorities. While provisions were initiated in 2023 to adapt the psychological tests, the Danish authorities still have work to do in their special obligation towards Indigenous Peoples to ensure Greenlandic children's well-being and development, including access to cultural heritage, language, history, and origins.

Intrauterine device – campaign or scandal?

In recent years, the so-called “IUD campaign” has been revealed by – among others – journalists in Kalaallit Nunaat as well as the Danish national broadcasting company DR in a podcast series.[8] The coverage showed that, from 1966 to the 1970s, almost half of the 9,000 women and girls of childbearing age (some as young as 12-13 years of age) had an IUD inserted by Danish doctors, often without their own or their parent’s knowledge or consent.[9] This represents a State violation of the right to protection from degrading treatment as well as the right of self-determination. This continued up until 1991 when Greenland assumed responsibility from Denmark for the health sector. In 2022, the Greenlandic government, Naalakkersuisut, and the Danish state decided to jointly investigate the campaign from the 1960s through to 1991 to lay out all details, to be finalized within a working period of two years. The Special Rapporteur acknowledged this in his report but pointed out that such an investigation should include more recent cases going beyond 1991. At the same time, the Special Rapporteur stressed that testimony from Greenlandic women should be given weight in the investigation, which also forms part of the Terms of Reference for the investigation.[10] The investigation began in 2023 and is expected to be finished by 2025. In addition, 143 Greenlandic women affected by the IUD campaign have sued the Danish state for DKK 20 million.[11]

Children’s rights

11 May 2023 marked exactly 30 years since Kalaallit Nunaat acceded to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is estimated that up to one-third of the children in Kalaallit Nunaat are disadvantaged in one way or another. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has been working in Kalaallit Nunaat since 2011 and established its office in 2019. Since 2011, awareness of children's rights among Greenlandic school children has increased significantly but there is still work to be done. One of the central projects is NAKUUSA – a collaboration between UNICEF and Naalakkersuisut working to spread awareness of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and – above all – to include the voices of children and young people on the political agenda.[12] Another important forum for the work on children’s rights in Kalaallit Nunaat is MIO – the Greenlandic Children's Rights Institution. MIO was established in the spring of 2012 and works to spread awareness of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Kalaallit Nunaat, including ensuring that the convention results in concrete efforts that improve the daily life of – especially vulnerable – children and young people in Kalaallit Nunaat. The MIO’s Children's Spokesperson, Aviâja Egede Lynge, who has been in post since 2015, has focused on documenting violations of children’s rights (especially cases of sexual abuse and violence in broken families and dysfunctional community structures) throughout Kalaallit Nunaat and was awarded the Ebbe Munck Prize by the Danish Queen Margrethe II in 2023 for her and MIO’s tireless work in breaking taboos with regards to violations of children’s rights.[13]

Paris Agreement

On 14 November 2023, the Parliament of Kalaallit Nunaat, Inatsisartut, agreed to accede to the Paris Agreement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). A central reason for not having adhered to the UNFCCC hitherto has been the uncertainty of whether or not Kalaallit Nunaat was bound by Denmark’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and CO2 reductions obligations. A legal memorandum from the spring of 2023 stated that there was nothing legally preventing Kalaallit Nunaat, in cooperation with the Danish government, from setting a different reduction target than the one Denmark has committed to in the EU-NDC. As a result of the voting in Inatsisartut, Kalaallit Nunaat signed up to the Paris Agreement. The Government of Kalaallit Nunaat, Naalakkersuisut, will announce the accession to the Paris Agreement of the UN Climate Convention (UNFCCC) and, in this context, will need to prepare a national climate strategy containing climate objectives and a direction for how Kalaallit Nunaat will achieve economic growth aligned with the green transition. Based on the coming climate strategy, an NDC containing climate objectives and obligations for each sector must also be developed. Naalakkersuisut has stated that the strategy will be done with the involvement of citizens, businesses, and civil society. Kalaallit Nunaat can decide to leave out some sectors, such as raw materials and/or fishing from its reduction obligations.[14] The NDC is expected to be submitted to the UNFCCC and come into effect from 2030.[15]



Nauja Bianco is a native Greenlander, born and raised in the capital, Nuuk, now living and working in Copenhagen, Denmark as an independent consultant. For 15 years, Ms Bianco worked in government and diplomacy for various bodies, including the Government of Greenland, as a diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and in the intergovernmental organization of the Nordic Council of Ministers. In 2020, she became the CEO of the North Atlantic House and the Greenlandic House in Odense, Denmark. North Atlantic House is a cultural house displaying arts and culture from Greenland, Faroe Islands, and Iceland along with a business network facilitating greater business knowledge of the three countries. Ms Bianco is a member of IWGIA’s Board.


This article is part of the 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here


Notes and references

[1] “Statistics Greenland. Greenland in Figures 2022.” Statistics Greenland, May 2022. https://stat.gl/publ/en/GF/2022/pdf/Greenland%20in%20Figures%202022.pdf

[2] “Råstofaktiviteter i Grønland” (2014) (report entitled “Mineral activities in Greenland” produced in collaboration between ICC Greenland and WWF and financed by the Villum Foundation), June 2014. http://awsassets.wwfdk.panda.org/downloads/kollektiv_ejendomsret_og_mineindustri__tidligere_og_nuvarende_lovgivningsmassige_rammer_.pdf

[3] Forfatningskommissionen (The Constitutional Commission) https://tunngavik.gl/

[4] Visit to Denmark and Greenland - Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples (2023) https://www.ohchr.org/en/documents/country-reports/ahrc5431add1-visit-denmark-and-greenland-report-special-rapporteur-rights and smaller initial travel report: https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/documents/issues/indigenouspeoples/sr/statements/eom-statement-denmark-greenland-sr-indigenous-2023-02-10.pdf

[5] Op-ed by Director of the Danish Institute of Human Rights, Louise Holck: “Danmark svigter sine forpligtigelser, når grønlændere i Danmark udsættes for diskrimination,” Altinget, 22 February 2023. https://www.altinget.dk/arktis/artikel/danmark-svigter-sine-forpligtigelser-naar-groenlaendere-i-danmark-udsaettes-for-diskrimination; Danish Institute for Human Rights. ”Greenlanders in Denmark.” 1 April 2023. https://menneskeret.dk/status/groenlaendere; and Danish Institute for Human Rights. ”Greenlandic Students in Denmark.” 15 September 2023. https://menneskeret.dk/udgivelser/groenlandske-studerende-danmark

[6] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, Permanent Mission of Denmark to the UN in Geneva. “HRC54: Denmark and Greenland deliver statement after country visits by the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” 28 September 2023. https://fngeneve.um.dk/en/news/hrc54-danmark-and-greenland-deliver-statement-after-country-visits-by-the

[7] Danish Institute for Human Rights. “Testning af forældrekompetencer hos grønlændere i Danmark.” 24 May 2022. https://menneskeret.dk/udgivelser/testning-foraeldrekompetencer-groenlaendere-danmark

[8] DR. Podcast “Spiralkampagnen”. 6 May 2022. https://www.dr.dk/lyd/p1/spiralkampagnen-3510654808000

[9] Danish Institute for Human Rights. “Spiralkampagne i Grønland udgør grov krænkelse af menneskerettighederne.” 12 May 2022. https://menneskeret.dk/nyheder/spiralkampagne-groenland-udgoer-grov-kraenkelse-menneskerettighederne

[10] Ministry of Health (Denmark). “Kommissorium - Uvildig udredning af ‘spiralsagen’ og den øvrige svangerskabsforebyggelsespraksis i Grønland og på efterskoler i Danmark med grønlandske elever i årene fra 1960 til og med 1991.” https://sum.dk/Media/638001353192965804/DK_Kommissorium.pdf

[11] Ann-Sophie Greve Møller. “Kvinder fra spiralskandalen kræver over 20 millioner kroner i erstatning fra Danmark.” KNR, 1 October 2023.

[12] Nakuusa website: https://nakuusa.gl/da/

[13] Helle Nørrelund Sørensen. “Aviâja Egede Lynge får hæderspris: Sandheden om børnene er ikke længere ilde hørt.” KNR, 14 November 2023. https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/aviaja-egede-lynge-faar-haederspris-sandheden-om-boernene-er-ikke-laengere-ilde-hoert

[14] Thomas Munk Veirum. ”Ny vurdering: Kan Grønland omsider komme med i Paris-aftalen?” Sermitsiaq, 14 February 2023. https://sermitsiaq.ag/node/242494

[15] Press Release. “Parisaftalen skaber muligheder for Grønland.” Naalakkersuisut, 14 November 2023. https://naalakkersuisut.gl/Nyheder/2023/11/1411_Parisaftalen?sc_lang=da

Tags: Land rights, Women, Youth, Climate, Autonomy



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