Indigenous Peoples Rights in the Arctic

(by Brit Fløistad and Lars Lothe)


“Arctic marine shipping involves several distinct activities, each with different interactions with local residents and thus different implications and likely impacts1  never the less formed the basis for indigenous peoples arguing their rights. Both Covenants state the right of all peoples to freely determine their political status, to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development, to freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources and not to be deprived of own means of subsistence. Of special importance to indigenous peoples was that the ICCPR made it clear that minorities within a state should not be denied the right to enjoy their own culture, religion and language2  and Norway3  have ratified.

After more than 20 years of negotiations between nation states and indigenous peoples4  in matters relating to their internal and local affairs5  confirms the Sami peoples’ right to self-determination. It is envisaged that a Nordic Sami convention will expand the scope of functional autonomy from central governments to the respective Sami parliaments. A working group, appointed by the Norwegian Government to scrutinize the convention draft concluded6 that some of the provisions go beyond national as well as international law, thus implying extended duties on the part of Norwegian authorities. This may be part of the reason why a Nordic Sami convention is still pending. Being a Nordic convention the Sami of the Federation of Russia is not a party, but relations to Russian Sami has been considered by the group of experts recommending some form of cooperation within the convention, but obviously leaving an actual initiative to the political authorities.

The Northeast Passage – Indigenous Peoples

From what is outlined above it seems fair to conclude that indigenous peoples in the Arctic have a strong legal and institutional basis for promoting their rights in regard to activities related to lands and waters on territories they traditionally occupy.

Indigenous peoples living along the Northeast Passage /the Northern Sea Route are found in local communities along the coast of Norway and of the Russian Federation. One such people are the Sami living in what is usually described as an Sub-Arctic area. It is estimated that approximately 40.0007  Sami live in Norway, of which more than half live in the region of Finnmark8  living in Russian Arctic and Sub-Arctic, affected by the Northern Sea Route9  in order to clarify ownership to lands in Finnmark by virtue of historic title by Sami or other inhabitants of Finnmark. Even though applying to all inhabitants of Finnmark, this is assumed to relate primarily to the Sami population.

The Finnmark Act acknowledges that the Sami people has acquired rights to land and resources in Finnmark, and therefore also a right to be heard in matters related to resource management within their territories, hence giving the Sami Parliament a rather significant role in the Finnmark Estate. By this influence of the Same Parliament, as well as by relating this to the acquired Sami rights, it was concluded that the Finnmark Estate meets the requirement in the ILO-Convention regarding indigenous peoples rights and that the Finnmark Act thus is in accordance with international law.

Through the Finnmark Act a legal and organisational framework has been established for the managing of natural resources in Finnmark, taking into consideration the particular rights acquired by the Sami as an indigenous people in this area. This is, however, not to say that conflict of interest may not occur in relation to the development of resources in Finnmark.

One recent example relates to plans for exploitation of mineral resources in this region, such as copper and gold. This has raised the question of possible impacts on the traditional reindeer herding. Pointing to the need for new ways of economic development in this region, also for the Sami population, and having mineral exploitation as one of the objectives in its High North policy, the Norwegian Government seems to be of the opinion that mineral exploitation and reindeer herding can live side by side in Finnmark10  has been amended so as “to guarantee the rights of the indigenous small peoples according to the universally recognized principles and norms of international law and international treaties and agreements of the Russian Federation”. Laws and regulation have been passed11 on the guaranteeing of indigenous peoples rights, on the use of resources on their traditional territories and on minority organizations. None of these laws and regulations is translated with the exception of the law on minority organizations giving minority groups the right to organize in so-called communities of native minorities, with the purpose of securing traditional patterns of life, rights and legal interests of these native minorities. They are non-profitable and organized on a voluntary basis. Not being able to look more closely into the other legislative measures, it is hard to give a more detailed presentation of the actual rights acquired by indigenous peoples in the Russian Federation. The question thus remains to what degree these laws and regulations have given, what is defined as minority groups, self-determination in regard to the actual development of lands and resources on their traditional territories.

According to indigenous peoples themselves the support by the Russian Government at the end of the 1980s gave way to opposition towards indigenous self-government. It was maintained that “in many regions strong opposition by the authorities is manifested in complete disregard for indigenous peoples and violation of their lawful rights and interests,” and also that Government representatives have been “trying to continue policies of paternalism toward and control over indigenous peoples12  had given the Home Rule legislative and executive powers within a number of fields13  over which the Greenland Self-Government authorities may decide to resume legislative and executive responsibility. Resuming such responsibility implies a right to the assets, as well as the duty to finance, the actual fields. The new Act has been described as a means for Greenland “to slowly mature and become the kind of society that Greenlanders themselves aspire14 has, however, gradually diminished, and the ultimate objective of the Self-Government authorities is to gain economic self-sustainability, which in turn implies looking for new sources of income.

Greenland’s main industry to day is fish and fish products constituting 87 % of all export15 .

Even though constituting an important source of income, exploration of living marine resources will not be a sufficient source of income for Greenland to gain economic self -sustainability. There is thus today an increased focus on the country’s potential for exploiting other resources. One such resource, pointed to by the minister for Industry and Mineral Resources in Greenland16  is situated in this area. Greenland Self-Government’s participation in hydrocarbon licenses is handled by the oil company of Greenland, Nunaoil A/S. With the Act of 2009 the Self-Government took over shares formerly owned by the Danish Government, which means that Nunaoil A/S now is fully owned by Greenland Self-Government. One challenge worth mentioning, which may imply that economic self-sufficiency is still a way ahead, is the lack of own qualified personnel to manage the various tasks inherent in such business and industry.

Economic development in Greenland also involves other mineral resources than hydrocarbons. There are today issued more than seventy licenses, mostly to foreign companies, for exploration and exploitation of various minerals in Greenland, and another thirteen licenses for prospecting17  and Inuit, and usually also including Métis18  with recommendations “on restructuring and improving the regulatory system in the North to facilitate responsible development of resources19  formally separated from the Northwest Territories and established as a new territory in the Canadian Federation as of 1 April 1999. Nunavut got its own territorial government serving both Inuit and non-Inuit. In 1993 the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement20  has been different than in Nunavut. In these Territories, where aboriginal peoples constitute 50 % of the population of which 20 % is Inuit, only four of about 30 aboriginal communities have settled land claims agreements21  where in 2003 a 20 tonne container filled with hazardous chemicals, which had been lost at sea, hit their shore. The container cracked, leaking approximately 15 tons of chemicals. There was no disaster response plan and thus no preventive measures in place to meet the consequences of this pollution. This incident is thus an example of the fact that transpolar shipping, passing far out at sea also may constitutes a potential for environmental impacts to local activities. What was demonstrated as well in this incident was the importance of having in place a legal framework in order to clarify responsibility and secure compensation related to the damage caused by the pollution.

Another impact on local communities is that even though the ship traffic is transpolar it may have a need for infrastructure on land, such as port and harbour facilities. This may in turn inflict on local communities, causing disturbances, but also contribute to economic development welcomed by indigenous peoples.


  •  1. AMSA (2008), Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, Report Draft, 14 November 2008
  •  2. ICCPR, Article 27. “In those states in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not e denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess an
  •  3. Ratified 24. April 1990
  •  4. This process has been described in detail by Eide (2006) pp 155-212
  •  5. Article 4
  •  6. En gjennomgåelse av utkast til nordisk samekonvensjon” http://www.regjeringen.no/Upload/AID/temadokumenter/sami/sami_arbeidsgrrapport_gjennomgaelse_nordisk_samekonvensjon.pdf
  •  7. 38.248 in 2009 (Statistisk Sentralbyrå)
  •  8. Sami in Norway live all over the country, but as uncertain criteria makes it difficult to determine who is Sami, the official statistics include only Sami in the three most northern counties, and based on so-called SNT (Sametingets tilskuddsordninger for
  •  9. Sokolova (1998)
  •  10. ”Gruvedrift nødvendig for samisk kultur”. NRK Sameradio 13. april 2010
  •  11. Federal Law of 30.04.1999 No. 82-FZ "On Guarantees of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of Russia", Federal Law of 7.05.2001 No. 49-FZ ” On Territories for Traditional Use of Natural Resources of Indigenous and Minority Peoples of the North, Siberia and Fa
  •  12. RAIPON: http://www.raipon.net/History/Social/tabid/312/Default.aspx
  •  13. Such as internal administration, direct and indirect taxation, fishing and hunting, social welfare, education, culture and protection of the environment.
  •  14. From remote island to Self-Government – Greenland’s journey towards independence. Arctic portal. December 2009
  •  15. The main species, Greenland halibut, a stock shared with Canada in the Davies Strait and with Iceland and the Faeroe Islands, constitutes more than half of the catches in Greenland’s waters.
  •  16. Ove Karl Berthelsen
  •  17. Also the list of licenses for mining can be seen athttp://www.bmp.gl/minerals/list_of_licences_20100301.pdf
  •  18. In all of Canada aboriginal peoples number 1.172. 790, 60 % of which is First Nations peoples, 33 % is Métis and 4 % is Inuit. (2006) Statistics of Canada.
  •  19. Simone, T. (2008), The Arctic: Northern Aboriginal Peoples. (Library of Parliament – Parliamentary Information and Research Service. October 2008 (PRB 08-10E)
  •  20. http://www.nucj.ca/library/bar_ads_mat/Nunavut_Land_Claims_Agreement.pdf
  •  21. Inuvial (1984), Gwich’in (1992), Sahtu Dene and Métis (1994) and Ticho (2005)
  •  22. Hurley, M.C. Aboriginal self-government. (Parlimentary information and Research Service, Canada, 96-2E)
  •  23. Jones, R. S (1981). Alaska Natives Claims Settlement Act of 1971. History and analyses together with subsequent amendments. 1981
  •  24. Osherenko, Schindler et al. (1997)
  •  25. Other terms used are aboriginal peoples, natives and minority
  •  26. Arctic Human Development Report. November 2004
  •  27. Eide (no date)
  •  28. The Original name was Inuit Circumpolar Conference, but was changed to Inuit Circumpolar Council at the Assembly in 2006 as there had been some perennial confusion over an organizational name that sounded more like a past meeting
  •  29. The starting point was the Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 10.December 1948 (United Nations) and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of 4. November 1950 (European Council)
  •  30. The ICCPR entered into force 23. March 1976 and the ICESCR 3. January1976. The former is signed by 72 states and the latter by 69 states. All the 5 states bordering the Arctic Ocean have signed and ratified both Convenants, the only exception being that
  •  31. CCPR/C/”!/Rev.1/Add.5, General Comment No 23
  •  32. Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169) Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, The Convention replaced the ILO-Convention no 107 of 26. June 1957 Concerning the protection and integration of indigenous peoples
  •  33. According to article 1 (3) of the Convention “[t]he use of the term peoples in this Convention shall not be construed as having any implications as regards the rights which may attach to the term under international law”
  •  34. ILO Convention, article 14
  •  35. ILO Convention, article 15
  •  36. ILO Convention, article 6
  •  37. Ratified 1. April 1996
  •  38. Article 46 (1) “ Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, people, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act contrary to the Charter of the United Nations or construed as authorizing or encou
  •  39. Article 27
  •  40. Article 28
  •  41. Article 32
  •  42. Expressed by the Chair of UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
  •  43. Second International Decade of Indigenous Peoples 2005-2014. Resolution 59/147 by the General Assembly. “Partnership Action and Dignity”. 24. Februrary 2005. (The First International Decade..... from 1995-2004. Resolution 48/163 of 21. December 1993)
  •  44. Together with Australia and New Zealand the only states voting against, the latter is now reversing its stance
  •  45. The Anchorage Declaration 24 April 2009. The Inuit Circumpolar Council 20.-24. April 2009. http://www.indigenoussummit.com/servlet/content/declaration.html
  •  46. A Circumpolar Inuit Declaration on Sovereignty in the Arctic”. Adopted by the Inuit Circumpolar Council. April 2009
  •  47. The Anchorage Declaration 24 April 2009. The Inuit Circumpolar Council 20.-24. April 2009. http://www.indigenoussummit.com/servlet/content/declaration.html
  •  48. IPS does not speak for the Permanent Participants. Instead, it creates opportunities for the Indigenous Peoples’ Organisations to speak for themselves, and helps provide them with necessary information and materials
  •  49. Nunatsiavut (Labrador), Nunavik (northern Quebec), Nunavut, and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the Northwest Territories
  •  50. Finland established a Sami parliament in 1973 and Sweden in 1993 2005
  •  51. By an expert group led by former Chief Justice Carsten Smith. “Nordisk samekonvensjon” http://www.regjeringen.no/Upload/AID/temadokumenter/sami/sami_samekonvensjon_norsk.pdf
  •  52. Nenets, Evenks, Khanty, Evens, Chukchi, Nanaitsy, Koryaki, Manci, Dolgany, Nivhi, Selkups, Ulchi, Itelmens, Udegeitsy, Saami, Eskimos, Chuvantsy, Nganasany, Yukagris, Kety, Orochi, Tofalary, Aleuty, Negidalts, Entsy and Oroki (Sokolova and Yakolev (1998)
  •  53. “Samerettsutvalget”, headed by the later Chief Justice Carsten Smith
  •  54. LOV 1987-06-12 nr. 56: Lov om Sametinget og andre samiske rettsforhold (Sameloven).
  •  55. Articel 110a
  •  56. LOV-2005-06-17-85 Lov om rettsforhold og forvaltning av grunn og naturressurser i Finnmark fylke (finnmarksloven).
  •  57. ”Finnmarkskommisjonen”, established 14. March 2008
  •  58. RAIPON http://www.raipon.org/
  •  59. The Constitution of the Russian Federation of 25. December 1993 (Amended 9. January 1996, 10. Februry 1996 and 9. June 2001)
  •  60. The project “Monitoring the development of traditional land use areas in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug” is a cooperation between the Association of Nenets People and the Norwegian Polar Institute during the Polar Year 2007-2008
  •  61. All figures are from “Greenland in Figures 2009” and Statistics Greenland
  •  62. 47.093 of a total population of 56.194, that is about 85 %, live in towns
  •  63. Less than 4.000 live on the east coast, 2.998 in Tasiilaq (Ammassalik) and 485 in Illoqqortoormiit (Scoresbysund)
  •  64. Danish Law 473 of 12. June 2009, which will be further dealt with below
  •  65. Greenland was made a colony in 1721. Had Greenland remained a non-self -governing territory under Chapter XI of the United Nations Charter it would have gained the right to opt for independence, but the UN took note of Greenland’s integration into the Kin
  •  66. This process has caused some discussion as to its validity under international law
  •  67. Act on Greenland Self-Government. 12. June 2009. Danish Law 577 of 29. November 1978
  •  68. The Greenland – Danish Self-Government Commission. Report on Self-Government in Greenland. April 2008
  •  69. 75.5 % voted for 23.6 % voted against
  •  70. These fields of responsibility are listed in a Schedule forming an appendix to the Act, and covers almost all fields, the exception being that the Danish Government will retain a significant influence in foreign- and security-policy issues, as well as in
  •  71. The Act on Self-Government makes it clear that revenue from mineral resource activities shall accrue to Greenland’s Self-Government authorities, with the consequence that the annual subsidy from the Danish Government will be reduced. If the subsidy is red
  •  72. Greenland’s GPD was in 2006 DKK10.542 mio
  •  73. The most important fishery is prawns, primarily taking place in the waters outside the south-western part of Greenland around Sisimiut (Holsteinsborg), but also on the east coast, characterised by unusually large, and therefore valuable, shrimps. FAO. Fis
  •  74. The tender area in Baffin Bay covers about 151,000 km2. The area has been divided into 14 blocks varying in size between about 8,000 km2 and 15,000 km2. According to the Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum there has been an “enormous interest in oil licens
  •  75. The list of licenses can be seen athttp://www.bmp.gl/minerals/list_of_licences_20100301.pdf
  •  76. Ministry of Domestic Affairs, Nature and Environment
  •  77. The Coalition Agreement was entered into on June 10th, 2009 http://uk.nanoq.gl/Emner/Government/~/media/9E0C6F8EBEFE42758CB5D9FC29FC2358.ashx The current Cabinet is based on political cooperation between Inuit Ataqatigiit, Demokraatit, and Kattusseqatigii
  •  78. There are to day ports in 16 towns and harbours in 60 settlements in Greenland
  •  79. Østreng (1999)
  •  80. First Nations are primarily Indians
  •  81. Twentyone such agreements are being implemented covering more thatn one-third of the country in Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Labrador, northern Quebec and northwest British Columbia (Fenge 2008)
  •  82. Fenge, Terry.” Implementing comprehensive land claims agreements”. (Policy Options July-August 2008)
  •  83. ”Northern Regulatory Improvements Initiative” November 2007
  •  84. “Road to improvement”
  •  85. The Nunavut Act 1993, http://laws.justice.gc.ca/eng/N-28.6/page-1.html
  •  86. In February 1999, residents of Nunavut held their first election for members of their Legislative Assembly.
  •  87. Dewar (2009). http://www.tunngavik.com/documents/publications/NLCA%20&%20Nunavut%20Dewar%202009.pdf
  •  88. Northwest Territories Act 1985, http://laws.justice.gc.ca/eng/N-27/page-1.html
  •  89. resented in ”Partners in a New Beginning” in October 1996 by a Constitutional Working Group
  •  90. Governing Alaska. Native Citizenship and Land Issues. Native Citizenship. Information Courtesy of the Alaska Humanities Forum. No date. http://www.gov.state.ak.us/ASCC/pdf/Governing%20Alaska%20-%20Native%20Citizenship.pdf
  •  91. http://www.lbblawyers.com/ancsatoc.htm#top
  •  92. Governing Alaska. Native Citizenship and Land Issues. A “New Deal” for Alaska Natives. Information Courtesy of the Alaska Humanities Forum. No date.
  •  93. Chance, (no date) http://arcticcircle.uconn.edu/SEEJ/Landclaims/ancsa1.html
  •  94. http://supreme.justia.com/us/522/520/case.html
  •  95. Alaska Federation of Natives http://www.nativefederation.org/
  •  96. The village of Nikoloskoye on the Commander Island situated east of Kamchatka
  •  97. Diatchkova, G. (2001), Indigenous peoples of Russia and political history. (The Canadian Journal of Native Studies XXI, 2(2001) pp 217-233)
  •  98. Fenge, T. (2008). Inuit and the Nunavut land claims agreement: supporting Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. (Political Options December 2007-January 2008)

Brit Fløistad and Lars Lothe, 2010, Indigenous Peoples Rights in the Arctic, CHNL.©

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