The Right to Return and National Missile Defense: Vikings, Kalaallit Nunaat & “The Discarded”

The Right to Return and National Missile Defense: Vikings, Kalaallit Nunaat & “The Discarded”

– by Macdonald Stainsby

originally written for Left Hook, circa February 2005.

What currently remains of the antiwar movement in many places– in particular Canada– has rightly seen an importance to discussing Ballistic Missile Defense, or BMD, as an antiwar issue in the age of the “War on Terror”. However, there are issues involving BMD not even being discussed by the antiwar movement that sorely need exposure, education and hopefully, organization. And it all begins where the first European settlers, the Vikings, ended: on the largest island in the world.

The foreign affairs minister of Denmark spoke to Colin Powell at a ceremony that received next to no fanfare on August 6, 2004, and the attention it did receive was unduly celebratory. One can imagine what kind of celebration was going on here, when FM Per Stig Moeller stated “It was from here the Vikings went out to discover – and civilize – America”.1 To say this while standing on the Inuit island homeland of Kalaallit Nunaat (still usually referred to as “Greenland”) it is clear the colonial mindset is alive and well. This mindset persists despite the painful tales of land theft, environmental destruction, “missionaries”, whalers, whiskey & fur traders and so much more in the history of this benighted Arctic people. Neither the Vikings nor Columbus brought civilization to any part of the Western Hemisphere– but the beginning of colonialism and social devastation still proceeding today.

To justify the crimes of the past, however, it is important to impart to them a Danish “white man’s burden” and for good reason: Imperialism, both Danish and American, is nowhere near done with Kalaallit Nunaat yet, and the Inuit struggle against many forms of genocide continues unabated as it has for centuries. Much like the atmosphere and the glaciers around the entire Circumpolar Arctic, the battle for indigenous self-determination is heating up– and now as a part of the “War on Terror”.

The Bush administration made it clear long before the events of September 11, 2001 that it was intent on establishing a “missile defense” program, similar in conception to “Star Wars” plans begun during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. However, as the current administration has made habit, it will change the facts to suit policy. On August 6 of last year, the settler states of Greenland/Denmark and the United States got together to write a document explicitly excluding control, sovereignty or access to traditional lands inhabited by the Inughuit people– a land they inhabited for tens of thousands of years prior, but were expelled from only in 1953. All of this so that the United States– with the blessing of Denmark– can expand their illegal military presence and drag the Inuit onto the front lines of their global war on any resistance to American directives.

The “War on Terror” has involved people from nearly every corner of the planet, some far more overtly than others. The “war” has received near unanimous international condemnation since September 11, 2001 was twisted to launch a military occupation of Iraq in March of 2003. One of the lowest common denominators has been opposition to the US being allowed to shred international law, human rights, national self-determination and sovereignty– all ostensibly to “protect the security of the United States”. Many people around the world have seen the deepening militarization of American foreign policy as something led by twin motives: for the US administration and their corporate friends to garner direct control over global oil reserves before production starts a permanent global decline due to diminishing rapid extraction capacity for this fossil fuel. The other, borrowing from ‘Reaganomics’, is to create artificial economic “growth” and profit– by running deficits in military spending, citing a foreign enemy and trying to militarize both the world and even space to that end.

To the end of protecting “American interests” in the part of the world with the most global oil reserves, the US has long bankrolled and helped the Zionist occupation of Palestine. This has been done in areas colonized in 1948, and recently expanded to an ideological marriage under the Bush administration, supporting Israel’s “right” to unlawfully annex land Israel conquered in 1967 (the West Bank and Gaza Strip), and to unilaterally “extinguish” international humanitarian legal claims for Palestinians Right of Return to their homes. This wedding of Israeli policy and American is not as new as it appears, but has become far more overt since the coming to power of the oilists in the Bush Administration. The result has predictably been that all Palestinians– even the newly ‘elected’ Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas– hold to their “Right to Return”.

Even though Abbas is considered a “moderate” he continues to uphold the Right of Return for refugees that were expelled in 1948. He was quoted in November as saying “We promise that we will not rest until the right of return of our people is achieved and the tragedy of our diaspora ends,”2 perhaps as a measure of how much he values his own life. Global “pragmatists” will often recognize that legally, morally and politically Israel is in the wrong, but they tell us it is a non-starter and should be discarded for this reason. It might be more unrealistic for a refugee to give up the point, since their lives are in Historical Palestine and not in relocated refugee camps of tents and open sewers. After all, it is an inherent human right of all to go home, and this right is how many refugees see an end to a conflict they did not start.

The Right of Return is not a unique concept to the conflict over the land of Palestine: it is an inherent right in international law; one does not put human rights on the table to be negotiated like the price of real estate. However, according to the settler state, there still remains the “need” for “security” and military installations to prevent the return of the indigenous inhabitants. This story gets told by many a settler state. The same story is told of “security” concerns that override human rights in Kalaallit Nunaat. It’s not about maintaining a particular demographic balance as in Israel, it’s about a military base built and controlled by the US military. For even fewer years than in all of historical Palestine, this has created a refugee “problem” that won’t go away until the illegal theft of a nation does. These refugees were expelled from their traditional lands in 1953 to create a Cold War spy station and air force base, in the location re-named Thule, a Viking name, in honor of the first European colonists to invade the island.

The Bush administration’s “War on Terror”– firmly supported by Denmark (Kalaallit Nunaat’s colonial master) in the international arena– has become the latest excuse for the United States to deny the rights of refugees to go home to Uummannaq, the name given to their territory before the forced expulsion. Now, as the war on Iraq for control of global oil resources continues, the American military presence in the Arctic is even more tenuously connected to a fight to “protect America from external threats”, using the argument that this will make the best location for Star Wars “defense” systems, along with underground bases in Alaska and an undisclosed Canadian contribution.

Like many policies of the military industrial complex, the first point is to create another opportunity to feed this same ravenous imperial beast. The US has been pressuring the Canadian state heavily to participate militarily, geographically and financially in any missile defense system. Even before George W Bush ambushed the Canadian position during his speech in Halifax on December 1 2004, 3 the populace of Canada have been slowly becoming more informed about and suspicious of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) plans from Washington. The federal New Democratic Party, prominent individuals, environmental and peace groups, trade unions and NGO’s have been raising the spectre of a new arms race and an environmental disaster should these American plans go ahead.

Though BMD is widely unwelcome to the majority of Canadians who have familiarized themselves with the issue, the Inuit people in Canada’s north and across the Arctic are among the most strongly opposed4, not wanting to become a battleground and wishing to instead preserve their land for their children. The Inuit continue to struggle with the results of over 300 years of colonialism, with among the world’s highest per-capita suicide and alcoholism rates still affecting peoples across the Arctic. With global warming bringing “increased attention” from the south due to possible shipping lanes opening in the Northwest Passage, the Inuit are hardly paranoid to be suspicious of the impact on their land and lives of any such Missile bases. Today, as part of the proposed plan, Alaska in the West and Kalaallit Nunaat in the East are being promoted as locations for BMD launch facilities, and Canada is in not-so-secret-anymore negotiations about their participation in this latest imperial venture.

In Alaska, as with most toxic fill sites over the lower 48 states, the lands adjoining the areas touted for BMD stations are in Indian Country. The Alaskan base is at Fort Greely, described as “The first line in America’s missile defense.”5 This location has been operational for many years, though as a test range and base it closed in 1994. In 2002 it was reassigned as a “ground-based interceptor launch facility”. Many people in Alaska have been campaigning against this escalation of the arms race for some time, and as always for the settler state, it is the indigenous peoples who are asked to foot the ecological bill on lands “borrowed” by the military.6

“Tribal members hiking through that area have found canisters of mustard gas,”7 stated Howard Mermelstein in reference to the remnants of previously built and abandoned military stations in Ft Greely, including chemical weapons testing ranges, located around 100 miles southeast of Fairbanks. Dene have been dealing with the fall-out for years, and many are among the peoples of the no BMD movements in America’s Panhandle state.8

Fort Greely began as a military location in 1942, just prior to the United States taking unilateral control of Kalaallit Nunaat. But it was not until 1951 that an actual agreement between the settler states of Denmark and the United States of America was signed, this to post de facto legitimize the creation of a massive airbase under US control on the island. Originally the US established suzerainty over “Greenland” during WWII to simply counter Nazi expansionism while Denmark was occupied by the Nazi Wehrmact. After the end of WWII, the supposed “temporary measure” was given another “temporary” extension– because of the military value of what would become Thule in terms of spying and using other reconnaissance technology to collect information and monitor the USSR. Though the agreement between the US and Denmark entitled “Agreement concerning the defense of Greenland” was signed in 1951 and supplemented in 19689, the USSR has long since disintegrated and the reasons the US proclaims in order to maintain the base have shifted. What hasn’t shifted is the opposition of the Inuit, in particular the Inughuit who were expelled to build the base in 1953.

This base was publicly declared necessary to fight the Cold War, and was the justification for the expulsion of Inughuit from their traditional hunting lands in the North of Kalaallit Nunaat:

“Blankets and tents were distributed as houses were demolished. ‘Inughuit were told they had no right to return either to Uummannaq or to the land surrounding it,’ says Aqqaluk Lynge [….] “They knew this land intimately over thousands of years. It sustained them. Then, in an instant, it was forbidden.” 10

Aqqaluk Lynge, quoted above, is the current head of the Kalaallit Nunaat chapter of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference and also a member of the “home rule” parliament of the country. He penned a book on this expulsion entitled “The Right to Return: Fifty Years of Struggle by relocated Inughuit” 11, released in 2002. Making both the arguments of human rights in international law and connecting the right to culture to their right to self-determination over land use, the story of the Inughuit not only tells the story of the battle for self-determination, human rights and national survival in the face of the US military, but resists the most insidious form of colonization available: the rewriting of history by the colonial state. Denmark previously pushed the idea that the “resettlement” had been carried out “as a request from tribal elders”. A Washington Post journalist two years ago captured some testimony about what happened on the day of the expulsion.

“Fifty years later, Balika Jensen still cries. She wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. Over simple cookies and coffee and sugar, she tells her story. “It’s hard to think back to those times,” she begins. Imagine, she says, what it was like to hurry over a glacier into a place where there are no houses, imagine getting to the sea ice and setting up thin canvas tents and trying to make a new living knowing that an unforgiving arctic winter was coming fast, then watching elders die of the damp and cold.” 12

Until recently, telling and retelling these stories had been the main form of resistance. That’s no longer the case. Over the last few years, action to see the Right to Return implemented has also begun, under the auspice of a group calling themselves “Hingitaq 53”, or “The Discarded” of 1953, the year of the “transfer” of the population from their ancient homeland. The founder of Hingitaq 53, Uusaqqak Qujaukitsoq, spoke to the BBC in May of 2004:

“I have been fighting this case for many years, and I see this as our last chance… I promised my father before he died that I would fight to get our people’s land back.” 13

His father had spent his life denying Danish lies. His and others stories now have led to organization among the surviving refugees and their children; Hingitaq 53 has challenged the legal basis of the denial of their Right to Return in the Danish Supreme Court. Yet, even though the court ruled “in principle” for the rights of the Inughuit, their land has still been barred to them. Now, with countries such as Canada being strong armed into accepting and participating in America’s BMD program, and with US ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci alleging that Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin has already agreed to participate, the struggle of the Inughuit to see international law upheld has taken on international significance and is now a front line in resistance to the War on Terror every bit as much as in the darkened alleyways of Fallujah. While stating it was “consistent with NORAD” to involve Canada in BMD plans, Cellucci stated to the media “We’ve been told that it will be dealt with over the next couple of months,” 14 as recently as January 9, 2005.

It was expected that the Thule airbase would be ruled against, and the refugees would be able to go home. In 2001, the BBC reported “The people of Denmark, together with the people of Greenland […] could end up making or breaking the missile defence system. If they do not want it, and it seems pretty certain they do not, the key US tracking base near the North Pole will be taken out of the frame.” 15 Both the people of Denmark and Greenland (Inuit and Dane alike) have consistently polled as opposing the involvement of the island right up to the present day. To avoid this problem without dealing with it, the agreement of August 6, 2004 was signed and paraded before the mass media. Colin Powell, as mentioned earlier, was on hand for the ceremony. Lines in the agreement, such as “U.S. commanding officer at Thule Air Base will consult on local affairs that affect the Home Rule Government [….]” 16 were brought to his attention as having no legal weight, that Greenlanders would not have any veto control over their own territory, much less the Inughuit. Powell responded “Consult means consult”. 17

“If a war begins, you know all the missiles will begin to rain over us. Greenland will pay the highest price,” stated a “Greenlander” in 2001. That possibility had been why the US had to keep even Denmark in the dark over their importation of nuclear materials, though it has been released that such materials were taken to Kalaallit Nunaat against the wishes of the Danes, never mind the Inuit people.18 Despite the official no nukes policy of Copenhagen, it recently has come to light that the US government not only has kept nukes in Kalaallit Nunaat, but they have lost them there as well:

“In 2001, the U.S. government unclassified documents revealing that, in 1968, a B-52 bomber laden with four nuclear bombs had crashed twelve miles from the Thule air base. Greenlanders had long suspected that an unexploded hydrogen bomb had been lost off the northeast coast of their territory in the accident.” 19

The incident also, according to the Pentagon, involved losing a full pound of plutonium, and this has destroyed the traditional lands of hunting and fishing for the Inuit. Both Danish and Inuk employees of the airbase have seen skyrocketing rates of cancer and other illnesses. The US government, clinging to the “deal” they signed with Denmark both in 1951 and then spelled out and re-signed in February of 2003, has been granted freedom from responsibility for any clean ups or other environmental damage on site. Those who were made ill after the poisoning of the area with plutonium received a buy out from Denmark, and the agreement signed in February 2003 includes the line:

“Notwithstanding the provisions of any other agreement, the Danish Government (including the Greenland Home Rule Government) accepts the return of Dundas “as is” and assumes complete responsibility for any environmental remediation or other actions it may believe necessary.”20

Following, then, on previous destruction and clauses like this one, it is of no surprise that Greenlandic Inuit nations (including of course the Inughuit) do not trust the United States to build missile defense on their land.

Attention to the North is heating up rapidly as a result of climate change in other arenas as well. Although some of the world’s largest oil, gas, diamond, fresh water and other valuable reserves are on Various Dene Indian and Inuit nation territories, the Canadian government is pushing ahead to extract and transport all of these resources even where there have been no “final” land claims agreements signed (in contravention of the Federal government’s own conclusions reached in the Berger Inquiry conducted in the seventies).21 In most cases, the resources have been taken directly from the land and revenues put into either private (non-indigenous) developers pockets or in the federal Ottawa treasury itself.

All of these massive projects-including the possibility of the largest industrial project in the history of the Canadian state in the manner of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline for natural gas and oil-will be overshadowed by growing border conflicts. There are disputes between settler states Canada and Denmark in particular, as well as Russia and the USA over control of the Arctic. As warming in the Arctic destroys nature, it reduces ice pack cover, possibly opening up a new route for shipping lanes across a Northwest Passage route. This would reduce 7000 miles for European shipping transport, and who controls these lanes will be among the most important ventures imperialist countries embark on over the next 20 years.

Canada, Denmark, the United States and the Russian Federation are all arguing over how to carve up the indigenous Inuit north, and militarization has already become the manner in which they do so. Denmark, claiming the tiny Hans Island situated between Ellesmere Island and Kalaallit Nunaat, has dispatched a warship to plant a Danish flag in the ice. In response, Canada has promised to militarize the north with the largest Canadian exercises in the North ever, talking of their ability to “exercise sovereignty”. This will include all of the Arctic north-and disputes over who holds what will parallel the “economic opportunity” provided by the disintegration of the livability of the north for the Inuit people in the form of global warming. The Danish government continues to claim Hans Island, the United States and Russia proclaim the Northwest Passage would be international waters controlled by no one and Canada claims sovereignty over all of the area in question. The Inuit, as for centuries, have not been entered into the debate as a nation 22, despite being far and away the majority of the population at any time of year.

When the US declared “victory” over Saddam Hussein’s forces in May 2003, the world watched in horror as the military stood by, did nothing and in some cases aided and abetted the pillaging of the historical and pre-historical museums and archives. Many saw it as an attack not only on the pride of the Iraqi people, but as an attempt at destruction of them as a nation; if you destroy a people’s history you destroy the people. Indigenous nations of the north see themselves not as separate from the earth, but entirely a part of it, dependent upon it, and never the two shall be divided. The culture of the Inughuit is something that has been not kept in museums and written in old texts, but told in stories and lived in hunting practices in connection with the earth that has always sustained them. Instead of indoor museums there is the outdoor land itself– the oldest museum in the world. Inughuit life with the land is as much culture as any book or painting, so when the Inughuit say “We have a strong relationship with nature. It is a part of us. Without it we cannot exist,” 23 it is no mere hyperbole.

When Greenpeace carried out a campaign against sealing in the 1980’s, the result was devastating and nearly genocidal. Destroying the harvest of one of the few traditional game animals left for the Inuit, livelihoods disappeared, hunters could not provide for their families and suicide was often taken as a way out. The long term impacts will only register “when European anthropologists come up here to interview hunters [now living] in apartment blocks, wanting to know why they left their settlements. Then, everyone in Europe will ask “who could ever destroy that kind of culture?” That, sadly, is actually the situation that Greenpeace, and the World Wildlife Fund, and many others have created.” 24

Today, for the Inughuit survivors, Hingitaq 53’s founder Qujaukitsoq observes the denial of hunting rights on the airbase: “I have stood looking at the animals inside the periphery fence surrounding this base, knowing that I’m forbidden from entering, but also knowing that we need these animals and this land to survive.” Others have been even more direct in their assessment. “There are not enough animals to hunt where they currently are. So we’re looking at a situation where in 10 to 20 years this unique community, which is a monument to human history, will be destroyed.” 25

The United States government has made it quite clear that they are not to be trusted with any pronouncements, but on the odd statements we simply must take them at their word. When Colin Powell stood with Moeller in Kalaallit Nunaat last August, he observed “Together we will meet the security challenges of the 21st century, from missile defense to international terrorism,” thus spelling out that the current administrations “War on Terror” gurus see a direct link between the Occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, support for the increasingly genocidal policies of Israel in Palestinian lands and the need to build missile bases and dig the ground of the displaced Inuit nation of the Inughuit on the island nation of Kalaallit Nunaat. If you are an imperialist state determined to control the world’s resources through fear and military invasion, you need to see all the various fronts of such a permanent war as inter-linked.

Yet, though the enemies of self-determination in Washington, Ottawa and Copenhagen have been so sophisticated, we have yet to develop the same in our resistance, preferring to oppose BMD as “wasted money” and only a threat to the sovereignty of Canada, also an imperial power currently bent on militarizing the north. So long as Canada occupies Haiti, Afghanistan, Denendeh , and many other nations, it is not in the interests of those who fight for a world worth living in to strengthen this settler state. If our movements for social justice mean anything, at their root must be the simplest, most basic humanity. Humanity is not served by being silent on genocide but instead offering critiques based on fiscal policy and “threats to Canada”.

One of the major planks of the broadly defined “progressive” anti-war movements is to block the advent of a new arms race starting in outer space by opposing BMD. This is a worthy goal, and must include discussions of what it means to oppose and all of the most important reasons why. As always, those who want to oppose the destruction of the world for the needs of the oil-junta need to articulate an alternative vision. That vision will not include simplistic slogans about “money for schools, not bombs” alone.

If the war is systemic in nature, as many of us argue, to secure dwindling energy concerns– then a movement that seeks to establish the primacy of self-determination above that of profit needs to be the rhetoric and the dialectic we adopt and practice. Such will mean not side-stepping a struggle for the indigenous rights of one nation for others such as “Canada”, but means seeing the connection between Palestine, Haiti, Venezuela, Denendeh, Iraq, the Ijaw of the Niger Delta and Kalaallit Nunaat as all connected to a struggle to resist Halliburton, Imperial Oil, Caterpillar, Shell, Comoco, Bombardier and imperialism itself.

Stopping the rampage of the above anywhere is a victory for self-determination everywhere. A world worth living in must also be created with as much attention paid to simple truths as possible. Blocking the advent of BMD in the north will slow the advance of the oil agenda globally, and advance the possibility, however slim, that we can escape the destruction of everyone’s home-before it is too late. And the simplest notion is that all people have the right to live in their homeland, free from outside molestation.