Should sea ice be considered sovereign territory of the Inuit? | Polarjournal
The Greek PhD-student Apostolos Tsiouvalas during his field work in Avanersuaq, Northwest Greenland. There, he interviewed locals to figure out how they had been affected by international law. Photo: Apostolos Tsiouvalas
The Greek PhD-student Apostolos Tsiouvalas on the coast of Siorapaluk during his field work in Avanersuaq, Northwest Greenland where he interviewed locals to investigate how they had been affected by international law. Photo: Apostolos Tsiouvalas

International law does not consider Inuit spatial values and forces ‘sovereignty’ onto a people who does not believe in it, a new PhD project argues.

In 2022, Canada and Denmark signed a historic agreement.

With the stroke of a pen, they divided the tiny Hans Island in Northwest Greenland, known locally as Tartupaluk, in two equal parts and ended a decades-long struggle for territory. Suddenly, on a remote and frozen wasteland the two countries shared a land border.

To the Inuit living most closely to the island, the division seemed absurd. Most of them had never even used that island and even if they had, according to Apostolos Tsiouvalas, a Greek PhD-student at UiT, the Arctic University of Norway, they did not believe in the concept of ‘sovereignty’ that had divided it.

“The communities I spoke to just laughed when I mentioned Tartupaluk. They had no recollection of anyone going there,” Apostolos Tsiouvalas told Polar Journal.

But Tartupaluk is just one in a long list of examples in which Western conceptions of ‘sovereignty’ divide traditional Inuit areas in ways that are foreign to the way they themselves understand them. 

As part of his PhD on this topic, Apostolos Tsiouvalas interviewed several inhabitants of Avanersuaq in Northwest Greenland. And while his research will be completed later this year, he is already ready to share some conclusions.

“In international law there is a tendency to take the concept of ‘sovereignty’ for granted, disregarding any other way of seeing and regulating space,” Apostolos Tsiouvalas said.

“In other places, like the South Pacific, indigenous rights in the sea have coexisted with the concept of ‘state sovereignty’, but in the Arctic the existing territorial approach to the sea is inherently excluding other ways of practicing space,” he said.

The area around the North Water Polynya, Pikialasorsuaq, is full of animals and local hunters have traditionally moved freely between the land surrounding it. But the international border between Canada and Greenland has put local Inuit culture at 'critical risk', according to Apostolos Tsiouvalas. Map credits: Credits: Julius Lauber, Norwegian Polar Institute, and Apostolos Tsiouvalas, Norwegian Centre for the Law of the Sea
The area around the North Water Polynya, Pikialasorsuaq, is full of animals and local hunters have traditionally moved freely between the land surrounding it. But the international border between Canada and Greenland has put their culture at ‘critical risk’, according to Apostolos Tsiouvalas. Map credits: Julius Lauber, Norwegian Polar Institute, and Apostolos Tsiouvalas

‘Sovereignty’ originated in the West

In the West, we take the concepts of borders and nation states for granted; it is hard to imagine the world without them. And indeed, according to Apostolos Tsouvalas, the idea of ‘sovereignty’ has deep roots.

“Sovereignty as we know it in international law emerged in Western philosophy in the 16th century. Since then, it has been the fundamental way of organizing space. We talk about sovereign states which are the sole subjects of international law,” he said.

But this concept of ‘sovereignty’ does not capture the way the Inuit see their lands, and particularly their seas and ice-covered areas. Instead, he uses words like ‘movement’ and ‘space’ to encapsulate the way the Inuit have traditionally seen the lands around them.

“The Inuit, and particularly the ones in Avanersuaq, simply do not see the maritime space in terms of borders,” he said.

During his field work, Apostolos also interviewed people in Qaanaaq, the largest town in Northwest Greenland. Photo: Apostolos Tsiouvalas
During his field work, Apostolos also interviewed people in Qaanaaq, the largest town in Northwest Greenland. Photo: Apostolos Tsiouvalas

Hunting across borders

Apostolos Tsiouvalas’ PhD is quite theoretical. It deals with the concept of ‘sovereignty’ in a legal-philosophical sense, and he hopes it will contribute to the scientific literature on the International Law of the Sea. Still, though, he has several examples ready in which the forced acceptance of ‘sovereignty’ have had concrete effects on the way the Inuit live.

“Since time immemorial these communities of Northwest Greenland used to be semi-nomadic and would hunt across the sea and the sea ice. This allowed them to respond to the movement of the animals and the way weather changed,” he said.

This, however, is not possible anymore. In 1973, Canada and Denmark established a maritime border between them that restricted the movements of Inuit communities who had hunted across that line for generations.

Now, the Inuit of Northwest Greenland, who Apostolos Tsiouvalas interviewed for his PhD, are limited to movement inside Greenland’s exclusive economic zone. They now have to wait for the game animals to come to them.

“The application of sovereignty in Northwest Greenland has put the very culture of these people at critical risk, and has silenced their traditional understanding of space,” Apostolos Tsiouvalas said.

Because of the international border, inuit have to wait for game to come to them, rather than the other way around. This hunting tent is MacCormick Fjord, Iterlassuaq, where Apostolos Tsiouvalas also went for his field work. Photo: Apostolos Tsiouvalas
Because of the international border, inuit have to wait for game to come to them, rather than the other way around. This hunting tent is MacCormick Fjord, Iterlassuaq, where Apostolos Tsiouvalas also went for his field work. Photo: Apostolos Tsiouvalas

Sea Ice is considered water

One thing highlights the shortcomings of sovereignty in the far north perhaps even more clearly than the hunting restrictions: the issue of sea ice. Because in many parts of the Arctic, the freezing of the sea means that what is legally considered to be water is effectively land for large parts of the year.

“The communities I interviewed had a very short ice-free period over the summer, but for most of the year, the sea is covered by ice, which they have traditionally moved across with dog sleds just like they would on land,” Apostolos Tsiouvalas said.

But, he pointed out, since the ice-covered sea is considered water under international law, it is now often broken up by ice-breakers, disrupting the areas that the Inuit would have used to hunt.

“In international law, there is no consideration of the sea turning into ice. There is only the sea and the land as separate concepts. But for Inuit communities this dynamism of the ice is essential to their way of living,” he said.

A cruise ship navigating through Northwest Greenlandin the summer. During winter, ice-breaking vessels break-up the ice in the area, limiting the movement of dog-sleds. Photo: Apostolos Tsiouvalas
A cruise ship navigating through Northwest Greenland in the summer. During winter, ice-breaking vessels break-up the ice in the area, limiting the movement of dog sleds. Photo: Apostolos Tsiouvalas

More cross-border movement?

Not all Inuit communities, nor their traditional activities, are affected by the Western concept of ‘sovereignty’. Nowadays, the Inuit have been divided by Western borders into four sovereign states, but most still live far from any borders.

And for those who do, like those in the border region between Greenland and Canada, things might improve in the future. Interestingly, the 2022 agreement over Tartupaluk allows for movement and hunting across the border of the rocky island.

Only time will tell, if in the future that recognition of the local view on borders will spread elsewhere.

“The 2022 agreement showed some willingness to recognize that the Inuit have always been moving across the border. But it was a bit ironic that it happened on an island that has barely been used by the Inuit and that is very difficult to reach from the Canadian side of the border because of its steep slopes,”  Apostolos Tsiouvalas said.

“But there is an ongoing dialogue between Greenland and Canada about allowing more movement across their maritime border. How far it will go is not yet known,” he said.

Ole Ellekrog, Polar Journal AG

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