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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 May, 2004, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
Inuit survival battle against US base
By Stephen Fottrell
BBC News Online

A remote Inuit community of hunters in Greenland has taken a case to the European Court of Human Rights to fight for its "survival".

For the past 50 years, one of the smallest indigenous groups in the world has fought to regain its land from the US military, who set up a base there under agreement with the Danish government.

A facility at Thule military base
The Inuit were forced to move when the base expanded
For the US, it is a strategically important Arctic base which is considered an essential part of Washington's controversial "Star Wars" missile defence programme.

For the Inuit, it is a matter of reclaiming their natural environment or facing extinction, their lawyer says.

"These people, who are the last surviving group of polar Eskimos - or Iunghuits - have rights to this land; their survival is connected to their return," said Christian Harlang, a Copenhagen-based human rights lawyer who is representing the hunters and their families.

'The deported'

"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.

I promised my father before he died that I would fight to get our people's land back
Uusaqqak Qujaukitsoq, head of Hingitaq 53
"One of the smallest indigenous groups of people in the world will simply disappear."

The group, united under the name Hingitaq 53 - Hingitaq meaning "the deported" and 53 representing the year they were forced to leave their land - sent their application to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on Tuesday.

They hope to see their case resolved by 2006.

It is the latest phase in a long-running bid to return to the land they were forced from under Danish pressure when the US military Thule base expanded in 1953.

Last chance

The group moved north to the remote village of Qaannaaq, where they found less rich grounds than the plentiful hunting and fishing lands they had left behind.

The community of around 900 people blames the Danish state for their displacement and has filed several lawsuits against it.

In November last year, the Danish Supreme Court upheld a 1999 appeals court verdict and granted the Inuit 17,000 kroner ($2,780) each, with a collective indemnity of 500,000 kroner ($81,000).

But the community remains displaced.

Uusaqqak Qujaukitsoq
Uusaqqak Qujaukitsoq says his community could disappear
"I have been fighting this case for many years, and I see this as our last chance," Uusaqqak Qujaukitsoq, head of Hingitaq 53, told BBC News Online.

"I promised my father before he died that I would fight to get our people's land back.

"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.

"We have a strong relationship with nature. It is a part of us. Without it we cannot exist."

The Danish government would not comment fully on the case, other than acknowledging the latest Supreme Court decision in November.

But Steen Ryd Larsen from Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen's office confirmed that the government had learned from media reports about the group's application to the Strasbourg court.

"We haven't seen or heard anything further," he said.

Return of land

The case was brought just days after the US and Denmark agreed to modernise the Thule base further.

Mr Harlang says he fears any expansion of the base. "It would obviously be bad, but it would not weaken our case in Strasbourg," he said. "We're very clear on this - the very existence of this base is bad enough."

The US and Denmark both say there are no plans to extend the site, and that the recent agreement concerns an upgrade to the early warning system radar there.

The court cases are between the Danes and the former residents, or survivors, since it was the Danes who moved them in the 1950s
US Defence Department spokesman
The US returned an area of land surrounding the base to the Danish and local governments recently, but Mr Harlang sees this as "inconsequential" to a group of people who are seeking the entire surrounding area back.

The US has distanced itself from legal proceedings over the land.

A spokesman for the US Defense Department said: "The court cases are between the Danes and the former residents, or survivors, since it was the Danes who moved them in the 1950s."

Autonomy

This localised struggle reflects the wider desire of Greenlanders to gain greater autonomy from Denmark and have a greater say on American presence on its soil.

Denmark has been a firm supporter of the Bush administration's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Any ruling in favour of the Inuit would present the Danish with the prospect of having to ask their guests to move or possibly leave a strategic area which is mutually beneficial to both governments.

"I feel embarrassed for the Danish government that we have had to take this issue to Strasbourg," Mr Qujaukitsoq said. "This should have been done in Denmark.

"It is up to the Danish to protect communities like ours. If they don't, they will be the ones responsible for our disappearance."




SEE ALSO:
Inuit battle to shut US air base
03 Nov 03  |  Europe
Regions and territories: Greenland
24 Jan 04  |  Country profiles


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