The Forsvarsakademiet (Royal Danish Defence College/RDDC), Ilisimatusarfik (University of Greenland) and the Arktisk Kommando (Joint Arctic Command) jointly ran the Defence Academy Signature Conference in Nuuk, Greenland from the 1st-3rd October 2019. The focus of the conference was the security of the Kongeriget Danmark (Kingdom of Denmark), with an emphasis on Arctic and Northern security. It was fitting, therefore, that the conference be held in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland and the part of the Kingdom that makes the realm an Arctic state. Women who gave presentations at the event include Edith Lauglo Endsjø, Camilla Sørensen, and Maria Ackren.

The organisation of the event was led by Major Steen Kjærgaard of RDDC and hosted primarily in two locations: Ilisimatusarfik/University of Greenland on the 1st and the 2nd October and at the Arctic Command on the 3rd October 2019. The conference adhered to Chatham House Rules. The conference was well attended by military personal from the air, army and navy of the Kingdom’s military; civil servants and politicians from Denmark, Greenland and Norway; and academics based in Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands thanks for the Royal Danish Air Force’s assistance in flying in approximately 60 people to attend and contribute to the conference.

Assistant Professor Rasmus Leander Nielsen of Ilisimatusarfik/University of Greenland was one of the conference organizers that helped make this event possible. In Dr. Nielsen’s opinion, hosting the Arctic-focused conference in Greenland was a fantastic idea.

“I was contacted by some people I know from the RDDC about collaborating on a conference and I was sold on the idea from the beginning. We [at the University of Greenland] have been collaborating with people and students from the [RDDC] academy a few times…they are friends of the house. With so much focus on the geopolitics and the security politics, I thought it was a really good idea to put it [the conference] here and have that topic [Arctic geopolitics and security] of the conference and also, as a more personal perspective, this is something that I want to work with in the near future. There was a side bonus that we could cooperate with Arktis Kommado [Arctic Command] in town. I didn’t really have contact persons there and one of the people…from Arctic Command and me were the local partners in crime in setting up…I know it’s time consuming to do conferences but I think the added bonuses of doing this [especially in Greenland] is really worthwhile.”

As with many events that occur in Arctic locations, access is costly and space is at a premium. Effort was taken to try and overcome access challenges. As Dr. Nielsen noted, “it is difficult for the University of Greenland to invite this number of people, and high ranking people, but the support for flying people up from the military and collaboration with Arctic Command and the RDDC made this possible.” However, desire for more local participation was expressed.

Maria Ackrén, Associate Professor at Ilisimatusarfik/University of Greenland felt that having the conference in Greenland and partly hosted at Ilisimatusarfik was a great idea but more involvement of local students would be an area of improvement for the future.

“I think … it is also a bit of a small place, since we are so many [people at the conference] and it is also a bit sad that our students cannot participate because of the lack of space, but it is always a problem here in Greenland to find a good venue.”

Picture from the public event at the Hotel Hans Egede, 2 October 2019 (Photo taken by Rasmus Leander Nielsen)

As part of the effort to overcome the space issue and reach out to the Greenlandic public and discuss security issues, a public evening event was hosted at the Hotel Hans Egede on the 2nd October.

The importance of this community engagement and the foresight to include it cannot be overstated. The need for information exchange is vital for Greenland to make informed decisions about its current and future security needs; a topic of much discussion at the conference.

According to Sara Olsvig, a former Greenlandic politician and current Head of Programme for UNICEF in Greenland, who attended the conference:

“There’s a need for a broader and more informed debate in Greenland on how we see our future as an Arctic nation. Greenland should do its own Arctic Strategy, not just wait for the Danish government to include Greenland in a common strategy, that essentially will represent three very different nations; Greenland, Denmark and the Faroe Islands. But in order to do our own Greenlandic strategy more public involvement and debate is needed. Do we want our land to be further militarized? How do we see our domestic and international infrastructure? Are we OK with our airports or ports being subjected to dual use, civil and military? Should we be members of NATO as a future independent nation, subjecting ourselves to a super power agenda, that is essentially not our own agenda? These are issues that need debate and an informed decision-making process. As most reports and briefing notes on security and defense issues are written in Danish and English, the parliament of Greenland is, in my opinion, not well enough informed on these issues, at least not equally informed as their Danish counterparts. We must build structures and find ways of informing our political landscape and public more, in the Greenlandic language, of course bearing in mind the need for confidentiality when needed, but even the confidential space must also be in the Greenlandic language for our politicians to be able to fully participate.”

The public event at Hotel Hans Egede helped to bridge the gap between the conference proceedings and the general public. It sought to reach out to the community and include it and its people in the wider discussion and facilitate information exchange about the security issues and their implications for a changing Arctic, Rigsfællesskabet (Danish realm) and Greenland.

The need for the event at the hotel also reflected a key topic at the conference: the need to continue to foster better lines of communication about security, resources, intelligence and plans between the three parts of the Kingdom. While access was an issue, many positive strides were taken to try and overcome this challenge. A key signal of commitment came from transportation on a Hercules aircraft of Danish-based military personal, civil servants and academics in order to encourage participation in Nuuk, promote accessibility, and demonstrate the Kingdom’s awareness about the need to commit to the growth of improved communication within the realm.

Politically within the Kingdom, however, there is still room for growth. In the opinion of Sara Olsvig:

The preamble paragraph of the Greenland Self-Government Act talks about Greenland and Denmark as equal partners, and about fostering mutual respect. The lack of transparency in a wide range of decisions taken over history on Greenland and foreign policy, defense and security issues makes the relationship between the two nations difficult. Some argue that a lack of trust even makes decision-making dysfunctional. I would to some extent agree with that, and I call for a greater degree of real mutual respect in regards to acknowledging that Greenland and Denmark, and the Faroe Islands for that matter, are three different nations with different interests in the Arctic. Space must be given to these differences for the construction of a Realm with three mutually equal parties to function well.”

Overall, the conference and its attached proceedings were well-received and a very positive step toward fostering the information exchange that Sara Olsvig, and others, advocate for. Its occurrence within Greenland, and the resources committed to making it happen, stand as a clear demonstration of the recognition of the full and equal partnership of Greenland, Denmark and the Faroe Islands as the Kingdom of Denmark and their combined effort to improve their communication as they work together on Arctic and Northern issues.

Further information can be found here:

Nunatta Katersugaasivia Allagaateqarfialu (Greenland National Museum & Archives/Grønlands Nationalmuseum & Arkiv)

The conference hosted its icebreaker in the Nunatta Katersugaasivia Allagaateqarfialu (Greenland National Museum & Archives /Grønlands Nationalmuseum & Arkiv). Having the icebreaker at the museum and archives was a great way to showcase local culture, history and experiences to those visiting for the conference and to highlight the rich diversity that exists within Greenland and the Kingdom.

If you are interested in learning more about the museum and archives and how to make inquiries about access to its resources, please visit their website You can also follow them on Twitter @natmus_gl.

Arctic Command Search and Rescue Exercises

The provision of search and rescue is a major undertaking in the Arctic. Professor Michael Byers, Professor of International Relations at the University of British Columbia, was the keynote speaker at the conference, and as he summarized about search and rescue in the Canadian Arctic: “The Arctic is a place of extreme challenges… A Canadian search and rescue helicopter will fly 2000 km for a mission – the distance is massive.” Driving home the point of how dangerous Arctic travel can be and the need for cooperation in search and rescue, Byers reflected that “in the last 8 years, I’ve lost 4 colleagues to aircraft accidents in the Canadian Arctic…[with search and rescue] you can’t do it alone.” Greenland and the Kingdom of Denmark face similar challenges to Canada in the Arctic. Both the Canadian North and Kingdom of Denmark’s North (including the Faroe Islands at the upper fridges of the North Atlantic) are spaces that are vast, sparely populated, and remote with extreme weather, dangerous ice conditions and are extremely expensive to service, monitor, access and patrol.

One of the highlights of the conference event was the opportunity to observe a search and rescue exercise off the coast of Nuuk and see how the Kingdom of Denmark is working to address the search and rescue and patrolling needs of the realm. The event included two Knud Rasmussen class naval vessels; Hercules C130J transport aircraft; Challenger CL-604 utility aircraft; and an Air Greenland helicopter.

Two scenarios were practiced. The first was a small aircraft accident over water, with the aim to locate the accident, check for survivors and airlift them to the nearest vessel for medical assistance. The second was the rescue of someone who had fallen overboard from a vessel. The second exercise emphasized the very short time frame in which rescue from the water must be conducted – less than 5 minutes – before exposure to the Arctic waters make survival highly unlikely.

The Arctic Command and the Greenlandic Government take search and rescue in Greenland very seriously. The scenario displays on the 2nd October help to demonstrate the hard work, skill and preparedness that all parties, including partners like Air Greenland, bring to the table as they plan for worst-case scenarios. The conference demonstration follows from the annual Arctic search and rescue exercise two months prior, in August, when exercises were organized by the Danish Joint Arctic Command in cooperation with the French Navy.

Note: All direct quotes used in this piece were obtained from conversations with individuals who attended the conference and they were informed of the purpose of the conversations prior to their start. Afterward, quotes used in this piece were sent to the individuals for their approved prior to their use. The exception is the quotes from Professor Michael Byers. These quotes came from his presentation, but were sent to him for permission (which was granted) to use after the conference. I attended the conference on behalf of the Center for War Studies, University of Southern Denmark.

 (Photo copyright in this piece: Danita Catherine Burke)

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