From the Indian Ocean to the High Arctic: what the Chagos Archipelago advisory opinion tells us about Greenland

Professor Rachael Johnstone

On 25 February 2019, the International Court of Justice issued its advisory opinion on Legal Consequences of the Separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965. The judges held by a majority of 13:1 that the process of decolonisation of Mauritius is incomplete, owing to the separation of the Chagos Archipelago shortly before independence, that the United Kingdom should end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible, and that all Member States of the United Nations should cooperate to complete the decolonisation of Mauritius.


The (partial) decolonisation of Mauritius in 1968 and the treatment of the Chagos islanders (Ilois) have important parallels with the purported decolonisation of Greenland in 1952-54. In both cases, the consultative body of the colonised people was neither fully independent nor representative of all the people concerned. No real choice was given to either body: rather the colonial power offered only the continuation of the status quo or self-determination on terms defined by the colonial power itself. Furthermore, the process of decolonisation was inherently linked to the forcible transfer of people in order to make way for a United States military facility.


Nevertheless, there are some relevant differences. First of all, Greenland was purportedly decolonised in 1953, some seven years before the UN General Assembly Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (UNGA Res. 1514(XV) 1960). Second, the UN General Assembly accepted the Danish government’s representations as indicating the full decolonisation of Greenland (UNGA Res. 849 (1954), in contrast to their position regarding Mauritius that decolonisation was incomplete, owing to the separation of the Chagos Archipelago (UNGA Res(XX) 1965). Third, though likely to be of minor relevance, the Ilois were not native to the archipelago but the descendants of slaves brought to work on coconut plantations and others who had migrated later.


This presentation will examine these points in turn to shed light on the question as to whether the process of decolonisation of Greenland can be said to have been completed.


Rachael Lorna Johnstone is Professor of law at the University of Akureyri, Iceland. From 2016-2018, she was Professor of Law, Arctic Oil and Gas Studies, at Ilisimatusarfik (the University of Greenland) and Director of the Arctic Oil and Gas Research Centre.

Professor Johnstone specialises in Polar law: the governance of the Arctic and the Antarctic under international and domestic law. She is co-author, alongside Mary Durfee, of Arctic Governance in a Changing World (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019) and sole author of Offshore Oil and Gas Development in the Arctic under International Law: Risk and Responsibility (Brill 2015). She has published widely on the rights of indigenous people; international human rights law; international environmental law; due diligence; state responsibility; and Arctic strategies. Professor Johnstone is an active member of the International Law Association and two thematic networks of the University of the Arctic: on Arctic Law and on Sustainable Resources and Social Responsibility. She is the deputy member for Iceland on the Social and Human Working Group of the International Arctic Science Committee. She also services on the advisory board of the Polar Research and Policy Initiative, the social sciences and educational sciences expert panel for the national Icelandic Research Fund, and the board of the Equality Fund of Iceland under the Parliament of Iceland.

Professor Johnstone holds a doctorate in juridical science from the University of Toronto (2004), an M.A. in Polar Law from the University of Akureyri (2014), an LL.M. in Legal Theory from the European Academy of Legal Theory (2000) and an LL.B.(Hons) from the University of Glasgow (1999).

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