May 28, 2004

Greenland approves ballistic missile defence shield

Chance of BMD site in Nunavut now remote: Colonel


Greenland's home rule government approved a memorandum-of-understanding last week that will allow an upgrade of the Thule air base in northern Greenland, removing a large obstacle to U.S. plans for a ballistic missile defense shield.

This means Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Prime Minister of Denmark, and U.S. president George W. Bush, will have something to celebrate when they meet today in Washington D.C.

It also means it's now highly unlikely that a BMD site will be built in Nunavut or anywhere else in northern Canada.

According to the May 19 MOU, Greenland, Denmark and the U.S. will revise the Danish-American defence agreement reached in 1951.

This week, the Danish parliament and cabinet were to discuss and approve the deal.

In July, the three foreign ministers Josef Motzfeldt, Greenland's minister of foreign affairs, Per Stig Møller, his counterpart from Denmark, and U.S. secretary of defense Colin Powell, are to sign the final agreement, possibly in Greenland.

Greenland wanted direct compensation for an upgrade of Thule's radar, but compromised when the U.S. made it clear it wouldn't pay a cash settlement.

"We're hoping we can get a real value for Greenland, perhaps even greater than the cash," said Mikaela Engel, Greenland's deputy minister of foreign affairs, in an interview from Nuuk.

In exchange for the Thule upgrade, Greenland won some concessions from the U.S.

The revised defence agreement will allow Greenland to prosecute members of the U.S. military who violate the region's criminal laws. The U.S. now has the right to hold court martials instead. Greenland will also appoint a representative to a joint Thule committee.

"It's a decent and modern solution to a problem that's been nagging us since 1951," Engel said.

Last week Greenland also approved two separate agreements with the U.S. on environmental issues and on economic and technological partnerships.

The agreements on the environment and future economic and technological partnerships are not tied to the Thule upgrade.

"If the U.S. should chose to abandon [their plans for] the Thule Air base, we still have the other two," Engel said.

She described the environmental deal as "very, very good."

In it, the U.S. agrees to apply the strongest of three national environmental standards in all activities that impact the environment at the Thule base.

The economic and technical deal guarantees Greenland access to funding from U.S. science agencies, scholarships for Greenlandic students as well as partnerships in research, technology, tourism, infrastructure and trade.

"One of the biggest problems we've had with the American presence here is that all other countries that have American bases do get a benefit to society out of it, like local companies to work there," Engel said. "We don't have the possibility of doing that. As far as we're concerned it might as well be located on the dark side of the moon. Now, the American presence has another presence than just the military."

The agreements contain nothing specifically for the residents of Qaanaaq who were relocated in 1953 to make way for the air base's construction, although Engel said an increased use of local labour would have a positive impact on the community.

Qaanaaq leaders are upset they weren't consulted on the final MOU.

"The municipal council is not the body that should agree to this kind of agreement. It's not as if they've been left out, but it is up to parliament and cabinet to decide on this," Engel said.

The proposed ballistic missile defense system still needs ground and sea-based missiles or lasers to shoot down enemy missiles coming into North American air space, but Engel said there won't be any weapons deployed from Thule.

"This is not a 'yes' to any further use of the defence area. Of course, the upgraded radar is going to be a component in missile defence, but any new development would require a new request and new negotiations."

But the likelihood of a BMD site in Canada is now remote, according to Col. Norris Pettis, commander of Canadian Forces Northern Area in Yellowknife.

Pettis said, as far as he knows, there are no plans to base "assets" related to the BMD in Canada's North.

Pettis said a revision of the joint U.S.-Canada aerospace defence command, NORAD, appears to be "the key, politically" to Canada's involvement in the BMD.