NATO in the Arctic

Dalarna, Sweden.

The catastrophe of global warming is rapidly bringing accessibility to the Far North, an often discussed ‘rush’ to claim land and resources ongoing as I write this. Historically, there have been numerous other ‘rushes’ for land and resources, America’s 19th century West being one of these, the conduct shown Native Americans by those ‘rushing’ being today increasingly appreciated as ‘far less than kind’. Of course, if human nature doesn’t change much, then one might expect history could repeat.

It was March 2011 when The Economist headlined, ‘Now it’s their turn’, subheading ‘The Inuit prepare to defend their rights’—it was an article addressing perceived sources of potential Arctic conflict. As for state conflict, the article noted, “countries surrounding the Arctic do not have much to argue over. The resources on land lie within clearly delineated borders and those under the sea…are largely in shallow waters within the uncontested jurisdiction of coastal states.” However, while observing that a big-power threat of frozen confrontations seems to be minimal, the piece did indeed seem to emphasize that “potential for conflict with native groups is in rich supply.”

In this day and age, is it really possible that governments might try to run roughshod over Indigenous Peoples’ rights? Is it conceivable that the use of military force could be contemplated in securing national visions of ‘Arctic Development’?

By itself, the Economist headline means little, but curiously, almost exactly a year later, came an exercise called ‘Cold Response 2012’. Its preparation phase began March 5th, its operational and withdrawal phases running from March 12–23, according to the Norwegian Military’s (NM) website. The NM website further described the exercise as one “to rehearse high intensity operations in winter conditions within NATO with a UN mandate”, adding that “everything from high intensity warfare to terror threats and mass demonstrations” would be “handled” by participants. And, according to a NM press release, “approximately 16000 participants from 15 nations (both Nato and PfP {Partnership for Peace})” were involved, with the “main international forces” (those other than Norwegian) coming from “Canada, France, The Netherlands, Sweden, UK and USA”.

Okay, on the surface of this it just seems one more Nato/PfP war game was played, but, perhaps it’s worthwhile to probe just a little bit deeper. And, my gosh, articles relating to the exercise did appear in Swedish and Finnish media (Finland was reported as having a 215 man contingent participating).

On the 18th of March, days before ‘Cold Response 2012’ ended—but after a Norwegian C-130J Hercules aircraft had crashed in the mountains of Northern Sweden—Sweden’s major conservative paper, Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) ran a story titled “Crash puts focus on NATO’s presence”. But the crash itself pales in interest to the war game scenario the article describes.

My own translation of a key excerpt seems to show the SvD article reported that: “On the Armed Forces’ website you can find the scenario. An undesirable population has settled in northernmost Sweden and established ‘Gardaland’. This country has now invaded an area in Norway. Under a UN mandate, Nato implements a ‘peace enforcement’ operation to drive out the invaders.”

Cold Response

Now, this does seem like an interesting scenario, particularly if one considers just what kind of a group would be able to establish a state within a state. Could it be Russians, could it be an invasion from the Middle East, or would such a scenario suggest the idea of a group with local roots that had declared its independence? Of course, if it was such a local group, that also might explain the need for training to handle ‘mass demonstrations’. But, since we’re not talking US States seceding because of Mr. Obama’s reelection, what kind of a ‘local group’ might this be?

One potential model could be that of the Inuit in the Canadian province of Nunavut, where, according to Wikipedia: “The members of the unicameral Legislative Assembly of Nunavut are elected individually; there are no parties and the legislature is consensus-based. The head of government, the premier of Nunavut, is elected by, and from the members of the legislative assembly.” And, the Danish Inuit received even further independence in Greenland, Wikipedia observes: “Greenland (Kalaallisut: Kalaallit Nunaat) is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark, located between the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.” However, the Inuit are not the only Arctic People, and Scandinavia’s Sami do not seem to enjoy the full range of freedom which some of the other Indigenous People have found (ie, the Greenlanders), something which arguably seems particularly true for the Sami of Sweden.

Could ‘Cold Response 2012’ have been an exercise aimed at a fictional Indigenous Peoples adversary?

Needless to say, this journalist wasn’t present when the military planned Cold Response. Fortuitously, Finland’s largest paper, the Helsingin Sanomat, publishes an English-language edition, and they did cover Cold Response 2012. According to the Sanomat’s article: “’It would be silly to rehearse a situation if it were not realistic’, says the Norwegian Lt. Commander Per Rosta, the chief of media and communications at the command centre in Bardufoss.” While this seems straightforward, I contacted Swedish Armed Forces headquarters for more details.

After some technical difficulties, my phone call was forwarded to a media officer who was said to be knowledgeable of the 2012 event. At first, I understood him as noting that the war game was “a good way for us to have an exercise that’s really, or much like, a real operation.” Interestingly, though I repeatedly asked about the Cold Response scenario, no mention of the mythical ‘Gardaland’ entered the conversation until I introduced it. At that point, my impression is that the officer in question began stressing the war game as completely fictional, just imaginary scenarios developed to fit the desired training. When queried regarding ‘crowd control’, he could not recall if Cold Response 2012 included it; he advised me to contact the Norwegian military for more explicit details.

Norway was the lead country in Cold Response. Its military websites says it involved “everything from high intensity warfare to terror threats and mass demonstrations”. That seemed to fit with what the military might practice for an operation targeting an Indigenous People. However, nothing occurs in a vacuum, and as such it appeared vital to examine the broader context of events—since Cold Response 2012 targeted the Swedish Arctic, maybe we should examine what’s occurring there.

A Corporate Invasion

According to Annika E Nilsson, PhD, Arctic researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI): “I think what you see in the Arctic right now is very much increasing interest from actors who are not necessarily from the region. Transnational mining companies, international energy companies, etc, wishing to exploit the resources that are there, in the Arctic. But it’s of interest to some of those people living in the Arctic as well, who have rights to those resources. It’s a complex picture, what’s going on right now, and connected very much to a global resource scarcity, high-price situation.” In other words, there seems to be a rush by corporate interests from outside the Arctic region to secure access to resources, but, what such access entails can conflict with the lives and livelihoods of those already there.

“Competition for space actually becomes an issue in the Arctic. It might not have been such a big issue previously because it’s sparsely populated, but the more industrial activity you get, the more risk there is that there are many actors competing for the same space. Could be a mining company, could be a reindeer herder, needing the same valley for different purposes”, Nilsson explained, adding such competition would “then be especially acute if you need more space to be able to adapt to climate change”, stressing that in the Arctic such adaptation will indeed be needed.

As once occurred in the American West, Indigenous Peoples are facing pressures from outsiders desiring access to their traditional lands and the resources they hold. As to the severity of the issues, prior to my interview with Dr. Nilsson I contacted key members of Sweden’s Sami community. The picture they painted is not a pleasant one. But it helps to footnote their concerns, concerns primarily regarding mining interests. Such mining operations were a topic addressed by Radio Canada International (RCI) just this August.

“Investment keeps mines booming in Northern Sweden”, read the headline from RCI’s ‘Eye On The Arctic’, the report noting that Sweden’s SvD had reported the country’s mining industry “has seen investments of over US$ 6 billion in the past four years”. More telling, the report added that: “Most investments in industry in Sweden are happening in the northern mining industry,’ says Magnus Ericsson, a professor at Luleå University and founder of the mining analyst company Raw Material Group.”

Sweden’s Indigenous Sami

Given this report, it would seem that Northern mining is what Sweden has currently pinned much of its hopes for foreign investment to, but, the North is the very area the Sami have traditionally pursued reindeer herding and fishing, their way of life. It would appear that corporate industrial pursuits are competing with those of the Sami…and so, I interviewed the President of the Sami Parliament of Sweden, Per Mikael Utsi, discussing the issues mining was posing.

“I think we have special problems in the Sami area because we have a rather good infrastructure for mining compared with other regions of the world where indigenous peoples live”, Utsi immediately observed. More pointedly, he prefaced this comment by noting, “I think the Swedish legislation is in favor of the mining industry…”

Sweden’s Sami Parliament was established in 1993, but sadly has much less power than one might imagine. According to Wikipedia, in the section termed ‘responsibilities’, the Parliament exists “to recognise the Sami minority as an indigenous people to distinguish it from other minorities; to raise the Sami minority influence which comes into conflict with the European majority democracy system, i.e., the group with the most votes wins.” Given this, I wasn’t surprised when Utsi further described his vision of events.

“I’m working with some initiatives from the Sami Parliament in Sweden, and (with what) the Sami Parliament in Norway and Finland has done, and what we’re doing in cooperation with other indigenous peoples Utsi told me. But, we have until now no possibilities to have any impact on the Swedish legislation. It’s said from the Swedish government they are trying to find ways to take into account the needs from indigenous peoples, the needs from environment protectionists, and so on, but nothing really is happening.”

In 1989, the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) spawned a human rights document known as the ‘Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989’. The Convention has been described as “the most important operative international law guaranteeing the rights of indigenous peoples”, and while Norway ratified it in 1990, and Finland is slated to do so in 2015 (according to Swedish Radio), Sweden has so far refused ratification.

When I asked SEI’s Nilsson to comment upon Sweden’s failure to ratify the Convention, she starkly observed, “I think it’s appalling…but it really comes down to many having claims for the same areas and conflicting interests.” Of course, I imagine 19th century Native Americans faced circumstances that might bear some similarity to these.

I contacted the executive branch of Sweden’s national government, sought the ‘official view’ of what’s ongoing, initially speaking with Foreign Minister Carl Bildt’s press secretary, Erik Zsiga. I contacted Minister Bildt’s office first as he has been very active in addressing Arctic Development, Sweden currently holding the Presidency of the multination ‘Arctic Council’, a body representing the eight Arctic nations and indigenous tribal groups. Following my contact with Zsiga, I was referred to the Arctic Council’s President, Swedish Ambassador Gustaf Lind. As much has been said by the Swedish Government about the need for ‘sustainable’ exploration and development in the Arctic, upon reaching the Ambassador I asked what this meant.

“I think in the Arctic it’s quite evident that you need development—the people in the Arctic need jobs, and you need tax incomes, and you need to develop the communities of the North in a way which you can only do with economic activity. But, in the same time, the sustainable part of it is extremely important”, Ambassador Lind observed, further noting that “in the case of where we have the much needed economic activity, we have to do so with the greatest respect for the environment and for the people living in the region, their traditions, in order to move forward”.

I then asked Lind how he might reply to those who charge these terms are “nothing more than negotiated definitions based upon the relative strength of the involved actors, business interests effectively dominating the process”. The Ambassador responsed noting: “I would say that we have good government regulation in place, and of course, business, if they want to act, they have to respect this regulation. So, you can see that in Northern Sweden, and what we are sort of working in the Arctic Council, is to get better circumpolar, multilateral frameworks for these issues.” However, with all due respect to the Ambassador, though Northern Sweden is held up as an example, a recent news report from the North did detail a current mining issue.

On 9 December, Sweden’s state television, SVT, did a report on a gold-mining problem where “large emissions of heavy metals, such as zinc and cadmium, have been recorded, affecting the surrounding waterways.” I used Google translate on the SVT report’s summary highlights: “Investigation complete bill for cleaning up mines at Ersmarksberget and swear Swamp can at worst be well over 200 million. The two companies conducted mining operations have only allocated three million for the cleanup. This means that taxpayers will have to pay most of the bill.”

“I feel that the mining regulations read as if they’ve been written by the unions together with the mining companies. That is, other interest, which is the environment; or, for that matter, the reindeer herders, the Sami culture, has not been taken into consideration, and the result is that these interests are at risk”, Charles Berkow, political adivsor of the Swedish Green Party’s parliament group, told me.

Addressing this issue the SEI’s Nilsson raised regarding ‘increasing interest from actors who are not necessarily from the region’, I asked Berkow: “In other words, a foreign company interested in quick profits can basically, effectively, come here and do whatever they will, and get away with it?” Berkow replied: “The risks of that is all too high.”

Returning to the Sami, I asked the Foreign Ministry’s Zsiga to respond to criticism of Sweden’s failure to ratify ‘Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989’: “The Government considers ratification still to be complicated, and is working on the matter. The reason for not ratifying essentially relates to Article 14, land rights, which poses a major obstacle for Sweden. The Government wishes to maintain the present balance between the two competing interests in the area concerned.”

In terms of how the Sami see the issues, the Sami Parliament had directed me to both its President, Mr. Utsi, and another individual—Matti Bergblind, a well-known Sami spokesman. Bergblind first spoke of how he had grown up in Kiruna, Sweden’s furthest city in the North, and how Swedish mines have been there for a hundred years. “But, what happens now is that the prices of minerals go sky high, and that means that there are a lot of foreign companies that come into the area and want to make quick money. That money they earn on my and my people’s coats, so to speak. We are the losers in the long-run when they come out and take out all the minerals that are possible—they want to make just short-term profit. That’s why we are worried about the future”, Bergblind emphasized, the concern in his voice evident, adding that “the problem is, for us, that the new coming companies, they go in, and they destroy a big part of the land, grazing land for the reindeer, and also they cut the reindeer herd in parts.”

As Bergblind tells it, mine operations, roads, infrastructure—these block routes to and from seasonal reindeer pastures, with it being evident in the Kiruna region that the reindeer “avoid the area up to ten kilometers around the mining”. Elaborating further upon his vision of the issues he said: “Our worry about the future is the fact that, if these mining plans come through, they are going to destroy the whole balance in nature”.

In an interpretation of events this journalist personally found both particularly disturbing and insightful (I had not mentioned this work’s title), Bergblind compared what’s happening now in Sweden to the 19th century US/Native American experience, noting that—following the onslaught of business interests and the military—it was the destruction of the buffalo that “destroyed the traditional way of living for the Native Americans—that’s the way they defeated them. And, the same thing happens now in Scandinavia”.

Cowboys and Indians Redux?

To return to the title of this work, ‘Nato in the Arctic: Cowboys and Indians Redux?’, there yet remain questions, including those of recent precedents. As regards precedents for military action against the North’s Indigenous People, the SEI’s Nilsson recalled, “if you look at the location of the Thule Airbase in Greenland…it was certainly military interests forcing the relocation of a whole indigenous community. The Arctic has always been heavily militarized, it has been a high politics, security zone during the whole Cold War…it’s more coercion than military force.” And, Wikipedia describes a Norwegian example, that of the Alta Dam.

“In the fall of 1979, as construction was ready to start, protesters performed two acts of civil disobedience: at the construction site itself at Stilla, activists sat down on the ground and blocked the machines, and at the same time, Sami activists began a hunger strike outside the Norwegian parliament. Documents that have since been declassified, show that the government planned to use military forces as logistical support for police authorities in their efforts to stop the protests.”

To put all of this in a geo-political context I contacted historian Michael Parenti. “As they’re doing in Central America and other places, that (Cold Response 2012) might be a scenario to do the same thing up there in the Northern region,” Parenti told me, “which is to wipe out the Indigenous Peoples, remove them as was done here in the lower 48 states”. He said that the NATO regime views indigenous people as “just a nuisance … who can be brushed aside like gnats.” The war games, Parenti observed, are a rehearsal for a certain kind of reality.” CP

Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden.

This article originally appeared in the January issue of CounterPunch magazine.


Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden.