Historical Evidence and the Eastern Greenland Case

  • Janice Cavell
Keywords: sovereignty, Eastern Greenland, polar regions


The Eastern Greenland case (1931–33) is the only territorial dispute in the polar regions ever to have been decided by an international court. Norway challenged Denmark’s claim to sovereignty over all of Greenland on the grounds that Denmark had established effective occupation in a limited area only. The Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ) held that effective occupation in the polar regions requires relatively little actual exercise of sovereign rights, and that Denmark therefore did indeed have sovereignty over the entire island. Both parties in the dispute based many of their arguments on historical evidence, most notably the records of a series of diplomatic overtures to other states made by Denmark between 1915 and 1921. These documents, the Norwegians argued, showed that the Danes themselves did not believe that they had sovereignty over the entire island. The Danes, on the other hand, contended that their sovereignty dated back to the Middle Ages. The Court found the Danish arguments more convincing. However, the dissenting opinion of Justice Dionisio Anzilotti upheld the Norwegian interpretation. This paper re-examines the issue in the light of historical evidence, found recently in Canadian archives, that was not available to the Court. These new documents indicate that Anzilotti’s view was the correct one. While the 1933 decision in favour of Denmark can be upheld on other than historical grounds, a re-assessment of the historical evidence and arguments presented to the PCIJ is essential to set the record straight.