Lex Rex Ph

Denmark V. Norway Digest

Full title: Legal Status of Eastern Greenland (Denmark V. Norway), PCIJ Judgment of 5 September 1933 [on sovereignty over land]

Full text


Denmark and Norway disputed over the legal status of Eastern Greenland because on July 10th, 1931, Norway published a proclamation declaring that it had proceeded to occupy certain territories in Eastern Greenland, which, in the contention of the Danish Government, were subject to the sovereignty of the Crown of Denmark. 2 days after such proclamation, Denmark filed a suit against Norway before the Permanent Court of International Justice.

According to the facts submitted by the parties:

  • year 900 A. D. that Greenland was discovered. The country was colonized about a century later.
  • The best known of the colonists was Eric the Red, who was an inhabitant of Iceland of Norwegian origin, his settlements Eystribygd and Vestribygd disappeared before 1500
  • From 1380 to 1840, the kingdoms of Norway and Denmark were united under the same Crown and there was no showing that Greenland was a Norwegian possession.
  • In 1630’s, foreign countries appear to have acquiesced in the claims of the King of Denmark.
  • In 1721, the pastor Hans Egede, of Norway, formed a “Greenland Company”, went to Greenland as a missionary and founded a new colony there, which was soon followed by other settlements. But the King of Denmark reserved his “sovereignty, absolutum dominium and hereditary rights”
  • In 1740, the King of Denmark formed a “Greenland Commission”
  • In the 1770’s, the Greenland trade has been a monopoly of the State of Denmark.
  • In 1919, the Danish Minister for Foreign Affairs informed the Norwegian Government that Denmark had no objection to Norway’s claims over the Spitzbergen archipelago. In return, Norway expressed that it had no objections to Denmark’s plans to extend its sovereignty over the entire Greenland. M. Ihlen’s words were that “the plans of the Royal [Danish] Government respecting Danish sovereignty over the whole of Greenland… would meet with no difficulties on the part of Norway”. This statement of the Norweigian Minister for Foreign Affairs which is described in this judgment as the “Ihlen Declaration.”
  • In 1920, Denmark approached the governments of London, Paris, Rome, and Tokyo with a view to obtaining assurances from them. Each of those governments replied in terms that satisfied the Danish government. It then communicated such assurances to the only 2 governments interested that time, Norway and Sweden. 
  • Norway did not receive it and said that unless it received an undertaking that the Danish Govenrment give liberty and will not interfere with the hunting and fishing on the East Coast by the Norwegians. Denmark is unwilling to give this demand by Norway because it will expose the Eskimo people of Greenland to uncontrolled contact with the white races.
  • Because of Norway’s unwillingness, the Danish government said that it would rest content with the verbal undertaking given by M. Ihlen in 1919. 
  • Greenland is a bit uninhabitable

Norway’s contentions 

  • that when Denmark speaks of “Greenland” in general, means the colonized part of the West coast referred to above; 
  • That Norway has sovereignty over Eastern Greenland, arguing that it had acquired the territory through historic title and effective occupation.

Denmark’s contentions:

  • Denmark contends that the expression “Greenland” refers to Greenland in the geographical sense of the word, i.e. to the whole island of Greenland.
  • that it has sovereignty over the entire island of Greenland, including Eastern Greenland, which it had colonized since the 18th century.

issue 1

Is the Norwegian occupation of part of the East coast of Greenland invalid because Denmark has claimed and exercised sovereign rights over Greenland as a whole for a long time and has obtained thereby a valid title to sovereignty?

ruling 1


  1. Denmark did not establish its claim on occupation, but on the words used in the Las Palmas case “the peaceful and continuous display of State authority over the island.”
  2. A claim to sovereignty based not upon some particular act or title such as a treaty of cession but merely upon continued display of authority, involves two elements each of which must be shown [p46] to exist: 
    1. (1) the intention and will to act as sovereign. subjective. animus occupandi
    2. and (2) some actual exercise or display of such authority. objective. Corpus possessionis
      1. Although concentrated in the Western portion but applied to all of the island.
  3. In cases where there are 2 or more claims, the tribunal has had to decide which of the two is the stronger. Up to 1931 there was no claim by any Power other than Denmark to the sovereignty over Greenland. Indeed, up till 1921, no Power disputed the Danish claim to sovereignty.
  4. Norway has not established that the King of Norway had sovereignty over Greenland in the XIIIth and XIVth centuries.
  5. The argument that Greenland became a terra nullius because of conquest or voluntary abandonment is not appropriate as there has been no war.
  6. Norway failed to establish its contention that the authority in these acts was restricted to the colonized area.

issue 2

Did Norway give certain undertakings which recognized Danish sovereignty over all Greenland?

ruling 2

There were no explicit undertakings made by Norway recognizing Danish sovereignty, but there were indications that Norway did not object to Denmark’s plans to extend its sovereignty over the entire Greenland.

  1. Norway had undertaken not to dispute Danish sovereignty over Greenland at the time of the termination of the Union between Denmark and Norway (1814 to 1819).
  2. Norway has given undertakings recognizing Danish sovereignty over Greenland based on various bilateral and multilateral agreements, including the Commercial Treaty of 1826.
  3. The Ihlen declaration of 1919, in which the Norwegian Minister for Foreign Affairs replied to a Danish request for recognition of Danish sovereignty over Greenland, has been considered as an engagement obliging Norway to refrain from occupying any part of Greenland.
  4. Court Rules Norway Cannot Contest Danish Sovereignty Over Greenland as a Result of Undertaking in Ihlen Declaration.

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