World, Europe

Europe’s indigenous people continue to struggle for self-determination in Finland

Finnish government sends controversial Sami bill to parliamentary committees for consideration

Leila Nezirevic  | 29.11.2022 - Update : 03.12.2022
Europe’s indigenous people continue to struggle for self-determination in Finland


In Finland, not much is known about the Sami people, their history, contemporary society, or their relations with the Finnish state, and this lack of knowledge can easily lead to misunderstandings and wrong decision-making by lawmakers.

It can also lead to discrimination, racism, and disrespectful attitudes towards “the indigenous people who still cannot decide on their own affairs,” as Sami do not have the right to collective self-determination, which according to international law belongs to all peoples of the world, President of the Sami Council Aslak Holmberg told Anadolu Agency.

Europe’s indigenous people, the Sami, inhabit yet untouched parts of Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia, where their ancient traditions and culture try to coexist with the modern world.

In recent years, the UN has criticized Finland, urging the government to make amendments to the law that will ensure the right of Sami to self-determination.

Last June, a UN committee found that Finland violated an international human rights convention on racial discrimination when it comes to the political rights of Sami.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has already determined that “Indigenous Peoples have the right to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions and the right to determine the structures and to select the membership of their institutions in accordance with their own procedures,” the Sami Parliamentary Council said in a statement.

However, the Sami Parliament Act was passed in 1996, and it states that those whose ancestors hunted, fished, raised reindeer, and paid the so-called Laplander taxes can also vote and run for the Sami Parliament in Finland, even if they are ethnically Finnish.

But a 2019 ruling by the UN Human Rights Committee states that the current Sami Parliament Act violates human rights treaties and “the council demands the end of the current human rights treaty violations in Finland and necessary actions to secure the Sami peoples’ right to self-determination through the Sami Parliament in Finland as a representative body,” the statement said.

Following a heated debate last week on the controversial law, which has caused major friction within Finland's coalition government, Finnish MPs have agreed to send the bill to Parliament’s Constitutional Law Committee for consideration.

Sana Marin’s gov't could collapse

There have been numerous attempts to reform the Sami District Law in the Nordic country for more than a decade, and the reform has always fallen into disputes.

Prime Minister Sanna Marin apologized to the Sami last month for the fact that the government has not been able to move forward with the proposal so far.

The biggest opponents are the Centre Party, which has been blocking any changes from taking place out of fear that they would “lose support” in Lapland from those who will be affected by the bill.

“So unfortunately, it is kind of politically wise for the Centre Party to be opposing that bill,” Inka Musta, an Inari Sami activist, told Anadolu Agency.

There are fears that the decision to take the bill to the parliament without the Centre Party’s consent could in fact collapse Marin’s government, as traditionally the Nordic country has seen governments fall over disputes.

In 2019, the Centre Party government of then-Prime Minister Juha Sipila collapsed when he failed to pass healthcare reforms, and that same year, the party brought down Social Democrat Prime Minister Antti Rinne, which resulted in Marin becoming the country’s prime minister.

‘Anti-colonial’ battle

Over the past decades, a huge effort has been made by the Sami to get the act passed, but so far, all attempts have failed.

“I remember in 2015, I was a bit younger then and I was standing on the stairs of the Finnish Parliament building. We had a demonstration there with the Sami youth and again it was last week. The same people were there seven years ago when the act failed last time.

“I would have never imagined that this would take such a long time,” said Musta.

According to Holmberg, the renewed act would strengthen the Sami parliament and their right to self-determination.

“There is just a lot of frustration that we have not been able to renew this act for more than 10 years,” he added.

Holmberg told Anadolu Agency that the Finnish government must take necessary steps that will enable the Sami to have a say in how their traditional territories are governed.

So, ultimately, it is an “anti-colonial” battle where the Sami are trying to have a “stronger say over our issues instead of the Finnish government,” he said.

Existential threat

The Sami Council estimates that there are 100,000-150,000 Sami in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russia in the land known as Sapmi, currently governed by an “outdated” law that essentially is an existential threat to the Sami Parliament in Finland.

Holmberg pointed out that the Supreme Administrative Court of Finland attempts to jeopardize legitimacy of the Sami Parliament and to water-down the Sami representatives and authority.

He warned about the Sami Parliament facing “existential threat” as those “who support the colonial structures” and those “who are not willing to fight for Sami rights” are being put in charge of their affairs.

Currently, the Sami District Act states that a Sami is a person who considers himself a Sami, provided that he himself or at least one of his parents or grandparents has learned the Sami language as his first language.

One is considered as Sami too if at least one of the parents is marked or could have been marked as entitled to vote in the elections of the Sami delegation or the Sami assemblies.

The bill also states that Sami is a Finnish Lappish person whose descendants are marked as a hunters, forests, or fisherman who paid Laplander taxes.

Holmberg thinks that this is very problematic because the taxation documents only speak about their livelihood and not about the ethnicity of the people who were taxpayers.

“So, it includes both the Finns who were settlers, and Sami, who were the indigenous people, so this is the problematic piece in the legislation that the opposition is seemingly unwilling to give up on even though it doesn't have any legal rationale,” Holmberg said.

This kind of criteria should not be practiced in the Sami Parliament and electoral roll “because the Sami parliament is supposed to represent in Sami culture and language,” he added.

Holmberg thinks that the new act currently been put forward for consideration is the most important piece of legislation.

New government’s proposal

The new law states that participation in Sami parliament elections would be primarily based on Sami languages.

In the future, you would get the right to vote if at least one of the great-grandparents has learned Sami as their first language.

The right to vote would also be given to those whose parents have been registered as eligible to vote or run in the elections after the entry into force of the law.

In the future, the ancestor's Lappish marking in historical documents would no longer give the right to vote in Sami assemblies which means that one could no longer obtain Sami status on the basis that the ancestors were practitioners of traditional Lappish ways of living.

The constitution currently guarantees the indigenous people the right to maintain and develop their own language and culture, which also includes the Sami's traditional livelihoods of fishing, reindeer husbandry, and hunting.

Critics are concerned that by losing the Sami status, a person would also lose the rights guaranteed to the Sami in the constitution.

According to Holmberg, a minority in the Sami parliament does not support the act and this, he said, is regularly used by politicians as an excuse to not approve it.

In his words, this is “a very strange perception on democracy,” where it is expected of Sami to be unanimous and have a consensus on something.

“In the Finnish Parliament, they are never unanimous in their decisions, and it's approved or ... perfectly normal in their view, that they don't agree on everything and that they have to vote on legislation, but there is this expectation that the Sami should have a unanimous voice while it's understandable that there are different positions, different points of view,” Holmberg stressed.

This, he said, is “very undemocratic” because most of the Sami parliament supports the act.

The Sami Parliament is expected to vote on the new bill on Tuesday, after which, in the next two months, experts’ hearings will take place before the final decisions are made.

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