“The future of the Sami people depends on the Sami rights.” Carsten Smith, previous Supreme Court Justice of Norway

Today we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. I want to take notice of this by reviewing Finland’s dismal record of recognizing the human rights of the Sami. Finnish human rights policy has been characterized by striking doublestandards for the past two decades. In the international arena, Finland maintains an image of staunch defender of human rights. Back at home, however, the Sami rights – which belong to the category of internationally recognized collective human rights – are regularly trampled, neglected and forgotten in ministers’ drawers.

Perhaps the best example of the hypocricy can be found from a couple of years ago. In 2006, Finland applied for the permanent membership of the newly established UN Human Rights Council. One of the key issues mentioned in the application was the government proposal relating to Finland’s ratification of the ILO Convention 169 (Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, 1989). According to the application, the proposal was to be submitted to the Parliament during 2006. The proposal was not submitted, however, but Finland was accepted as a member of the Human Rights Council.

Finland has been deploying delay tactics and unfounded promises at least since 1990 when the Committee on Sami Issues submitted a proposal for the Sami Act to the government. The swift shelving of the proposal prompted the still on-going delay tactics in which the pawn is the future of the Sami as a distinct people.

In 1993 the Ministry of the Interior announced that the deliberation of the Sami Act and the question of the land rights is to be continued. It also ordered the Sami Parliament to conduct an legal historical investigation that would also deal with questions related to the ratification of the ILO Convention 169. In the following years, however, this task somehow shifted to other bodies and the Sami Parliament was sidelined from this process.

In 1999, the Ministry of Justice initiated a curious process involving the Sami rights and the question land rights in Nortern Finland. It commissioned – and promptly shelved – a report after another: by legal scholar Pekka Vihervuori in 1999, by the so-called Pokka Committee in 2000, by another legal scholar Juhani Wirilander in 2000, and the so-called Land Rights Research Project by four Finnish scholars from the Universities of Oulu and Lapland. (Previous legal scholarship, especially by paradigm-shifting estensive research by legal scholar Kaisa Korpijaako was dismissed as biased because it showed that the Sami people had a clear title to their lands recognized by the Crown.) This report mill resulted in nothing but sidetracking from the initial objectives and key questions. The task initially given to the Sami themselves was deliberated and pondered by everybody else producing no concrete results.

Professor of Law Tuomas Ojanen noted recently in Lakimiesuutiset (Legal journal in Finland) that “the lack of ratification of the ILO Convention is a stain in Finland’s records. Despite various reports the Sami rights as indigenous peoples have not been secured as required by the Constitution and international law.” One cannot but ask the obvious question: Is it the conscious goal of the Finnish delay tactics to wait until the Sami people and culture disappear entirely from Finland? In other words, is it the unwritten Sami policy in Finland to look elsewhere until “the problem” goes away “by itself” (read: as a consequence of the state’s benign neglect)?

The ratification of the ILO Convention and the related questions of land rights are not the only matter involving the Sami rights Finland is deploying its conscious delay tactics to. The same strategy has been adopted also with regard to the Nordic Sami Convention currently under consideration. Earlier this Fall, Finland almost withdrew from the process of deliberating the Sami Convention altogether. The Nordic group of experts, which also had a representative from the Finnish Ministry of Justice, submitted its draft Convention in November 2005 to the governments of Finland, Sweden and Norway for further deliberations. The objective of the Sami Convention is to harmonize the Sami policies in the three Nordic countries. To date, Finland has not begun its national deliberations on the draft.

The Finnish delay tactics has not gone completely unnoticed by international bodies. The criticism by international committees, however, has received the same treatment as the numerous reports on land rights: they have been quickly shelved and they have never received any substantial media attention (if any). In 2001, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe reprimanded Finland for delaying the solution of the land right question. In the following year, 2002, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance notified Finland about the urgency of the ratification of the ILO Convention.

In 2004, the UN Committee on Human Rights (now replaced by the Human Rights Council) periodic report to Finland criticized strongly Finnish Sami policy and expressed a concern about the survival of Sami culture. According to the report, Finland had failed solving the Sami land rights. It called for immediate measures together with the Sami Parliament and requested Finland to refrain from any activities that could negatively affect the resolving the Sami land rights.

Finland has not, however, followed these requests but rather, done the very opposite. This is exemplified by the on-going forestry dispute in Inari. The Ministry of Justice has given its approval to Metsähallitus (the state enterprise that administers the “state land” in Northern Finland) to log the winter grazing areas of Sami reindeer herders.

The Finnish Constitution has recognized the Sami as an indigenous people and confirmed the Sami linguistic and cultural rights. Indigenous peoples’ rights are recognized as collective human rights in international law. In other words, indigenous peoples’ rights are not special rights but a mechanism to implement the universal human rights in relation to indigenous peoples. One of these rights is the right of all peoples to self-determination. The Article 1 of the International Convention of the Civic and Political Rights (1966) states that all peoples have the right to self-determination.

Adopted in September 2007, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples the human rights declaration of the world’s indigenous peoples. Finland was one of the 142 countries to adopt the declaration (Canada, US, Australia and New Zealand voted against). If Finland is ready to adopt the Declaration, why doesn’t this readiness translate into political will and legal measures when the folks return home from the UN?

(I submitted a Finnish version of this article to the national newspaper Helsingin Sanomat – it will be interesting to see whether they will publish it. I will keep you posted.)


2 thoughts on “Sami Rights Policy in Finland: Delay Tactics until the problem disappears?

  1. Rauna, once again, thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed and informative post. I do hope Helsingin Sanomat publishes your piece! If not –how can they explain their rejection of it? Not printing it would contribute to the hiding and shelving of this crucial issue.

    Canada’s shameful vote against signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People–144 signed, only 4 did not–makes visible the lie of the claims it makes to the international community. But Finland’s signing yet shelving shows that even signing such an important and historic document is a token gesture. The credibility of both Canada and Finland is in the garbage can.

  2. hey Thank you for posting this!!
    I am writting about the Nordic Sami COnvention and are trying to gather more information about it, and the status quo of it today. Do you have any other similar articles?
    Thank you

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