Image: Helga West / A poster of a Sámi girl: Lotta Hagelin
Not all is well in my native Finland, a country that is known for its progressive human rights culture, high level education and Nordic welfare systems. However, Finland as a state has not been that feminist when it comes to Indigenous rights, which has already damaged Finland’s reputation nationally and internationally.
Monitoring bodies of international human rights treaties have repeatedly stated that Finland violates human rights in the issue of the electoral roll of the Sámi Parliament. In Finland, the Skolt Sámi Village Council and the Sámi Parliament represent the cultural autonomy of the Sámi people. Nevertheless, the political self-determination over the Indigenous Sámi has remained in the Finnish Government and legal system – a conflict still waiting to be resolved.
A long-awaited amendment of the Sámi Parliament Act would strengthen realization of the people’s right to self-determination and obligation of the state authorities to negotiate with the Sámi. It would also make the voting method in Sámi Parliament elections more accessible, something that would ease the Sámi who live far away from postal services in Northern Finland.
In practice, the amendment would reinforce the Sámi’s self-determination to have a stronger mandate to decide who can vote in their own elections.
Applications for the election list of the Sámi Parliament are primarily based on Sámi language. In the amendment of the Act, the language criterion would be extended by one generation up to great grandparents, as in Norway. This extension would allow more Sámi to vote. The reform would especially help many Inari Sámi people who have lost their language due to assimilation policies. At the same time, the highly problematic so-called lapp criterion against the Sámi people’s right to self-determination would be removed in the reform.
The political tensions around the issue are now gaining international attention. Earlier this October, Euronews wrote:
There are genuine, well-founded concerns that if enough people not recognised by Sámi get elected to parliament, then very soon the Sámi could become outnumbered and outflanked in their own assembly when it comes to issues like land use, property development, fishing rights or mineral extraction rights.
Sanna Marin’s Government has time until 17th of November 2022 to bring the amendment of the Sámi Parliament Act to the Finnish Parliament. In her previous comments, Marin has promised to bring the amendment to the Finnish Parliament to be voted for or against it.
In case the amendment fails, it would be a major backlash for Sámi communities in Finland. In addition, it risks the ongoing Sámi Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The Commission was established in October 2021 to examine both the historical and contemporary wrongdoings towards the Sámi in Finland and suggest measurements to improve the situation. If Sanna Marin’s Government fail to reform the Sámi Parliament Act, it becomes the third government in Finland to be unsuccessful in solving the human rights conflict between the state and the Sámi.
If the state is unable to resolve the conflict – which it has created – the state’s motifs for reconciliation become highly questionable. In other words, in case Marin’s Government doesn’t reform the Sámi Parliament Act, promoting reconciliation with the Sámi doesn’t seem credible in such political climate. Finland’s frozen conflict about Sámi self-determination jeopardizes the Sámi reconciliation process and more importantly, already fragile trust of many Sámi towards the state.
It is said that no state is more powerful than its own legal system. The tensions around the amendment of the Sámi Parliament Act challenges that very system in Finland by asking: at the end, who should have the right to decide about the Sámi’s internal affairs?
Morally and legally speaking, the answer should be: the Sámi.
The author is a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki, and she examines Sámi reconciliation processes. She wants to thank Professor in Northern Politics and Government, Laura Junka-Aikio, for valuable comments for this article.