• Indigenous peoples in Sápmi

    Indigenous peoples in Sápmi

    The Sámi people are the indigenous people of the northern part of the Scandinavian Peninsula and large parts of the Kola Peninsula and live in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. They number between 50,000 and 100,000.

Indigenous World 2019: Sápmi

Sápmi is the Sámi people’s own name for their traditional territory. The Sámi people are the indigenous people of the northern part of the Scandinavian Peninsula and large parts of the Kola Peninsula and live in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. There is no reliable information on the population of Sámi people; it is, however estimated that they number between 50,000-100,000.

Around 20,000 live in Sweden, which is approximately 0.22% of Sweden’s total population of around 9 million. The north-western part of the Swedish territory is the Sámi people’s traditional territory. The Sámi reindeer herders, small farmers, hunters, gatherers, and fishers traditionally use these lands. Around 50-65,000 live in Norway, for example, between 1.06% and 1.38% of the total Norwegian population of approximately 4.7 million. Around 8,000 live in Finland, which is approximately 0.16% of the total Finnish population of around 5 million. Around 2,000 live in Russia, and this is a very small proportion of the total population of Russia.

Politically, the Sámi people are represented by three Sámi parliaments, one in Sweden, one in Norway and one in Finland, whereas on the Russian side they are organized into NGOs. In 2000, the three Sámi parliaments established a joint council of representatives called the Sámi Parliamentary Council. The Sámi Parliamentary Council is not to be confused with the Sámi Council, which is a central Sámi NGO representing large national Sámi associations (NGOs) in all four countries. There are also other important Sámi institutions, both regional and local, inter alia, the Sámi University of Applied Sciences, which is a research and higher education institution dedicated to the Sámi society’s needs, and where the Sámi language is mainly used throughout the academic system. Sweden, Norway and Finland voted in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007, while Russia abstained.

Constitutional recognition and the Sámi Convention

The Nordic governments have together with the Sámi Parliaments in Finland, Norway and Sweden made a common effort for developing a new legal framework for protection of the rights of the Sámi through the negotiations on the Nordic Sámi Convention. Negotiations lasted for six years, and the drafting of the Sámi Convention was finalized in 2017. The proposal is currently still under consideration in the relevant ministries of the governments of these countries.1 Both the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC) and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) have recommended a speedy adoption of this convention as a measure for strengthening the protection of Sámi rights and give a common legal framework for further development of Sámi self-determination.

As the drafting process has taken so long, and the number of cases where the Sámi claim that their rights are being violated continues to grow, political tension between the Sámi and the Nordic states has intensified. This is mainly due to the governments’ policies regarding development in the North, including strategies for welcoming more extractive industry and wind power projects in Sámi territories. In this context, the Sámi consider the Sámi Convention as an important standard-setting document that could be used to address the inequality in power balance between the Sámi and the state, and to secure fundamental human rights for the Sámi. One of the most important aspects of the Sámi Convention is that it builds on existing international law and aims at implementing these in a Nordic context.

From a Sámi perspective, reconciliation is seen as a prerequisite for the effective implementation of the human rights of the Sámi and for the shaping of a stronger relationship between the states and the Sámi peoples. In 2018, the Sámi Parliaments and Sámi organizations’ initiative for the establishment of Sámi truth and reconciliation processes saw some results. The Sámi and Kven Truth and Reconciliation Commission – established by the Storting, the national parliament in Norway – was appointed and started its work.2 The commission will finalize its report to the Storting by September 2022.3 There are still ongoing discussions on the establishment of similar Sámi reconciliation processes in Finland and Sweden.4

There are also parallel discussions on strengthening the consultation and negotiation arrangements between the Sámi Parliaments and the states in all three countries.5 In its concluding observations on the most recent periodic report of Norway, the HRC recommended that Norway should “ensure meaningful consultation with the Sami peoples in practice and adopt a law for consultations with a view to obtaining their free, prior and informed consent, in consultation with them.”6 The government of Norway presented a proposal for a separate chapter on consultations in the Sámi Act in 2018, based on consultations with the Sámi Parliament Council and the consent of the Sámi Parliament.7 In 2019, the new government of Sweden was formed, and it will continue its discussions with the Sámi Parliament on the proposed Sámi Consultation Act.8 In Finland, there is still no agreement between the Sámi parliament and the state on the revision of the Sámi Parliament Act. The UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP) visited Finland in 2018, in its first country engagement under its revised mandate and provided technical legal advice on how the Sámi Parliament Act should be revised in order to implement international human rights standards.9

Extractive industry in Sámi territories

The Nordic states still have no action plans for the implementation of the UNDRIP, and only Norway has ratified the ILO 169. For the last years, the Sámi have reacted to the effects of the “High North” industrial policies10 by declaring moratoriums around the Sámi territory, reclaiming Sámi self-determination over areas where there are ongoing disputes with the states and/or private sector. Statements by ministers calling the Sámi territory a “treasure chest” containing minerals worth millions of dollars11, and state sponsoring of the mapping and exploration of the rich mineral deposits in the north, have made the political debate even more polarized.

The current Mining Act in Sweden does not contain any provisions to accommodate for any special rights relevant to Sámi people, and existing mining policies do not appear to be sufficient to protect Sámi interests and rights over lands affected by mining.12 The Sámi in Sweden therefore declared moratoriums in the aftermath of the Gállok mining case that made international headlines between 2013 and 2015, as did Sámi reindeer herders from both the Swedish and the Norwegian side of Sápmi in the Násavárri mining case. The Sámi Parliament in Sweden has clearly stated that it wants a moratorium on all exploitation in Sápmi, but its demand for Sweden’s ratification of the ILO 169 and compliance with international human rights standards have so far not lead to any significant change in Sweden’s position on these issues.

The Gállok mining project is disputed because of it established an iron ore mine in the middle of reindeer herding lands in Gállok, which led to conflicts with the Sámi reindeer herding villages that it affected. The case is on-going. Sámi activists, politicians, lawyers and others have for several years protested against Beowulf, a British mining corporation that has the licenses to extract minerals in this area. The corporation sees Sámi interests as “competing use of land,” and the state has given the corporation protection against measures that may hinder future potential mineral extraction.13 The company also has several exploration projects in Lapland, on the Finnish side of the Sámi territory. The final decision on the Gállok-case is still pending with the Swedish authorities and protests against Beowulf continue.

In another Sámi area, in the Nása mountain case, Sámi reindeer herders of Svaipa, Grans and Semisjaur-Njarg Sámi villages and the Saltfjell reindeer herding district have declared a moratorium on mining in the Nása mountain14, a border area between Sweden and Norway. The company Elkem AS has applied for expropriation of the rights of the Sámi on the Nása mountain in order to open a quarry for mining quartz. The Nása moratorium means that the use of land, water and air may in no way infringe on the rights or interests of the Sámi in the geographical area of Nása. Thus, the Sámi explicitly prohibit any mining activities such as preparations, prospecting, road construction or other operations that disturb traditional reindeer herding in the area. These rules are to be enforced by the Sámi villages until local Sámi self-government, which recognizes reindeer herding as the primary form of land use, has been incorporated in the Norwegian and Swedish laws, and until mining and other land uses that infringe upon rights and cause environmental damage are prohibited in the area permanently.

The Norwegian government has evaluated the Mineral Act, and it concluded that the Act should introduce a new set of rules to guide the ministries in assessing the impacts of mining on Sámi livelihoods and communities.15 In Norway, the government’s permits to the copper mining company Nussir, including a permit to deposit toxic mining waste in a protected national salmon fjord, Riehponvuotna/Repparfjorden, have sparked a national environmental protest for the protection of one of the last wild salmon rivers in Europe and the rights of the Sea Sámi culture and Sámi reindeer herding siidas (families) that will be impacted by this project.16 The government has followed its policy of allowing more mining in Sámi territories and has continued to set aside the legal objections of the Sámi Parliament and environmental organizations in the Nussir case.17 

The impact of renewable wind power in Sámi territories

The large number of mega wind power parks that have been, and still are, being established in Sámi territory in all three Nordic countries, are controversial from a Sámi human rights and environmental perspective.18 One of the paradoxes of “green energy” projects is that in many cases they lead to indigenous peoples losing land through state expropriation of lands which are used by indigenous peoples. Hence, “green energy” development projects could end up threatening the very existence of Sámi traditional livelihoods.

The Storheia wind park in Fosen, Norway, is one of the most recently established mega parks, with construction on-going.19 The Norwegian Petroleum and Energy Ministry have given the permits to proceed with the 288 megawatt (MW) Storheia wind park, which is part of Europe’s largest onshore wind power project being developed by the Fosen Vind consortium. In December 2018, the CERD requested Norway to suspend the project so it could examine a complaint that the project would be harmful for Sámi reindeer herding. The ministry has stated that they will reply to the CERD correspondence but will disregard the request for interim measures as the project has already acquired all the necessary domestic legal permits and is almost finished.20

The Arctic Railway 

The planned railway line to the Arctic Sea is another indication of the increased interest of both states and the private sector in the exploitation of natural resources in Sápmi. The Sámi Parliament in Finland, Suoma Sámi Nuorat (Sámi youth organization), the Sámi Council and the Sámi artists collective Suohpanterror are among those that have strongly opposed the Arctic Railway plans, arguing that international law gives the Sámi people the right to consultations conducted in good faith in order to fulfil the right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) in matters like this.

In the spring of 2018, the Ministry of Transport and Communications in Finland founded a Finnish-Norwegian working group for the purpose of examining further the routing from Rovaniemi, Finland to Kirkenes, Norway. Its work was conducted over the period from May to December 2018. The task of the group was to analyse the (social) impact of the railroad at the national, regional, european and global levels as well as the possible schedule and next steps of the project. The tasks of the working group also included examining the key issues of the railroad routing that are, for instance, connected with the environment, permit procedures, costs and financing. The Sámi Parliament in Finland, the Skolt Sámi Village Meeting and the Sámi Reindeer-Herding Cooperatives were represented in the working group. The results of these assessments have still not been made public, but the Sámi representatives have stated that their views were not included in the report correctly. Therefore, the Sámi Parliament has, pursuant to Section 9 of the Act on the Sámi Parliament, requested negotiations with the Ministry.21

In 2018, Greenpeace, with the support of Sámi activists demonstrated against industrial exploitation of the Great Northern Forest in the Sámi territory in Northern Finland.22 They fear that exploitation of the Arctic’s unfragmented forests threatens Sámi culture as these forests are essential for traditional Sámi reindeer herding. A planned industrial railway would not only cut through the forests of Sámi homeland and destroy them but would also have negative consequences for the traditional management of Sámi reindeer herding.23

Protection of Sámi fishing rights

The Deatnu/Tana/Teno24 Fishery Agreement, is a treaty between Finland and Norway on the rights to salmon fishing in the Deatnu river. The Norwegian and the Finnish Parliaments approved the Deanu Fishery Agreement in 2017 on fishing in the Tana watercourse and related watercourse regulations, despite the strong and clear opposition from the Sámi parliaments in Norway and Finland, the Tana watercourse fish resource management, the municipalities involved, all of the rightsholders’ organisations and individual local Sámi salmon fishers.25 The Sámi parliaments claim that the agreement has both procedural and material shortcomings that run counter to human rights.26 The Sámi parliaments are advocating for amendments in this agreement so that it will respect the customary fishing rights of the Sámi living in the Deanu valley. The Ellos Deatnu movement initiated by Sámi activists, politicians and local traditional fishers, came as a reaction to this agreement being approved without the proper participation, impact assessments and FPIC of the Sámi Parliaments and the Sámi who have fishing rights.27 The Ellos Deatnu movement is an indigenous-led activist movement based in the transborder area in Deatnu, where indigenous activists declared Sámi self-determination, moratorium, over a small island in the Deatnu river. 28

The Tana agreement is Norway and Finland’s attempt to protect the salmon as the Deatnu valley hosts one of the most diverse salmon populations in the world. But the local Sámi communities argue that fishing rights for traditional techniques deployed by the Sámi have been disproportionately reduced – by 80%, whereas leisure fishing has seen a cut of 30-40%. This is considered discriminatory and a threat to the traditional salmon fishing of the Sámi in the valley.29 The Sámi claim that the ownership of the river, and the right to manage the fishing there, are rights of the local people, not the national states.

The current Finnish Fisheries Act (379/2015) restricts the fishing rights of the Sámi in a way that unreasonably restricts the Sámi cultural practices. Some local Sámi rights holders – who are part of the local Sámi community of the Deatnu River, are currently opposing these restrictive regulations in the Deatnu river through continuing their traditional Sámi fishing without the permission of the state forest enterprise, Metsähallitus. Four Sámi are being prosecuted by the Finnish government for illegal fishing under Chapter 28, Section 10 of the penal code as they lacked the proper permits to fish in rivers where the state claims ownership. The four Sámi deny that they have committed a crime in practicing their culture in waters that have been used by the Sámi since time immemorial. In 2018, a Sámi human rights organization called ALVA was established, with the aim of promoting the human rights of the Sámi.30 ALVA is currently supporting the Sámi in Finland who are being prosecuted for illegal fishing.31

Recommendations from UN treaty bodies

In 2018, Norway received recommendations from the CERD, CRC, CAT and the Human Rights Committee. Sweden received recommendations from the CERD.32 These include recommendations on inter alia specific measures to: end violence and sexual assaults against Sámi women; give legal recognition to the land and resource rights of the Sami people; ensure effective consultations and FPIC; and to improve the legal framework on Sámi land, fishing and reindeer rights. Further, the treaty bodies urge the states to address outstanding concerns raised by the Sami Parliament and facilitate the speedy adoption of the Nordic Sami Convention and a follow-up of the proposals of the Sámi Rights Committee.33 There is no coordinated follow-up of the recommendations on Sámi rights between the countries. There are also recent research projects that address the challenges with protection of the rights of the Sámi, in light of developments in international law.34

Notes and references

  1. For more about the Nordic Sámi Convention, see Indigenous World 2018, p. 30
  2. The Kven are descendants of immigrants from Finland, and they are one of Norway’s recognized national minorities. The Sámi commissioners are in a minority in the Commission, and the Chair is the former leader of the Norwegian Christian Democratic Party, Dagfinn Høybråten.
  3. For more about the mandate of the Sámi and Kven Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Norway: http://bit.ly/2T2eJKe (PDF)
  4. About the reconciliation process in Finland: http://bit.ly/2Tl1WHc
  5. For more about the proposal on a new Sámi consultation act in Sweden and the proposal for adding a new chapter on consultations the Sámi Law (Sameloven) in Norway, see Indigenous World 2018, p. 33. The latter proposal was presented to the Storting, the Norwegian parliament, in 2018, but the parliament has still not made its final decision. The Sámi Parliament in Norway gave its consent to the proposed amendments in
  6. CCPR/C/NOR/CO/7, Concluding observations on Norway, para. 37 b).
  7. See Regjeringen.no, “Sametingsrådet og regjeringen enige om lovregler for konsultasjoner” at: http://bit.ly/2TlZDDF
  8. The Sámi Parliament in Sweden rejected the first draft bill on consultations, as it found it not to comply with international standards. For more about the Sámi experiences with consultations, see Christina Allard: The Rationale for the Duty to Consult Indigenous Peoples: Comparative Reflections from Nordic and Canadian Legal Contexts, in Arctic Review on Law and Politics, Vol. 9/2018, p. 25-43.
  1. See the UN EMRIP’s Advisory note, from 28 March 2018 at: http://bit.ly/2TbYjTZ
  2. See The Prime Minister’s office, “Northern area strategy between geopolitics and social development.” Available at: http://bit.ly/2Tb3Ryw ; The Prime Minister’s office, Finland. ‘‘Finland’s Strategy for the Arctic Region 2013. Availeble at: http://bit.ly/2Tesef7 : See The Government Offices of Sweden. “Sweden’s strategy for the Arctic Region.” Available at: http://bit.ly/2T9ieU1
  3. See NRK, “The treasury in the north.” Available at: http://bit.ly/2Tb498A
  4. See A/HRC/18/35/Add.2 at: http://bit.ly/2ThTSH1
  5. See Beowulf Mining for further information on the Gállok/Kallak-project at: http://bit.ly/2TmEgC8
  6. See NRK, “You are welcome today, but we don’t want you in the ” Available at: http://bit.ly/2T894ay
  7. See Regjeringen.no, “Evaluation of the Mineral Act” at: http://bit.ly/2Tp3tw0
  8. See The Independent, “Norway approves copper mine in Arctic described as ’most environmentally damaging project in country’s history’” at: https://ind.pn/2ThVron
  9. See Newsinenglish.no, “Sparks fly over Finnmark mining” at: http://bit.ly/2ThsFV6
  10. See Environmental Justice Atlas, “Large-scale Wind Farm in Sami reindeer land, Sweden” at: http://bit.ly/2TpzW5n
  11. For a map over all the planned and finished wind power/ turbine parks in Norway, see the official data for Norway at: http://bit.ly/2TkAeu1
  12. See Reuters, “Norway to build wind farm despite concerns of reindeer herders” at: https://reut.rs/2Th88jo
  13. In the working group, the Sámi Parliament has been represented by 1st Vice Chair Heikki Paltto, the Sámi herding cooperatives by Osmo Seurujärvi, the Chair of the Muddusjärvi, and the Skolt Sámi Village Meeting by Veikko See The Barents Observer at: http://bit.ly/2Tp3Uq8 for more information.
  14. See Greenpeace International, “Industrial railway line and logging threaten the Sámi homeland” at: http://bit.ly/2Tp3Zdq
  15. See Greenpeace International, “On track for disaster — how the Arctic Railway will affect you and the climate” at: http://bit.ly/2TenxB2
  16. Deatnu is the original North Sámi name of the river, Tana in Norwegian and Teno in Finnish
  17. See The Barents Observer, “Sámi Parliaments continue fight over fishing in Teno River” at: http://bit.ly/2TkjO4O
  18. See Sametinget, “The periodic report of the Sámi Parliament in Norway, to the ILO (2018)” at: http://bit.ly/2TkB6Pj
  19. For more about free, prior and informed consent from a human rights perspective, see study of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, A/HRC/39/62, 10 August
  20. See “Niillas Holmberg & Sara Marielle Gaup – ELLOS DEATNU” at: http://bit.ly/2TmHFAQ (video) and “Ellos Deatnu! It’s the Local People” at: http://bit.ly/2TgyRN3 (video)
  21. See Equal Times, “The EU’s last indigenous peoples fight for self-determination and land rights” at: http://bit.ly/2TbZIKf
  22. For more about ALVA, see samihumanrights.org
  23. See Samihumanrights.org, “Fishing Rights” at: http://bit.ly/2Th8G8W
  24. See CERD/C/SWE/CO/22-23, Concluding Observations Sweden, June 6,
  25. CERD Concluding Observations, Norway, 2 January 2019, CERD/C/NOR/CO/2324, CRC Concluding Observations, 4 July 2018, CRC/C/NOR/CO/5-6, Human Rights Committee Concluding Observations, 28 April 2018, CCPR/C/NOR/ CO/7, CAT Concluding Observations, 5 June 2018, CAT/C/NOR/CO/8.
  26. See The University of Lapland, “Report: Sámi people’s rights should be reinforced to comply with the Constitution and international law” at: http://bit.ly/2Th8M0i

Laila Susanne Vars is an indigenous Sámi lawyer from Guovdageaidnu, the North Sámi Territory in Sápmi/Norway. She was the first indigenous Sámi woman to achieve a PhD in law in 2010. She holds a PhD in international law from the University of Tromsø, Norway. She is currently expert member of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP), member of the international board of IWGIA, and research director at the National Human Rights Institution (NHRI), Norway.



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