• 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.

The Indigenous World 2022: Sápmi

Sápmi[1] 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 they live in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. There is no reliable information on the population of the Sámi people; they are, however, estimated to number between 50,000-100,000.

Around 20,000 live in Sweden, which is approximately 0.22% of Sweden’s total population of some nine 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, 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 five million. And some 2,000 live in Russia, which 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, while on the Russian side they are organized into non-governmental organizations (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 (UNDRIP) in September 2007, while Russia abstained.

Developments in Nordic Sámi truth and reconciliation processes

Truth commissions or truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) refer to processes of investigating collective injustices that have taken place in history. One of the primary objectives of uncovering the truth, i.e. what has happened, is to prevent such injustices from occurring again. As reported in The Indigenous World 2020 and 2021, there are ongoing processes in Finland, Norway and Sweden aimed at addressing and assessing the historical and present-day colonial policies and discrimination experienced by the Sámi people in these three countries.[2] There are currently three separate truth commissions working in parallel in each country although the mandates of these commissions all state that their work should take into account the Nordic Sámi perspective and work to build links with other Nordic processes. Given that the Sámi are a nation living in four countries and that similar truth and reconciliation processes are underway in three of these, Nordic coordination is much needed in this respect.

On 3 November 2021, the Swedish government, in consultation with the Sámi Parliament in Sweden, decided to establish a Truth Commission with a mandate to investigate the abuses of the Sámi people by the Swedish State.[3] The Truth Commission in Sweden will identify, make visible, analyse and highlight the consequences of the policies the Sámi people were subjected to. The Commission will also spread knowledge and raise a general awareness of Sámi history and how historical abuses affect the conditions for the Sámi people today and participate in the general debate and in different education and information activities. The Commission will further bring to light and spread knowledge of the experiences of the Sámi and the Commission’s conclusions as well as propose actions that can contribute to making amends and promoting reconciliation. The Sámi Parliament in Sweden and Sámi organizations were actively involved in the process of deciding to establish a Commission, and they have inter alia also established their own steering group for a Truth Commission.[4] The report of the Truth Commission will be presented at the latest on 1 December 2025. The members of the Commission in Sweden are yet to be appointed.

The Church of Sweden (CoS) delivered a public apology on 24 November for its role in the repression and centuries of mistreatment of the Sámi people. The apology to Sámi representatives took place in the Cathedral of Uppsala. During the service, five Sámi delivered testimonies on the history of abuse that the Church of Sweden had committed. The apology is the first of two outlined in a statement released this June by the CoS declaring eight commitments toward ongoing reconciliation with the Sámi people. The second public apology is planned during the Sámi church conference in Luleå in October 2022.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Norway, which is a joint Commission for the Sámi people and the Finnish/Kven national minorities, will complete its work by 1 June 2023 and deliver its report to the Presidium of the Storting (Norwegian Parliament).[5] So far the Commission has received some 500 oral testimonies.

On 28 October 2021, the Finnish government appointed the members of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission Concerning the Sámi People in Finland.[6] The Commission was established by the government in close cooperation with the Sámi Parliament and the Skolt Village Assembly, the traditional representative body of the Skolt Sámi minority. The Commission is an independent mechanism whose objective is to identify and assess the historical and present-day discrimination experienced by the Sámi people.[7] Another aim of the Commission’s work is to promote awareness of the Sámi people and Sámi culture among the majority population.[8]

The members of the Commission are experts who, according to their mandate, should enjoy widespread trust among the Sámi and in Finnish society. Two of the five commissioners were elected by proposal of the government, two by proposal of the Sámi Parliament and one by proposal of the Skolt Village Assembly. The Commission’s report will be submitted to the government, the Sámi Parliament and the Skolt Village Assembly by 30 November 2022.

Pressure from the extractive industry: the Gállok/Kallak case in Johkamohkki/Jokkmokk, Sweden

The establishment of mines on lands where the Sámi people have enjoyed rights since time immemorial, without the free, prior and informed consent of the Sámi people, continues to be one of the main threats to sustainable Sámi traditional livelihoods. Common to all these cases is a lack of implementation of Indigenous Peoples’ rights when issuing permits to the extractive industry.[9] One major project that will negatively affect both the environment and Sámi livelihoods is the iron ore mine of the British company Beowulf Mining in Gállok (Kallak in Swedish). Protests have taken place since 2013 on the part of international and national environmental activists, the Sámi Parliament,[10] Sámi reindeer herders and Sámi organizations, who are all opposing the planned mine just outside the Sámi village of Johkamohkki in Norrbotten County. According to human rights organizations, the planned iron ore mine will violate the rights of the Sámi people who live in the area and who have long used the lands for reindeer husbandry and other traditional cultural activities.[11] According to UNESCO, the mine would also affect Europe’s largest wilderness area, Laponia, which this organization has classified as a World Heritage Site.[12] In its submission to the Swedish authorities, Beowolf claimed that the mine would not have any direct effect on Laponia, and that Sámi reindeer herding and mining would be able to coexist.[13] If the mine is built, however, it will be located on land that traditionally belongs to the Indigenous Sámi people, where the mountain Sámi villages of Jåhkågasska and Sirges keep winter pastures for their reindeer. The Swedish government will decide on this matter in 2022.

Consultations between Sámi and State authorities

On 30 September 2021, the Swedish Ministry of Culture tabled a proposal for a new Consultation Act.[14] Unlike Norway, Sweden has not ratified the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1989 (ILO169), Article 6 of which states that Indigenous people must be consulted in all matters that directly affect them. The Swedish Consultation Act has been inspired by the Norwegian Sámi consultation procedures found in chapter 4 of Norway’s Sámi Act (Lov om Sametinget og andre samiske rettsforhold (sameloven), LOV-1987-06-12-56). However, there are also some differences between the two Nordic countries’ approaches to the Sámi. For example, the Norwegian law does not require that the issue be of significant importance to the Sámi for a consultation to be needed, only that the issue or measures directly affect the Sámi people, and that they affect the Sámi differently than the rest of society. (4-1 § Norwegian Sami Act.)[15]

The Swedish government originally table its proposal before the Swedish parliament in 2020 but the government withdrew the proposal in 2021 and referred it to the Committee on the Constitution for further preparations, comments and review. The Committee on the Constitution recommended the legislation for adoption in January 2022. The national government requirement to consult with Sámi representatives will take effect on 1 March 2022, whereas the local government requirement to consult will not take effect until 1 March 2024.

The South Sámi win legal battle over grazing lands

In 2021, the Norwegian Supreme Court found that the establishment of the wind industry in the South Sámi community on Fosen was in violation of the human rights of the reindeer herding Sámi in the area.[16] The case concerned the construction of Storheia and Roan windfarms on Fovsen (Norwegian: Fosen) peninsula and whether these amounted to a violation of Sámi reindeer herders' right to enjoy their own culture under Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). A grand chamber of the Supreme Court unanimously found a violation and ruled the licence and expropriation decisions invalid.

The Supreme Court decision is a landmark case as the court unanimously decided that the wind turbines established on Fovsen peninsula in Norway were in violation of the human rights of the South Sámi families, who have rights to reindeer herding in the area since time immemorial. The Roan and Storheia wind farms in western Norway form part of Europe's largest onshore wind energy project. Construction at the two sites was completed in 2020 within ​​the Fovsen Njaarke reindeer grazing district in the South Sámi region. The Sámi claimed that the construction interfered with their right to enjoy their own culture but this was rejected by the Norwegian Ministry of Petroleum and Energy in 2013. Despite the fact that the case was still progressing through the legal system, the government decided not to stop the construction of the wind park.

Based on the Court of Appeal's findings of the facts, the Supreme Court established that the wind power development would have a significant adverse effect on the reindeer herders' possibility of practising their culture in Fovsen. In its ruling, the Court of Appeal stipulated significant compensation for the winter feeding of fenced-in reindeer, thus finding no violation of Article 27. In the Supreme Court's view, such a solution is burdened with so much uncertainty that, at present, it cannot be significant in determining whether Article 27 ICCPR has been violated. The Supreme Court also found that the courts could not, in any case, rely on such a measure as a part of the reindeer herders' duty to adapt. Pointing in particular to statements from the UN Human Rights Committee, the Supreme Court found that it would amount to a violation of Article 27 if the interference had significant adverse effects on the possibility of cultural enjoyment. Although the interference of itself may have no serious consequences that amount to a violation, this must also be considered in the context of other projects, both previous and planned, the court said. The total cumulative effect of the development would determine whether a violation had taken place. As a starting point, there is no room for a proportionality assessment balancing the minority's interests against other interests of society.

The practical consequences of the ruling are, however, still pending. The Sámi families who won the case have demanded that the wind turbines be removed as they continue to violate their human rights.[17] The government has stated that the rights of the Sámi under international law will be secured but have still not concluded what will happen to the illegal constructions on the reindeer herding lands.[18]

Laila Susanne Vars is the Chair of EMRIP and its member from the Arctic. She is an Indigenous Sámi lawyer with a PhD in international law and is a former member and Vice President of the Sámi Parliament in Norway. She is currently the President of the Sámi University of Applied Sciences – Sámi allaskuvla.


This article is part of the 36th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2022 in full here


Notes and references 

[1] This article covers developments in Sámi homeland areas in Finland, Norway and Sweden and for the Sámi people living in these three Nordic countries. The Sámi traditional territory also include areas in the Kola Peninsula, Russia where the Sámi people in Russia lives.

[2] Vars, Laila Susanne. “Sápmi” in The Indigenous World 2021, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 506 – 518 (p. 510). Copenhagen: The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) 2021. https://iwgia.org/en/resources/indigenous-world.html

[3] Sámediggi (Sámi Parliament in Sweden). “Truth Commission in Sweden.” Sámediggi, November 11, 2021. https://www.sametinget.se/truth-commission

[4] Sámediggi (Sámi Parliament of Sweden). “Preparations before a truth commission on the violations of the Sami People by the Swedish State.” (Kiruna: Sametinget, 2021.) https://www.sametinget.se/160524. The foundation of this report is based primarily on the views of Sami, compiled from dialogue and video meetings, replies to questionnaires, telephone conversations and e-mails to the Sámi Parliament.

[5] The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Norway, https://uit.no/kommisjonen_en  For more about this Commission: Vars, Laila Susanne. “Sápmi” in The Indigenous World 2021, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 506 – 518 (p. 511). Copenhagen: The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2021.  and Vars, Laila Susanne. “Sápmi” in The Indigenous World 2020, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 526 – 535 (pp. 531-533). Copenhagen: The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), 2020.

[6] Prime Minister’s Office. “Truth and Reconciliation Commission Concerning the Sámi People.” Press release, October 28, 2021. https://vnk.fi/en/truth-and-reconciliation-commission-concerning-the-sami-people Decision of the Finnish Government.

[7] Truth and Reconciliation Commission Concerning the Sámi People.“Truth and Reconciliation Commission Concerning the Sámi People.”  https://sdtsk.fi/en/home/

[8] Prime Minister’s Office. “Establishing a truth and reconciliation commission concerning the Sámi people Government of Finland in cooperation with the Sámi Parliament and the Skolt Village.” Assembly, October 31, 2019. https://vnk.fi/documents/10616/20470117/TSK-mandaatti+31.10.2019_en.pdf/a2abea1d-3a53-e35e-c281-2495a9ab4d69/TSK-mandaatti+31.10.2019_en.pdf/TSK-mandaatti+31.10.2019_en.pdf?t=1579014781000

[9] See, for instance, the Vapsten mining case, where the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination found that Sweden had violated articles 5 (d) (v) and 6 of the CERD Convention and recommended that the “State party provides an effective remedy to the Vapsten Sámi Reindeer Herding Community by revising effectively the mining concessions after an adequate process of free, prior and informed consent. The Committee also recommends that the State party amends its legislation, in order to reflect the status of the Sami as indigenous people in national legislation regarding land and resources and to enshrine the international standard of free, prior and informed consent.” United Nations. “CERD/C/102/D/54/2013. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. 18 December 2020. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Opinion adopted by the Committee under article 14 of the Convention, concerning communication No. 54/2013*, **. P. 16.” https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G20/350/11/PDF/G2035011.pdf?OpenElement

McGwin, Kevin. “UN criticizes Sweden for failing to consult Sámi on mining permit.” Arctic Today, December 9, 2020. https://www.arctictoday.com/un-criticizes-sweden-for-failing-to-consult-sami-on-mining-permit/

[10] For more about the position of the Sámediggi (The Sámi Parliament) on mining: Sámediggi.  “Minerals and Mines in Sápmi - the viewpoint of the Swedish Sámi Parliament.”. Kiruna: Sametinget, 2014. https://www.sametinget.se/87915

[11]Civil Rights Defenders. “Kallak Mine Has Major Consequences for Sami Rights.” Civil Rights Defenders, September 9, 2021. https://crd.org/2021/09/09/kallak-mine-has-major-consequences-for-sami-rights/

[12] Statement from the Secretary General of Swedish National Commission for UNESCO: Svenska Unescorådet. “Uttalande av Anna-Karin Johansson, generalsekreterare på Svenska Unescorådet, med anledning av Unescos utlåtande om gruvdrift i Kallak.” Svenska Unescorådet, June 8, 2021. https://unesco.se/uttalande-av-anna-karin-johansson-generalsekreterare-pa-svenska-unescoradet-med-anledning-av-unescos-utlatande-om-gruvdrift-i-kallak/

[13] Beowulf Mining. “Beowulf: Submission to the Swedish Government.” Analysguiden av Aktiespararna, August 31,2021. Concluding comments to the Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation on UNESCO's letter, dated 2 June 2021, regarding the Kallak Iron Ore project ("Kallak"). https://www.aktiespararna.se/analysguiden/nyheter/beowulf-submission-swedish-government. Beowulf Mining acquired the so-called Kallak north licence in 2006, and a drill program conducted in 2010 found at least 175 Mt of iron. Beowulf acquired the Kallak south licence from Tasman Metals in mid-2010.

[14] Sveriges Riksdag (The Parliament of Sweden). “Regeringens proposition 2021/22:19. En konsultationsordning i frågor som rör det samiska folket.” Proposal from the Ministry of Culture,September 30, 2021. https://perma.cc/5RBX-GW8U

[15] For more about the consultations: Kløcker Larsen, Rasmus and Kaisa Raitio. “Implementing the State Duty to Consult in Land and Resource Decisions: Perspectives from Sami Communities and Swedish State Officials.” Arctic Review on Law and Politics 10 (2019): 4–23. https://arcticreview.no/index.php/arctic/article/download/1323/3025?inline=1

[16] Supreme Court of Norway. “Licences for wind power development on Fosen ruled invalid as the construction violates Sami reindeer herders' right to enjoy their own culture.” Supreme Court judgment 11 October 2021, HR-2021-1975-S (case no. 20-143891SIV-HRET, case no. 20-143892-SIV-HRET and case no. 20-143893SIV-HRET). https://www.domstol.no/en/enkelt-domstol/supremecourt/rulings/2021/supreme-court-civil-cases/hr-2021-1975-s/

[17] Euronews. “Norwegian wind farms violate rights of Sámi reindeer herders, says court.” Euronews,October 11, 2021. https://www.euronews.com/2021/10/11/norwegian-wind-farms-violate-rights-of-sami-reindeer-herders-says-court.  Larsen, Dan Robert, Ailin Maria Danielsen, Eilif Andreas Aslaksen and Rita Kleven. ”Vant over vindkraftutbyggerne: – Men kampen er ikke over.” NRK, November 1, 2021. https://www.nrk.no/sapmi/vant-over-vindkraftutbyggerne-pa-fosen_-_-men-kampen-er-ikke-over-1.15707251

[18] Regjeringen.no. “Samenes folkerettslige vern skal sikres.” Press release from the Norwegian Ministry of Oil and Energy. Regjeringen.no, December 13, 2021. https://www.regjeringen.no/no/aktuelt/samenes-folkerettslige-vern-skal-sikres/id2892015/



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