• 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 2023: 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

As reported in The Indigenous World 2022, there are ongoing truth and reconciliation processes in Finland, Norway and Sweden where the purpose of these processes is to identify and assess historical and current discrimination, including the assimilation policies of the states and violations of rights, and how they have affected and continue to affect the Sámi and their communities today.[2] The purposes of these three commissions are slightly different and so are their mandates.

The Indigenous Sámi people in Norway do not have their own Truth Commission. Instead, there is a joint Truth Commission for the Sámi and two of Norway’s national minorities, the Kvens and the Norwegian/Forest Finns. The Commission to Investigate the Norwegianization Policy and Injustice against the Sámi and Kvens/Norwegian Finns (TRC) is made up of 12 experts all of whom have been appointed by the Stortinget (Norwegian Parliament). The TRC is to complete its work by 1 June 2023 and to deliver its report to the Presidium of the Stortinget. The purpose of this investigation is to “lay the groundwork for the recognition of the experiences of the Sámi and Kvens/Norwegian Finns during enforcement of this policy by the Norwegian authorities, and what consequences these experiences have had for them collectively and individually.”[3] The mandate describes three tasks for the TRC:

  • Perform a historical survey to map the Norwegian authorities’ policy and activities towards the Sámi and Kvens/Norwegian Finns locally, regionally and nationally.
  • Carry out an investigation of the effects of the Norwegianization policy. The Commission is to consider how the Norwegianization policy has affected the majority population’s attitudes towards the Sámi and Kvens/Norwegian Finns and will investigate the consequences of Norwegianization to the present day.
  • Propose measures to contribute to further reconciliation.

In December 2022, the chairperson of the TRC, Mr. Dagfinn Høybråten, made a statement about the 4-year work of the Commission, focusing on the need for Norway as a nation to address the injustices of the past and implement measures to strengthen the knowledge of the various consequences the harsh assimilation policy has had for the Kven and Finn minority and for the Indigenous Sámi in Norway. [4] The Commission has received over 650 testimonies from individuals who have shared their experiences with the commissioners.

On the other side of the border, in Sweden, the Sámi Parliament and the Government of Sweden came to an agreement to establish a Truth Commission for the Sámi people (Sanningskommissionen för det samiska folket) in 2021, and the 12 commissioners were appointed in June 2022.[5] The Truth Commission for the Sámi People in Sweden is now starting to collect testimonies from Sámi in communities and cities all over Sweden about how Swedish policies have affected them individually and collectively. The historical oppression of the Sámi in Sweden has included forced relocation of Sámi reindeer herders from their traditional lands, establishment of nomad schools, Sámi being the victims of “racial biology” studies,[6] industrialization of Sámi lands and communities and a ban on speaking the Sámi language or practising their own religion. Sweden’s commission will examine Sámi history and policy dating back to the 1500s. The Commission's task is to both receive testimonies from Sámi about their experiences and raise awareness of the history of the Sámi and their situation today. The Truth Commission in Sweden will finalize its work by the end of 2025 and propose measures for reparations that will contribute to sustainable Sámi societies and reconciliation.

In Finland, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concerning the Sámi people (TRC Finland) had a challenging start.[7] The commission was established in October 2021 but was affected by resignations in May 2022. The TRC in Finland was originally set up with five appointed commissioners: two by the Sámediggi- Sámi Parliament in Finland, one by the Skolt Sámi Siida Council and two by the Finnish government.[8] In May 2022, two of the appointed commissioners and the Commission’s Secretary General resigned due to lack of sufficient resources and support for the Sámi who were participating in the work of the Commission.[9] In June, the Sámi Parliamentary Assembly in Finland decided to continue to support the process and elected two new commissioners at its plenary session in October 2022, after postponing their decision on the continuation of the work of the TRC due to the need to “explore more deeply the perspectives of Sámi society and the continuation of the Truth and Reconciliation process”.[10]


The revision of the Sámi Parliament Act in Finland

In June 2022, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), acting under article 14 (7) (a) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, found that Finland had violated article 5 (c) of the Convention.[11] A number of Sámi individuals claimed that Finland had violated the Sámi people’s human rights in relation to their own ways of defining their membership and political participation. CERD recommended that the State party provide an effective remedy to the petitioners by urgently initiating a genuine negotiation for the review of section 3 of the Act on the Sámi Parliament. CERD said that this section should be defined in a manner that respects the right of the Sámi people to provide their Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) on matters relating to their own membership and their political participation for the enjoyment and full realization of other rights of Indigenous communities, in particular their economic, social and cultural rights guaranteed in accordance with article 5 (c) and (e) of the Convention.[12] In the 2015 Sámi Parliament elections, Finland's Supreme Administrative Court ruled that around 100 people who identified themselves as Sámi but who were not recognized as Sámi persons by the Sámi community and the Sámi Parliament should be added to the electoral roll and therefore be eligible to vote in the Sámi Parliament elections that year. There are genuine, well-founded concerns that if enough people not recognized by the Sámi get elected to parliament then very soon the Sámi could become outnumbered in their own representative political body.

The CERD decision is a follow-up to two individual complaints from 2019 to the UN Human Rights Committee whereby the Committee found that Finland had violated the Sámi peoples’ internal right to self-determination under the Covenants.[13] The Committee urged the Finnish government to pass amendments to the Sámi Parliament Act that were in line with international human rights law. A reform of the Sámi Parliament Act has long been delayed by successive Finnish governments, with little progress over the last few years. If reforms were completed they could enshrine the right to self-determination for the Sámi people in Finnish law and rectify the breaches of international conventions that the UN treaty bodies have identified.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin has said she was sorry for delays in acting on new human rights legislation for the Indigenous Sámi people.[14] The Sámi Parliament in Finland has voted to approve the draft Sámi Parliament Act, which also includes strengthened language on consultations with the Sámi in, for instance, development projects, the establishment of mines or other types of extractive industry on Sámi lands. The draft Act requires negotiation with the Sámi Parliament on any measures that may “carry particular importance for the Sámi” with the goal of obtaining its consent. This language brings the Sámi Parliament Act closer to the State’s obligation to negotiate on the basis of FPIC under international law and, more specifically, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.[15] Members of the Sámi Parliament voted 15-3 with one abstention to approve the draft of the Sámi Parliament Act, which is now being considered by the Finnish Parliament, Eduskunta.


Indigenous Navigator Sápmi

The Indigenous Navigator in Sápmi project is a collaboration between three different organizations: the Saami Council (Sámiráđđi), the Sámi University of Applied Sciences (Sámi allaskuvla) and the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). The project has produced country surveys on Norway and Finland, and will continue to produce a country survey on Sweden as well. The data provided by the Indigenous Navigator can help Indigenous Sámi communities to monitor the level of implementation of their rights both on the local and national levels and to identify implementation gaps in the future. The project also aims to identify where data is still missing and to produce community surveys in different Sámi communities. A number of UN treaty bodies have criticized the Nordic countries for decades over their lack of reliable statistics and disaggregated data on the Sámi. For example, Statistics Finland produces statistics on persons living in Finland according to their nationality, language and country of birth but not ethnicity. Moreover, Norway does not include ethnic identifiers in its national censuses. Within the framework of the Indigenous Navigator Sápmi project, the legal situation and main challenges facing implementation of the human rights of the Indigenous Sámi people in Finland, Sweden, and Norway is now being mapped.[16]



Laila Susanne Vars is a member and former Chair of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP), representing the Arctic region. She is an Indigenous Sámi lawyer with a PhD in international law. She is currently one of the Commissioners in the newly established Truth Commission for the Sámi People in Sweden and the President and Chair of the Executive Board of the Sámi University of Applied Sciences – Sámi allaskuvla in Norway. For further information about the Sámi University see: www.samas.no


This article is part of the 37th 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 2023 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 live.

[2] Vars, Laila Susanne. “Sápmi” in The Indigenous World 2022, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 500 – 507. Copenhagen: The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) 2022, https://www.iwgia.org/en/sapmi/4679-iw-2022-sapmi.html

[3] The Truth and Reconciliation Commission website, https://uit.no/kommisjonen_en

[4] The Truth and Reconciliation Commission website, address by chair of the Commission, Mr. Dagfinn Høybråten: https://uit.no/kommisjonen/presse/artikkel_en?p_document_id=798854, see also filmed version of his address at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVboUJl_SVU

[5] For more about the mandate, see: Vars, Laila Susanne. In The Indigenous World 2022, edited by Dwayne Mamo, p. 502. Copenhagen: The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) 2022; for more about the Commissioners, see the website for the Truth Commission for the Sámi People, Sweden: https://sanningskommissionensamer.se/om-kommisionen/

[6] Malmberg, Åsa. “How the Sami were affected by research in ‘racial biology’.” Uppsala University, 10 December, 2021, https://www.uu.se/en/news/article/?id=17908&typ=artikel

[7] For more about the process in Finland, see: Vars, Laila Susanne.

[8] Official website of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Concerning the Sámi People in Finland, https://sdtsk.fi/en/commission/

[9] Quinn, Eilis. “Truth and Reconciliation Commission should continue says Sami Parliament in Finland.” Eye on the Arctic, 27 June 2022, https://www.rcinet.ca/eye-on-the-arctic/2022/06/27/truth-and-reconciliation-commission-should-continue-says-sami-parliament-in-finland/

[10] Quinn, Eilis. “Truth & Reconciliation Commission in Finland—Election of new commissioners postponed.” Eye on the Arctic, 25 August 2022, https://www.rcinet.ca/eye-on-the-arctic/2022/08/25/truth-reconciliation-commission-in-finland-election-of-new-commissioners-postponed/

[11] See article: Human Rights Centre. “CERD: Finland has violated the rights of Sámi guaranteed in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.” 22 June 2022, https://www.humanrightscentre.fi/uutiset/cerd-finland-has-violated-the-right/#:~:text=CERD%3A%20Finland%20has%20violated%20the%20rights%20of%20S%C3%A1mi,to%20S%C3%A1mi%20electoral%20roll%20on%2013%20June%202022.

[12] United Nations. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Opinion adopted by the Committee under article 14 of the Convention, concerning communication No. 59/2016. https://um.fi/documents/35732/0/CERD_C_106_D_59_2016_34006_E.pdf/2cfa37cf-1586-e622-b6ff-77526158a470?t=1655206211235

[13] For more about the communications to the Human Rights Committee, see: Vars, Laila Susanne, “Sápmi” in The Indigenous World 2020, edited by Dwayne Mamo, 531-532. Copenhagen: The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) 2020, https://www.iwgia.org/en/sapmi/3636-iw-2020-sapmi.html

[14] Mac Dougall, David. “Finland's Sanna Marin apologises for lack of action on rights of indigenous Sámi people. Euronews, 29 October 2022, https://www.euronews.com/2022/10/29/finlands-sanna-marin-apologises-for-lack-of-action-on-rights-of-indigenous-sami-people

[15] Mac Dougall, David. “Finland's indigenous Sámi politicians clear new human rights law hurdle.” Euronews, 29 November 2022, https://www.euronews.com/2022/11/29/finlands-indigenous-sami-politicians-clear-new-human-rights-law-hurdle

[16] “Indigenous Navigator in Sápmi: ‘Statistics would be of particular importance in mapping the rights of indigenous peoples’.” Saami Council, Sámi allaskuvla- Sámi University of Applied Sciences and IWGIA, 9 August 2022, https://iwgia.org/en/news/4887-indigenous-navigator-in-s%C3%A1pmi-%E2%80%9Cstatistics-would-be-of-particular-importance-in-mapping-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples%E2%80%9D.html

Tags: Global governance



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