A complex, international web of issues surrounds the rights of the Sami

International negotiations on human rights gives the Sami people the opportunity to make their voices heard outside Finland. But how can international agreements be amended to suit their specific, local situation?

The attempts of Finnish Sami to protect their traditional livelihoods have led to appeals to the United Nations Human Rights Council. United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz was among the representatives expressing their grave concerns on the draft natural resources management legislation and its negative impact on people with traditional livelihoods. However, the Finnish Parliament approved the law as such, with no heed to national or international criticism.

The problem with the International Labour Organisation’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Convention and the Nordic Saami Convention – which is currently under negotiation – lie in the land-use rights of the Finnish government. The government wants to own the lands in Lapland and exploit its riches. Consequently, politicians give lip service to the Sami: while they are encouraged to get involved, they are given no opportunity to make a real difference in political decision-making.

Finland wants to be considered a forerunner in minority rights. Therefore the Sami have been recognised as an indigenous people, they have been granted cultural autonomy, and the Parliament of Finland must hear the Sami. Finland is committed to arranging the Sami issue according to international human rights norms and to clearing away the factors that have prevented the ratification of ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Convention.

For more than 28 years, one Finnish government after another has strived towards this goal – without coming any closer to actually reaching it.

International human rights agreements are drafted and approved far removed from our daily lives. They are based on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948, which is founded on equality and freedom from discrimination.

In our modern world, no place, time or situation exists in isolation. Consequently, the Sami find themselves amidst a complex web of issues where global markets intertwine with political discourse. Local interpretations of human rights are based on personal experiences, local histories and expressions of power between groups of people.

The interests of the Sami have not been presented on public forums on their own terms.

The political identity of the Sami began to take hold when the Sami began to work together with the world's other indigenous peoples. This cooperation emphasised awareness of long-term oppression caused by governmental assimilation efforts, which sought to absorb the indigenous culture into majority society.

In his 1974 work Power: A Radical View, Steven Lukes describes the strongest form of power as one that is nearly impossible to identify as such. It’s important to try to understand the context in which the language of international law is used. That way it becomes possible to recognise the motivations for singling out individual sections from international agreements for rhetorical use.

The Finnish Sami have developed their own strategies to function in Finnish society. The interests of the Sami have not been presented on public forums on their own terms. For example, Sami fishermen have been all but ignored, as the dominant stereotype of the Sami involves reindeer husbandry.

Forty years ago, Erik Allardt wrote his observations on the Finnish myth of unity in his book Att ha, att älska, att vara. Finns cling to this myth as they believe it will help achieve a conflict-free society.

Thus it is unsurprising that in an opinion poll from 2007, Finns identified “equality” as the word that best describes Finland. The myth of the equal distribution of power is strong.

To protect their livelihood, many people involved in reindeer husbandry learned to invoke international human rights clauses.

If the Sami were included in this principle of equality, they would have to be heard in matters where their involvement would erode the myth of unity. This could solve the lawless situation of the Sami who lack full indigenous status. The Sami Parliament might make their policies more open to the people most damaged by the government's intense assimilationist policies.

Two parties are typically blamed for the failure of Finland’s Sami politics: the Sami themselves, who do not promote their own rights with sufficient vigour, and the municipalities in the Sami regions, who refuse to allocate funding to the Sami. However, the real culprit – the Finnish government who is officially responsible for Sami rights – claims to have no say in the matter.

In such a case, the language of international human rights may provide crucial tools to change the situation.

This happened in the Nellim forest conflict, where Metsähallitus was about to destroy an area in northern Lapland which was a vitally important winter grazing ground for reindeer – with no respect for international agreements. To protect their livelihood, the people involved in reindeer husbandry learned to invoke international human rights clauses. Thanks to this, the deforestation project was recognised as a human rights problem and, thus, an issue to be handled by the international community.

Human rights rhetoric has tremendous potential for making voices heard. At the same time, it carries a significant risk, as legal language carries the expectations of people as representatives of specific cultures. In these cases it is important which definitions are restrictive and which are liberating.

Reetta Toivanen

Reetta Toivanen, docent, university lecturer in social and cultural anthropology, University of Helsinki

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From the Researcher’s Pen is a series of articles in which researchers describe their work. This article was produced by Uutistamo in cooperation with the University of Helsinki.

Photo of Reetta Toivanen: Veikko Somerpuro