Why Finland Must Commit to Respecting Sámi Rights – Before Turning 100

The upcoming centenniary of Finland’s independence on December 6, 2017, is an occasion to not only celebrate this Nordic country, but also to take a sober look at the Republic of Finland’s accomplishments as well as opportunities for improvement. Given Finland’s international profile and leadership aspirations in several fields, in particular the rights of indigenous peoples, it is reasonable to offer some perspectives on this also from the outside. My point of view is that of a well-meaning neighbour – an Estonian who over the past few years has been exposed to the issues facing Finland’s indigenous Sámi people from multiple angles.

There is much that Finland and its citizens can be proud of, and where the rest of the world can learn from Finland – such as how to build a society where people, rather than the state apparatus or some small privileged group of citizens, are in the center of state’s attention. This broadly humanistic outlook may explain why Finland has one of world’s best education systems, why its public spaces are so family-friendly and much more. As a result of 100 years of continuous independence – no small feat given its geographic position – Finland has indeed achieved a lot, surely more than most of today’s states during the same period.

It is precisely in this context of general accomplishment that one aspect of Finland’s behaviour, both past and present, stands out as an exception to the rule. This concerns Finland’s treatment of its indigenous people, the Sámi. Despite international efforts to present itself as a friend of not only Finland’s but the world’s indigenous peoples, domestically Finland appears to behave like a (former) colonial power that has not learned from its history and has not updated its legislation, policies and – most importantly – actual behaviour – to contemporary international standards that it itself has voluntarily endorsed. While there are worse offenders of indigenous peoples’ rights out there, Finland stands out for the wide gap between its global posture and domestic actions.

As Member of UNPFII during 2014-2016, I was initially positively impressed by the active role that Finland’s UN diplomats took in the Forum’s work. I specifically recall the keen interest that Finland’s UN diplomats took in the wording of the Forum’s draft recommendations, in particular those concerning Finland. Moreover, during the past years Finland has taken prominent global roles as an advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide – such as the speech that Finland’s President Mr. Sauli Niinistö gave at the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, and more recently, the advisory role that Finland’s Ambassador to the UN took in the process to enable the participation of indigenous peoples at UN meetings. These and other steps have raised Finland’s international profile as a state committed to respecting indigenous peoples’ rights domestically and abroad – if not among indigenous peoples themselves, then certainly in the diplomatic community.

All of this would be good for both Finland – and indeed for everybody – assuming that Finland applied the same high standards domestically with respect to its own indigenous people, the Sámi. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The example of the Teno River Fishery Agreement that has already received much coverage in Finland’s and international media illustrates particularly well how realities faced by Finland’s indigenous people on the ground clash with Finland’s global rhetoric, as a result violating the rights of Finland’s Sámi people and raising questions about the integrity of the Republic of Finland.

In a nutshell, the Teno River Fishery Agreement was ratified between Finland’s and Norway’s parliaments in the spring of 2017, with the stated aim to protect Teno river’s Atlantic salmon stock from overfishing. Teno River is located on traditional Sámi lands and holds great economic and cultural significance for the Sámi who have been catching salmon from Teno river using their traditional techniques since times immemorial.  While practically nobody argues with the need to protect salmon from depletion, the way Finland and Norway negotiated the agreement violated indigenous peoples’ rights in a number of ways, most of all by effectively ignoring the states’ obligation to obtain free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) from indigenous peoples on decisions affecting their traditional lands, territories and resources. This has, among else, led to the removal of the right to fish salmon with traditional techniques for ethnic Sámi with primary residence outside the Sámi lands, such as Sámi students and professionals living in Finland’s cities.

FPIC is an underlying principle of indigenous peoples’ human rights and therefore Finland’s interpretation of it matters a lot, both for its own indigenous peoples as well as a precedent for the rest of the world. So what does Finland mean by free, prior and informed consent?

In his statement at the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) at the United Nations in New York on September 22, 2014, speaking as a representative of Western European states, Finland’s President Mr. Sauli Ninistö said,

“Indigenous Peoples’ participation in decision-making is vital also at the national level. Procedures may vary from country to country, but in all cases the objective should be to reach consensus in good faith. In Finland, authorities are obliged by law to negotiate with the Sámi Parliament, the representative body of the indigenous Sámi. Recently, the Finnish Government has worked together with the Sámi Parliament to expand the scope of the obligation to consult. The proposed reform spells out the concept of free, prior and informed consent.” [1]

There is a famous saying that “strategy is what happens”. What happened in the process of negotiating the Teno River agreement was almost opposite to the words of President Niinistö.

Sámi Parliament was not properly consulted in the process of negotiating the treaty by Finland’s Ministry of Agriculture & Forestry. This has been stated on numerous occasions by the Sámi Parliament itself and later at least partly backed by Finland’s Constitutional Committee and Deputy Chancellor of Justice.[2] None of this, however, prevented the agreement from being signed by Finland’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in September 2016 and from ratification by Finland’s Parliament in March 2017.

As then Member of UNPFII, I, together with colleague Dalee Sambo, submitted an inquiry to Finland’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in December 2016, asking the Ministry to explain whether and how, in their view, the principle of FPIC was followed in this case. The resulting reply did not really address this central question, however stated among else, that

“The FPIC principle, recognised as a right of indigenous peoples, does not mean that indigenous peoples have the right of veto concerning decisions to be made but that they are entitled to make demands concerning the procedures.”

(Links to the original correspondence: 1) UNPFII Members Letter Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, 2) Cover letter to official reply by Finland UNFPII 2016, 3) substantive reply by Finland: UM_vastauksia_alkuperäiskansafoorumin_jäsenille_191216_en )

One does not need to be a lawyer to notice the discrepancy between President Niinistö’s statement at WCIP and this latter interpretation of FPIC. While the former emphasized the importance of reaching consensus, the latter effectively reduces FPIC into a right to make demands, or, in the words of Sámi politician Áslat Holmberg, “freedom of speech”. Is such interpretation of FPIC the result of the alleged reform that President Niinistö referred to in front of the global audience at the United Nations? I would be really keen to know what the President himself thinks about this, and what political or moral weight his words at the UN, at least in his view, should have domestically .

Furthermore, the way Finland’s government dismissed the views of Sámi Parliament in the process of treaty design and negotiations manifests a deeper lack of respect for this body which is at odds with the international legitimacy that Finland has lent to the Sámi Parliament, as well as Finland’s international work to strengthen voices of indigenous peoples at the United Nations. What is surprising, is why in light of this actual dismissal of the views of the Sámi Parliament on the national level, Finland considers it important to advocate for stronger representation of indigenous peoples’ representative bodies at the United Nations. In particular, by taking the role of the Advisor to the President of UN General Assembly on the process of strengthening indigenous peoples’ representation at the UN, held by Ambassador Kai Sauer, Finland sent a signal to the international community – both states and indigenous peoples – that it supports stronger indigenous voices at the UN. Indeed, this is how Finland’s MFA has publicly explained Finland’s commitment to this topic:

“Throughout the process, it has been the primary goal of the advisers to the President of the General Assembly, as it has for Finland as a nation, to promote the participation of indigenous peoples in the decision-making process and for the outcome to respect the views of indigenous peoples and the member states.”[3]

If the participation of indigenous peoples in decision-making processes at the UN is indeed so important for Finland, why not begin by not only hearing, but actually listening to them, and taking their views into account domestically in matters that concern them the most, such as with the case of Teno River Agreement?

This is where the UN system comes in. In response to the apparent dismissal of Sámi Parliament’s views on national level, the official report of the 16th session of UNFPII, approved by UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), includes a specific recommendation to Finland, along with Norway, on the issue of the Teno River Agreement:

“24./…/The Sámi Parliaments of Finland and Norway have informed the Forum that the agreement was adopted without the free, prior and informed consent of the Sámi. The Forum requests the Governments of Finland and Norway to renegotiate the agreement with the full and effective participation of Sámi rights holders.“[4]

In the context of often generic and soft recommendations of the Forum, this one stands out for its clarity and resoluteness. The message for Finland, though of recommendational nature, is crystal clear – Finland is called to renogiate the agreement in line with the principle of free, prior and informed consent of Sámi people.

Nonetheless, it remains unclear whether Finland is actually heeding the call and whether concrete steps to implement this recommendation are being planned. So far I have heard no official comments by Finland in response to this specific recommendation. If Finland indeed does not intend to renegotiate the treaty any time soon, then this would mark a significant blow to Finland’s reputation as a state that is committed to upholding international human rights framework in which UNPFII, through its annual recommendations, plays a definite role. Or is it so that UNPFII recommendations to States are meant for implementation only when the state in question agrees with them beforehand? And what kind of a message does such selective implementation of Forum’s recommendations send to the true human rights villains of this world?

I provided just some examples that reveal a problematic nature of Finland’s treatment of its indigenous people, in particular the surprisingly wide gap between its words and deeds. The reason why I feel the need to deliver this message now, on the eve of Finland’s centenniary, is not to dampen the mood for the upcoming celebrations. My intention is rather the opposite: to call upon Finland’s political establishment, from the highest level down, to get its act together, including by admitting the mistakes that have been made in negotiating the Teno River treaty without full and effective participation of the Sámi people through their representative institution, and consequently, as a matter of simple logic, to commit to renegotiate the treaty in line with the relevant recommendation of the 16th session of the UNPFII. Even if the actual process of such renegotiation will take time, a verbal commitment to right this wrong prior to December 6, 2017 will mean that the Sámi people of Finland can look forward to a more just second century in independent Finland and that the international voice of Finland as a friend and advocate of indigenous peoples will ring truer and stronger. While it will not resolve all points of contention between Finland and the Sami, this would be both substantive and symbolic confidence-building step on the longer term path towards reconciliation and mutual respect.

[1] http://www.tpk.fi/public/default.aspx?contentid=313010&nodeid=44810&contentlan=2&culture=en-US

[2]  https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/arctic/2017/03/finnish-deputy-chancellor-justice-criticizes-government-its-actions-connection-teno

[3] http://www.formin.fi/public/default.aspx?contentid=366510&nodeid=15148&contentlan=2&culture=en-US

[4] https://undocs.org/en/E/2017/43 , page 8/25



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