Finland's indigenous Sámi politicians clear new human rights law hurdle

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By David Mac Dougall
Members of Finland's Sámi Parliament in Inari, Lapland, vote on draft Sámi Parliament Act, 29 November 2022
Members of Finland's Sámi Parliament in Inari, Lapland, vote on draft Sámi Parliament Act, 29 November 2022   -  Copyright  Johanna Alatorvinen / Sámediggi

The Sámi Parliament in Finland has voted to approve the draft of a controversial piece of legislation that would make sure their right to self-determination is enshrined in Finnish law. 

The Sámi are the EU's only recognised indigenous group, and are found in Finland and Sweden, as well as Norway and Russia. 

Members of Parliament in Inari, northern Lapland, voted 15-3 with one abstention on Tuesday evening to approve the draft of the Sámi Parliament Act, which now proceeds to the Finnish Parliament, Eduskunta, in Helsinki for MPs to decide its fate. 

The Act sets out how the Finnish government interacts with the Sámi Parliament in Inari on matters that affect Sámi people.

"I hope that all MPs and the entire Finnish society will support the Sámi Parliament and respect our right to decide on our own issues," said Tuomas Aslak Juuso, President of the Sámi Parliament. 

"Support can often be expressed in different ways, for example by signing a petition or being in contact with your MP. Now is the time to finish the Sámi district law," Juuso added. 

Previous attempts to pass an act, after lengthy negotiations, have failed at the Sámi Parliament level but this new version had been sitting ready for the last 18 months, with no action from the Finnish government until a Euronews investigation exposed deep frustration in the Sámi community that nothing was being done, despite a looming procedural deadline in the Finnish parliament.

The most controversial part of the new Act deals with who can be considered Sámi, and therefore get their name on the electoral roll for voting or standing as a candidate in the Sámi Parliament elections. 

At present, a Finnish court is the ultimate arbiter on this, but the United Nations, the Finnish Non-Discrimination Ombudsman and the Council of Europe as well as human rights organisations had all strongly urged Helsinki to amend the law so the Sámi Parliament, and therefore the Sámi people, have the final say on who is a Sámi. 

The Act has been loudly opposed by the Centre Party, one of the five parties in Finland's ruling coalition government, although Sanna Marin and other senior ministers have belatedly supported the Act in recent weeks, framing it as a human rights issue. 

The rhetoric around the new Act became so heated, in particular from some Centre Party MPs and their supporters, that the Sámi Parliament had to issue a statement condemning an increase in hate speech directed towards Sami people.