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Finland's Sanna Marin apologises for lack of action on rights of indigenous Sámi people

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By David Mac Dougall
Finnish PM Sanna Marin meets Sámi Parliament leaders in Inari, 17 June 2022
Finnish PM Sanna Marin meets Sámi Parliament leaders in Inari, 17 June 2022   -   Copyright  Kevin J. Francett / Sámediggi   -  

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin has said she's sorry for delays in acting on new human rights legislation for indigenous Sámi people. 

It comes after Euronews highlighted ongoing problems with the Sámi Parliament Act, which Marin's government had promised to pass in their current legislative programme. 

Four of the five parties in government are understood to support the legislation, which was drafted after lengthy negotiations with the Sámi Parliament in Inari, Lapland. However the Centre Party, which relies on voters in the countryside to shore up its support and typically takes a protectionist line on issues impacting rural areas, has emerged as a major stumbling block. 

The Sámi Parliament Act would, among other things, enshrine the right of self-determination for Sámi into Finnish law — a problem that the United Nations has repeatedly called on Finland to rectify. 

Sámi topics are typically underreported in Finnish mainstream media outlets, but after the Euronews story was published on Thursday morning, the topic picked up traction online. 

In a Saturday morning television interview with public broadcaster Yle, Marin was asked about the Act, and said she was "saddened" by the lack of progress of the legislation. "I think this is one of the most important human rights issues in Finland, and we should be able to resolve this issue without further ado," she added.

It is believed to be her first public comments on the matter since mid-June.

Marin went on to apologise to the Sámi people, but said she hoped the matter could still be brought before parliament during the autumn session. 

The Vice President of the Sámi Parliament Anni Koivisto, who is from Sanna Marin's Social Democrats, told Euronews it was good that the prime minister finally commented on the subject, which is an important one for the Sámi people. 

"The last we heard in public from her was at the opening of the parliament (in June 2022) so it's good that we heard something now. Maybe we still have hope with the Act, that it will make it to the Finnish Parliament," she added. 

Johanna Alatorvinen / Sámediggi
Meeting of Sámi Parliament plenary session, Inari, 23 June 2022Johanna Alatorvinen / Sámediggi

What is the Sámi Parliament Act?

The piece of legislation causing such consternation is the Sámi Parliament Act, which sets out how the Finnish government interacts with the Sámi Parliament on matters that affect Sámi people.

In recent years the United Nations has repeatedly criticised Finland for the way it treats Sámi people and urged the government to get its house in order and enshrine the right of Sámi self-determination into law.

As recently as June, a UN committee found that Finland violated an international human rights convention on racial discrimination when it comes to the political rights of Sámi.

The Sámi Parliament Act would, in theory, fix all these outstanding issues which senior officials and ministers concede have the potential to damage seriously Finland's international reputation.

The roadblocks thrown up by the Centre Party are about an extremely sensitive issue: Sámi identity.

In the 2015 Sámi Parliament elections, Finland's Supreme Administrative Court ruled that around 100 people who identified themselves as Sámi should be added to the electoral roll and therefore be eligible to vote in the elections that year.

There are around 10,700 Sámi in Finland, a third of whom still live in the traditional Sámi homeland areas, called Sápmi, in Finnish Lapland.

Many Sámi people think they alone should be able to decide who belongs to the Sámi people (and who does not), and that the Finnish state shouldn't have any say in the matter at all. That's a view supported by the United Nations.

Some of the people whose names were added to the electoral roll by the Finnish court hadn't previously had any strong affiliation with Sámi identity and culture — and only recognised Sámi people are allowed to get their names added to the Sámi Parliament electoral role or run for a place in the 21-member chamber.

There are genuine, well-founded concerns that if enough people not recognised by Sámi get elected to parliament, then very soon the Sámi could become outnumbered and outflanked in their own assembly when it comes to issues like land use, property development, fishing rights or mineral extraction rights. 

This in turn could lead to the further erosion of traditional Sámi life and livelihoods which are already under enormous pressure, in particular from the climate crisis.