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'Sad, angry, betrayed and empty': Sanna Marin's human rights reforms for indigenous Sámi fails

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin visits Sámi Parliament in Inari, 17 June 2022
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin visits Sámi Parliament in Inari, 17 June 2022 Copyright Kevin J. Francett / Sámediggi
Copyright Kevin J. Francett / Sámediggi
By David Mac Dougall
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Finland's right-wing parties decided there wasn't enough time for a parliament committee to discuss the new Sámi rights laws.

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A flagship piece of legislation that Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin had staked her reputation on, is now dead in the water. 

The Sámi Parliament Act sets out how the Finnish government interacts with the Sámi legislative assembly on matters that affect indigenous communities. The revised law, which Marin had framed as an important human rights milestone for the European Union's only indigenous people, failed to get past the final committee stage in parliament. 

Finland's Constitutional Law Committee voted Friday along party lines, with right-wing parties -- including the Centre Party, one of Sanna Marin's coalition partners -- deciding there was not enough time to properly discuss the law and send it through to the full parliament for a vote, before the end of the current parliamentary session. 

Marin called the decision "unfortunate and regrettable." 

Other parties, including Marin's Social Democrats, voted to give the bill sufficient time for discussion but found themselves outnumbered.

"It sends a bad message," said Bella Forsgrén, a Green MP from the central city of Jyväskylä, who sits on the committee.

"The message is that we didn't take the time we need to make progress. And in my opinion, the time is not so relevant. The problem is some people don't have enough motivation to do it," she told Euronews.  

Human rights are a 'political game'

Reaction from the Sámi community has been one of shock that the new human rights legislation fell at the last hurdle, despite private assurances from senior members of Marin's party this week that they expected political obstacles to be overcome, even if discussions continued until the 11th hour. 

"It's utterly shameful," said Petra Laiti, Chair of the Saami Youth Finland organisation. 

"No matter how much you prepare for the worst, it's still the worst when it hits. When I received the news this morning it was absolutely devastating," she told Euronews.

Constitutional law experts in Finland, including Professor Martin Scheinin, had stated there were no constitutional or human rights reasons for rejecting the proposed law, meaning "it was purely political," said Laiti. 

"Finland has now proudly displayed to the rest of the world it is willing to let human rights issues be a political game, where only the minority suffers," Laiti stated. 

Sami activist Inka Musta said she felt "sad, angry, betrayed and empty" over the committee's decision.

Michael Probst/AP
FILE: Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin poses for photos at Munich Security Conference, 18 February 2023Michael Probst/AP

'This is not how democracy is supposed to work'

Reaction over the failure of the parliamentary committee to send the law for a full vote of MPs has largely been split along political lines. 

"Shameful day! The Finnish state betrayed the Sámi people, whose rights have been violated for far too long. The Sámi people are being deceived time and time again," said Left Alliance lawmaker Mai Kivilä; while her party leader, education minister Li Andersson said, "this is not how democracy is supposed to work."

Meanwhile, the leader of the Greens, Maria Ohisalo -- one of Marin's coalition government partners -- described the situation as "an affront to human rights."

Justice Minister Anna-Maja Henriksson from the small Swedish People's Party said she was "very disappointed" and that the committee's decision not to send the paperwork on to parliament for consideration was "unheard of."

"The Sámi people would have finally deserved a new Sámi Parliament Act. From the point of view of the Constitution, there were no problems with this," Henriksson said, blaming the right-wing National Coalition Party, Finns Party and Centre Party for the legislation's demise. 

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David Mac Dougall / Euronews
FILE: Exterior of Finnish Parliament Eduskunta, HelsinkiDavid Mac Dougall / Euronews

Why is this particular law so controversial?

In October 2022, Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin had to issue an apology for the delay in acting on the new human rights legislation for Sámi people.

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

Four of the five parties in government supported the legislation, which was drafted after lengthy negotiations at the Sámi Parliament in Inari, Lapland. 

In November, MPs in Inari, northern Lapland, voted 15-3 with one abstention to approve the draft of the Act.

But nationally, 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 -- continued to be seen as the biggest threat to the rights of indigenous people. 

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Johanna Alatorvinen / Sámediggi
FILE: Members of Sámi Parliament discuss new Sámi Parliament Act, November 2023Johanna Alatorvinen / Sámediggi

Identity politics

The objections thrown up by the Centre Party, which has its roots in Finland's agrarian past, but has seen its support slump in the last few years, are about an extremely sensitive issue: Sámi identity.

Many Sámi think they alone should be able to decide who is Sámi (and who is not), and that the Finnish state shouldn't have any say in the matter at all. That's a view also supported by the United Nations, which has strongly criticised Finland in recent years for its poor track record on upholding rights for Sámi.

In the 2015 Sámi Parliament elections, Finland's Supreme Administrative Court ruled that around a hundred 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.

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.

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Dozens of those people identify as "Forest Sámi", others as "Kemi Sámi", and the Centre Party has claimed -- more than a little incredulously -- that it was standing up for the human rights of 'a minority within a minority' by blocking an act they say would unfairly restrict some people's rights.

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