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Finland PM Sanna Marin 'doesn't care about human rights for Sámi people' as reforms likely to fail

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By David Mac Dougall
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin visits Sámi in Inari, 17 June 2022
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin visits Sámi in Inari, 17 June 2022   -   Copyright  Kevin J. Francett / Sámediggi   -  

Tuomas Aslak Juuso is frustrated. 

As president of the 21-member Sámi Parliament in Finland, the single most important piece of legislation on his desk right now -- one which impacts all Sámi, the EU's only recognised indigenous people -- looks likely to fail for a third time. 

"It's frustrating that Sámi human rights don't seem to have any kind of meaning to the Finnish government," he told Euronews.

Other Sámi people are uncharacteristically blunt in their criticism of Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin in particular, over her perceived failure to act to safeguard their rights: accusing her of broken promises, and caring more about the rights of people in other countries than at home. 

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 seriously damage Finland's international reputation. 

The current five-party coalition government had promised to finally get the act over the line, but time is running out during this parliamentary term, with a deadline of 14 November to introduce new legislation in Helsinki -- and time still needed ahead of that for scrutiny and approval in the Sámi Parliament in Inari. 

"Within the government, there are parties that are not able to agree to the proposals to amend the Sámi Parliament Act. Four parties are supporting it but allowing the fifth party, the Centre Party, to play around," Juuso explained.

In June, Sanna Marin travelled north to Inari, for a celebratory event at the parliament building. There, she promised to make the Sámi Parliament Act a priority, saying "in my view, it is very important that we prevent violations of rights in the future and respect the right of the Sámi people to self-determination. 

"I also consider it important to ensure that the legislation in Finland respects the rights of indigenous peoples," said Marin.

However, Juuso said that was the last they heard from the Finnish PM, and noted that even though she has the power to take the Act to parliament without the unanimous support of all the parties in her government, she has so far chosen not to. 

"It would be an uncommon thing for her to do, to take it forward, but it is pretty confusing that she seems not willing to do this because there have been several promises from her to put the act to the parliament," added Juuso. 

Ville-Riiko Fofonoff / Sámediggi
Tuomas Aslak Juuso, Sámi Parliament of Finland President, Inari, 20 October 2020Ville-Riiko Fofonoff / Sámediggi

So what is the main sticking point?

The roadblocks 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.

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. 

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. 

Dozens of those people identify as "Kemi Sámi", others as Inari Sámi, and the Centre Party claims -- more than a little incredulously -- that they're 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.  

Most Sámi see the "Kemi Sámi" simply as "Finns" because the Kemi Sámi language became extinct more than 200 years ago, and language use is one of the key determining factors about who can officially be Sámi, and therefore be included on the electoral register.

Johanna Alatorvinen / Sámediggi
Members of Sámi Parliament at a plenary session, 23 June 2022Johanna Alatorvinen / Sámediggi

Currently, the notion of "Sáminess" is governed by a three-generation rule, since most people learn their language and culture from their parents or grandparents, and will have heard one of Finland's three living Sámi languages -- Inari Sámi, Skolt Sámi or Northern Sámi - growing up. 

A concession made by the Sámi Parliament for the new act would extend this notion to the fourth generation, but even then people who identify as "Kemi Sámi" would not be included on the voting register, because the language has been dead for so long.

And there are genuine, well-founded concerns that if anyone is able to self-identify as "Sámi" and run for a seat in the Sámi Parliament, very soon the Sámi could become outnumbered and outflanked in their own parliament when it comes to issues like land use rights.  

"It really does impact us. There has been an estimate even in the next parliament election that the Sámi could already be a minority in our own parliament, the only organisation that is really representing us, the Sámi, anywhere," said Inka Musta, an Inari Sámi environmental consultant who divides her time between Helsinki in the south of Finland and the north. 

"The Sámi Parliament is the only place where we can defend our language, our culture, our livelihood and if we would lose that we don't have anything," she told Euronews. 

Musta says she had been happy with the Finnish government until now -- led by five women following a feminist policy agenda -- who said they respected human rights and equality. 

Now her view of them has soured. 

"It's hypocritical. Sanna Marin has been talking a lot about human rights in Ukraine, in Russia, or in China with the Uighurs. She has been marching in Pride parades, supporting gender and sexual minorities. But when it comes to Sámi she doesn't care," said Musta.

"She makes beautiful speeches in the Sámi Parliament. She promises things, but it doesn't happen. She has the power to act. But she doesn't." 

Marin's office declined to give any substantive response, except to say discussions between the government parties are ongoing. 

At least one Sámi Parliament member, Inka Kangasniemi, has been calling for even more dialogue around the parts of the Act the Centre Party finds contentious, but this is an issue that has been talked into the ground over the course of a decade, and the Sámi Parliament leadership is keen to get the issues resolved, especially because of the anxiety and uncertainty it causes within the Sámi community. 

Kevin Francett / Sámediggi
Finnish PM Sanna Marin addresses Sámi Parliament festivities, Inari, 17 June 2022Kevin Francett / Sámediggi

Why is Sanna Marin failing on Sámi rights?

The reasons that the Centre Party is blocking the new legislation, and why Sanna Marin appears unwilling to act unilaterally to push the act to parliament, are all to do with politics. 

Finland has a general election coming up in April, an election where Marin's Social Democrats are likely to lose, and where she would no longer be prime minister. 

Even if her party was part of a new blue-red coalition with the conservative National Coalition Party (), commentators don't consider Marin would be a good fit as finance minister, the job which traditionally goes to the leader of the second largest party in government. 

For a start, Marin is far too left-wing to be palatable to the NCP; and secondly, she hasn't earned a reputation for being strong on economics. 

So championing the Sámi Parliament Act, against the wishes of her current Centre Party partners just might be bad politics, when she doesn't want to rock the political boat at this time - especially since the Centre Party has a track record of threatening to collapse governments if they don't get their own way. 

And Marin clearly has an eye on what comes next after serving as Finland's youngest prime minister. A series of scandals about her personal life in late summer might not have had a political toll, but people in government say it took an emotional toll on her. 

Few insiders reckon she will stick around in domestic politics after April -- unless her party pulls off a surprise win in the elections -- with the smart money saying she's already put out feelers for a suitable, high-profile, international role.

For the Centre Party, being seen as anti-mainstream Sámi is also about capturing votes in the Finnish countryside, where they have to shore up their base. They also think they should have an equal say about what happens in traditional Sámi lands, as well as have a say in how Sámi people live their lives. 

A spokesperson for Centre Party leader Annika Saarikko didn't answer specific questions about the Sámi Parliament Act, or why her party is blocking the passage of legislation, but noted that party officials had met with Sámi Parliament President Tuomas Aslak Juuso earlier in October.

Emails and phone calls from Euronews to other prominent Centre Party MPs were not answered. 

"If you are a politician, the Sámi votes won't get you into parliament," Inka Musta noted wryly.

"But if you are against Sámi rights, it might get you into parliament."