Sámi law puts Finnish government on thin ice | Polarjournal
Sanna Marin took office as Prime Minister of Finland in 2019. Among other things, the Social Democrat and her government are committed to strengthening the Finnish Sámi, which is now leading to a dispute with the Center Party, which is also involved in the government. Image: Finnish Government via Wikicommons CC BY-SA 3.0

Europe’s only indigenous Arctic people, the Sámi, have been working for decades to strengthen and secure their culture and also their basic rights. But since it is spread over four different countries, national parliaments have been formed which cooperate with the governments within their respective countries as representatives of the ethnic group. In Finland, a bill introduced by the Finnish justice minister has now caused a dispute between the government of Prime Minister Sanna Marin and the co-ruling Center Party that could have far-reaching consequences.

The Finnish Centre Party, an actually liberal centrist party and a member of the government since 2019, opposes a bill proposed by Justice Minister Anna-Maja Henriksson that would allow Finnish Sámi to determine for themselves who may or may not be counted as part of the ethnic group. Already twice the Minister of Agriculture, who belongs to the Center Party, prevented the parliament from dealing with the law. This in turn puts the government under pressure, as parliamentary elections are due next year and a delay could mean that the law cannot be pushed through in this legislative period, which in turn could be seen by experts as weakening the Finnish Sámi and their right to self-determination. This would put the government of Sanna Marin in a bad light and potentially weaken it in the next elections. Besides, it would also send a negative signal to the other Sámi representations in Norway and Sweden (Russia’s Kola Sámi representation is not recognized by the government in Moscow). Because this law would be a big step towards the right of self-determination for Europe’s only Arctic ethnic group.

The law is intended to give the Sámi parliament in Inari the right to decide who may count themselves as part of the ethnic group in Finland. For a long time, Sámi activists have been complaining that the regulation used so far does not correctly reflect the actual situation. According to the current situation, it is sufficient if persons can present an ancestral tax record declaring them to be “Laplanders,” a designation formerly used for all inhabitants of the northern regions of Finland. Thus, these persons are defined as Sámi and have the right to participate in votes and elections of the Sámi Parliament as well. But this is contrary to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This defines as “indigenous people,” which includes the Sámi, those descendants of ethnic groups who had already lived in that place and maintained their own culture, language, belief systems, and economic development there at the time when people of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived. The bill introduced by the Marin government now builds on this and would allow the Sámi themselves to identify and designate individuals who fit the UN’s description. This would also be in line with the UN Declaration, which recommends an identification approach rather than a definition.

Representatives of the ethnic group in Finland would like to be able to determine for themselves who is a Sámi. This is what the government’s new law is aimed at, and it will now be discussed in a ministerial meeting and then in parliament. According to official figures, 9,350 Sámi currently live in Finland. That could change after the bill is adopted. Images: saamiblog / Htm via Wikicommons CC BY-SA 3.0

In order to get things moving now, Prime Minister Marin has announced that the bill will be introduced in Parliament next Thursday. In doing so, it uses a technicality whereby a bill can only be rejected for review twice by the same ministers (in this case, the Minister of Agriculture, who belongs to the Center Party). After that, only ministers who had not participated in government meetings could reject the request again. The goal of Marin and the government is now to quickly reintroduce the motion at a ministerial meeting and submit it to parliament tomorrow for discussion and a vote. In doing so, she also no longer hopes for cross-party approval, as it can be assumed that the Center Party will reject the proposal no matter what form it is presented in. The issue is complex and has been looked at several times by other governments and they don’t see cross-party agreement, Marin told a news conference.

It is to be hoped that the Center Party will be the only one not satisfied with the bill and that there may be dissenters within the party. This is because the government is dependent on the votes of the other governing parties to get it passed, as it is likely that the opposition led by the nationalist Finns Party (Perussomalaiset) will hardly approve the law. Although the governing coalition has a majority of 34 seats in parliament, if the 31 members of the Center Party are subtracted, this number drops immediately to 3. And hardly anyone likes to tread on such thin ice, not even in Finland where people are used to ice.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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