Pirita Näkkäläjärvi column: Landmark decisions bring new hope for the Sámi

This Sámi National Day there's renewed optimism that the Finnish State will uphold its international legal obligations towards the Sámi population.

File picture of Sámi flag / Credit: iStock

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

Just a couple of days before the Sámi National Day 2019 and in the run-up to Sámi Parliament elections in the autumn, the United Nations gave us a perfect present: new hope for Sámi politics in Finland.

First the facts.

Last week the UN Human Rights Committee published two landmark decisions. Providing rulings to complaints brought to the Committee by twenty-six members of the Sámi people. The Committee found that Finland had violated the political rights of the indigenous people Sámi.

It was wrong for the Finnish Supreme Administrative Court to intervene in the 2011 and 2015 Sámi Parliament elections in Finland by giving 97 non-Sámi persons a right to vote – against the wishes of the Sámi Parliament.

Then the feelings.

Emotions ran high, as the news about the Human Rights Committee rulings spread through the Sámi grapevine.

“BREAKING NEWS! Jumping with joy!”, I wrote on Twitter and Facebook.

“These decisions brought tears to my eyes”, said a veteran Sámi politician who was among the first ones to call me. “We’ve had to experience so much ridicule and pressure over the years, as we have defended our position that an indigenous people has a right to decide who belongs to the people”.

The Human Rights Committee’s press release said it loud and clear: “The effective enjoyment of the right to internal self-determination requires that indigenous peoples be afforded with the capacity to define group membership”.

The UN gave us new energy to continue the fight for Sámi self-determination.

Credit: Pirita Näkkäläjärvi

After a bleak couple of years, during which the relationship between the Sámi and the Finnish state had become more and more strained, and during which each new legal process only seemed to end in new setbacks anaád disappointments, the UN decisions were a breath of fresh air.

“Of course, it means that the UN Human Rights Committee confirms, through its authority, what we have been saying all the time”, said one of the complainers, President of the Sámi Parliament Tiina Sanila-Aikio. “This is not against any individuals but for Sámi self-determination”, she emphasised on Yle Sámi Radio.

“This is a true test of whether Finland is a human rights state. It’s clear that the rulings are binding on Finland. There are no more possibilities for Finland to complain about them. This is it”, the former President of the Sámi Parliament Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi said on Yle Sámi Radio. He was the second complainer on behalf of twenty-five Sámi persons.

Now Finland has six months to report whether she will follow the request of the UN Human Rights Committee to review the Sámi Parliament Act so that the criteria for eligibility to vote in Sámi Parliament elections are defined and applied in a manner that respects the right of the Sámi people to exercise their right to internal self-determination in accordance with articles 25 (the right to participate in public life) and 27 (minority rights) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Finland ratified in 1975.

We are waiting. We have long been waiting, but at least finally we’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

Have a great Sámi National Day!

Pirita Näkkäläjärvi divides her time between Inari and Helsinki where she works as a consultant. Formerly head of Yle’s Sámi-language news, Pirita is a vocal advocate for Sámi culture and rights and her expert analysis is regularly sought by Finnish media on those subjects. Follow her on Twitter @biret.

Detail from Sámi artist Outi Pieski’s 2018 EMMA exhibit / Credit: News Now Finland