Council of Europe: intolerance and nationalism put pressure on Finland’s minorities

The new report gives praise to the general situation for minorities in Finland, but reserves criticism for erosion of Swedish-speaking rights & services, and Sámi legal issues.

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Flags outside Finlandia Hall for the Council of Europe Ministerial meeting, 17th May 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

A new report from the Council of Europe about the status of minorities in Finland says that rising intolerance and nationalism have begun to put pressure on traditional minorities like the Sámi people and Karelians.

The Council also urges authorities to have an open dialogue with Swedish speakers, as their mother tongue gets subsumed in practice by English and other languages.

“As trust decreases and distance between communities increases, it is important that Finland’s elaborate system of minority protection evolves” says the report, to close the emerging gap between theoretical rights guarantees, and their actual shortfalls in implementation.

Experts from the Council of Europe visited Finland in the spring to hold talks with minority groups, NGOs, government officials and politicians before compiling their report.

File picture of Sámi flag / Credit: iStock

CoE wants immediate action on Sámi rights 

In the new report, published on Thursday, Council of Europe rapporteurs say they need to see immediate action from the government together with the Sámi on “a commonly recognised system for registration on the electoral roll.”

The issue of who is, and who is not, recognised as a Sámi person has been divisive in the Sámi community, and a point of serious contention with Finnish authorities. Finland has been rebuked already this year by the United Nations over self-determination rights for Sámi people.

Now, the CoE says any new registration system for the Sámi electoral roll should take into account the interests of the community in preserving its structures of self-governance.

But the new report also says the principles of “free self-identification” must be taken into consideration, something that many Sámi politicians won’t be happy with – especially since there have been bitter legal battles about who can be considered Sámi, and which authority gets the final say on the matter.

Put simply: lots of Sámi people don’t want anyone they consider not to be Sámi to self-identify as Sámi, and for this to have any legal weight. The new CoE report essentially says they need to reconsider this approach.

The Council of Europe also wants to see action to ensure than any decisions on the use of traditional Sámi land don’t negatively impact Sámi culture in the area. The CoE calls on Finland to ratify ILO 169 on the rights of indigenous people – something the current government has said it’s in favour of doing.

File photo of a chalkboard with the question talar du svenska?, do you speak Swedish? / Credit: iStock

Rights for Swedish-speaking Finns

Although Finland is constitutionally a bilingual country, the new Council of Europe report on minorities finds that in practice Swedish is being replaced by English and other languages.

The report finds that many Swedish speakers think their constitutionally guaranteed linguistic rights “are not respected.”

CoE experts say they are “deeply concerned about this situation and the gradual erosion of the traditional consensus that Finland is a bilingual country.”

They’re calling on the government to ensure that in Swedish-speaking Finns can have access to health care and social services in their first language, after hearing scepticism from Swedish-speaking Finns that promises made by authorities might not be realistic.

The CoE rapporteurs say that government promises about public services in Swedish should be “realistic, effective, matched with adequate resources and regularly monitored.”

Criticism of Finnish non-discrimination laws

In the new report Council of Europe experts criticise Finland’s 2015 Non-Discrimination Act.

While they say the legislation is “adequate” at protecting people belonging to national minorities, they found other problems with the law.

“The institutional framework, however, is too fragmented, has loopholes in the protection in employment, and does not provide satisfactory solutions” particularly with respect to women belonging to national minorities in the employment sector.

The report also notes that while the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman deals with a rising number of cases, the resources of the office haven’t been increased since 2015.

File picture of videographer / Credit: iStock

Language revitalisation and preservation 

Finnish authorities have invested considerable resources in the promotion of Sámi culture and languages which the CoE experts say is “commendable”.

They also note the small-scale revival programme for the Karelian language, but stress that all the language revitalisation efforts, including Romani, need to develop over a longer period of time to be effective.

CoE experts also note that Finnish public broadcaster Yle has cut the amount of Swedish-language broadcasting times, but say if it’s going to be replaced with on-demand content,  then care needs to be taken to find a balance between investing in online programming which appeals to younger people, and the needs of older audiences more used to traditional television broadcasts.

The Council of Europe also says it welcomes the increase in Sámi language broadcasts, but adds they must be sustained; and “very low level” broadcasts in Karelian “should be gradually increased.”

But the experts say not enough is being done by Yle to provide services for Finland’s Russian-speaking population.

“The public media offer in the Russian language is not considered sufficient given the numerically large size of the Russian-speaking minority” the report concludes.