Pirita Näkkäläjärvi Column: Presidential Candidates Lack Sámi Focus

Pirita Näkkäläjärvi is the 2017 recipient of the Sámi of the Year award. Originally from Inari, she was previously head of YLE's Sámi-language news. Pirita now lives in Helsinki, and works as a consultant.

File picture of Sámi flag against blue sky / Credit: Getty

The highlight of Sauli Niinistö’s first term as a president of Finland? This, if you ask me:

“Indigenous Peoples should have the right to participate in matters concerning them in the United Nations. We look forward to the Secretary-General`s proposals in this regard. In this context, we must express our concern over the reported attempts to prevent representatives of Indigenous Peoples from Russia to join us today.”

Sauli Niinistö, President of Finland, addresses the opening of the high-level plenary meeting of the General Assembly known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.
22 September 2014
United Nations, New York / Credit: UN Photo

Niinistö was talking to the first UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) in New York City in September 2014.

Professionally, the sentence uttered by Niinistö addressing the Russian indigenous participation was a huge win. It is not every day that words you write end up in the President’s UN speech. It meant that someone in Niinistö’s communications team had been paying attention to tiny Yle Sápmi, where I was working at the time as head of the division.

We and our partner Barents Observer had been working hard for days to raise awareness about the harassment that Russian indigenous leaders had experienced from Russian police, as they tried to get to New York for the conference.

But more importantly, personally, this was the first time that something that President Niinistö said or did resonated with me. I felt that for the first time he actually stood up for us indigenous peoples. He proactively did something to help us – though a little nudge via the Finnish state media probably helped!

Candidates’ Limited Sámi Interaction

I am not a Niinistö supporter, but even without my support he will win this election. Perhaps this is also the reason why this presidential election has not caused waves in the Sámi community.

The highlights of the campaign from the Sámi perspective can be quickly summed up. Candidates Pekka Haavisto (Green) and Merja Kyllönen (Left) were the only ones to visit Sápmi – the traditional Sámi homeland areas of northern Finland – on their campaign trail.

Sámi gentlemen from Utsjoki in their Sámi costumes showed up in the audience at a Paavo Väyrynen (Centre) TV debate. A Sámi artist appeared at Haavisto’s benefit concert at Tavastia in Helsinki.

Yle livestreamed a debate in Oulu focusing on Northern Finland, in which Laura Huhtasaari (Finns) reduced the indigenous Sámi culture in Finland to a tourist attraction. Nils Torvalds (SFP) said that Finland has to be careful with the rights of such fragile minorities as the Sámi.

Haavisto said that it is a shame Finland has not accepted the International Labour Organisation ILO’s Convention 169 on indigenous and tribal peoples.

Väyrynen praised Niinistö for ILO 169 not being ratified and said they both agree the convention is for former colonies only.

Still disillusioned, I tried a bit of crowdsourcing to get inspiration for this column. Stating that I struggle to find a Sámi angle to this election, I asked what my network thought. My post only attracted two comments, both about ILO 169 – a convention that Finland has failed to ratify.

ILO is an issue that Teivo Teivainen, Professor of World Politics at Helsinki University, also raised when asked what remains to be discussed in this election. Professor Teivainen sees that ILO 169 convention is an acute foreign policy issue that the candidates should be grilled about. Teivainen also criticised President Niinistö for claiming in 2012 that the ILO convention is not relevant for Finland.

Beyond this we haven’t seen much ILO 169 grilling during this campaign.

The Sámi media interviewed Haavisto in Inari and reported that he hopes Finland joins ILO 169 convention. Kyllönen, interviewed in Ivalo, also proclaimed to be an ILO 169 supporter.

Sámi and indigenous matters are considered marginal issues on the national level.

The next chance to raise the profile of Sámi issues in a presidential election is in six years time – perhaps for example by an online election quiz dedicated to Sámi issues? It needn’t be limited to ILO 169 only, but expanding to topics such as indigenous self-determination and land rights. These are important, central issues for indigenous peoples around the world.

Finland’s parliament makes the decisions concerning indigenous issues in Finland. However, the president plays an important role in giving moral and value guidance. Like President Sauli Niinistö did on that rare occasion in New York City in 2014.