Finnish Government set to undersign the ILO Convention

2.10.2014 / Article

According to the Government’s new interpretation, Sámi land ownership rights in Finland are appropriately organized as regards the ILO Convention.

There has been a long-lasting dispute in Finland about joining the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, adopted by the ILO in 1989. It is the only international convention on the rights of indigenous peoples.

The Finnish Parliament voted on the Convention already in 1990. At that time, the decision was that the rights of the Sámi in Finland did not meet the requirements set out in the Convention and that before joining it, the situation should be seen to. Until recently, the general understanding has been that, in particular, the land ownership rights of the Sámi are not on the level required in the Convention.

Now the Finnish Ministry of Justice has taken a new standpoint, saying there is no conflict between the land ownership rights and the Convention. This has caused some astonishment, as no changes have been made in these rights lately.

The Ministry argues that after the Parliament’s decision in 1990, the interpretations of international law have changed, and so has almost all Finnish legislation concerning the rights of the Sámi, beginning with the Finnish Constitution. This is why the current situation is completely different.

The Ministry now considers that signing the Convention requires no changes in the land ownership rights of the Finnish State or of any individual in Lapland. The Sámi or the Sámi Parliament have not, however, adopted this interpretation, although the Sámi Parliament, chosen by a general election, has altered its standpoint slightly.

It is now closer to accepting that the Sámi people should only have more decision power concerning the use of state-owned lands in Lapland, but not necessarily the direct ownership of such lands.

According to the Ministry, the process has so far not been completed and is still being negotiated with the Sámi.

Definition of Sámi citizenship creates most difficulties

Regarding the requirements in the ILO Convention, the biggest difficulties have been caused by the definition of who actually is a Sámi citizen. A compromise upon this has been reached, however, and the Sámi Parliament adopted it last summer with a great majority.

Interviewed by the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation on 27 June 2014, Mr. Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi, Chairman of the Parliament, said that the compromise was good, in view of the fact that rejecting it could have caused the Government to drop all its efforts to sign the ILO Convention. However, he is not satisfied with the situation.

The land ownership rights of the Sámi in Finland are at least on the same level as those of other Finnish citizens. There are, however, those among the Sámi who think that traditionally, all lands inhabited by the Sámi were owned by them as well, until the State seized the lands step by step, starting in the 17th century.

The Sámi have demanded that the administration of lands and waters owned by the State should be transferred to a special governing body. In some of its statements, the Sámi Parliament has demanded that it should have the power to nominate the majority of the members of such a body.

A great deal of high-level scientific research has been carried out on Sámi land ownership. The source material dates back to hundreds of years and varies from correspondence by clerical authorities to government documents.

Some indications have been found that the Sámi have owned larger areas than simply the immediate vicinity of their dwellings, as is the case now, but these findings do not enable the ownership to be actually re-established.

On the other hand, the Sámi have an uncontested right to the use of state-owned lands. The reindeer owned by the Sámi – as well as those owned by Finns – may herd freely everywhere inside the reindeer herding area regardless of who owns the land, and also on most of the strictly protected areas. The only exception is the immediate vicinity of dwellings.

The application of the Akwé: Kon principles on state-owned lands is the newest link in the long chain of Sámi privileges.

Bill on Sámi Parliament was sent to Finnish Parliament last week

According to the Ministry of Justice, preparing the signing of the ILO Convention is continuously under way, but it is not yet known when it will actually take place. The bill on the Sámi Parliament, containing a definition of the Sámi citizenship, was sent to the Finnish Parliament last week.

Nevertheless, the goal is to sign the Convention before the next Parliamentary Election in Finland, which takes place in April 2015, provided that a consensus on the definition of Sámi citizenship can be reached.

As part of the process, Finland needs to negotiate with the ILO about the requirements in the Convention. Sámi representatives hope that this will lead to a better solution for them and that the ILO will not accept the Government’s standpoint on land ownership rights. After the signing, it would be impossible for the Sámi, or for any stakeholder, to refuse to accept the Convention being applied.

Hannes Mäntyranta

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