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One last chance (Part 1)

Part Thirty-four of a history of European occupation, rule, and brutal imperialism of Indigenous Australia, by Dr George Venturini.

One Last Chance

Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders will have to take their chance, and look elsewhere. But where?


The Brussels-based United Nations Regional Information Centre, U.N.R.I.C. is organised into nine geographical and thematic desks and a library. The Centre works with all the European Union institutions, governments, all segments of the civil society and of course the media. U.N.R.I.C. aims to inform but also to engage Europeans in issues of global reach. A Reference Library, open to the public, maintains a collection of United Nations documents and publications in English, French and Spanish, as well as information materials available in other western European languages. The U.N.R.I.C. has a website, which is operational in 13 languages of the region: Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Icelandic, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish. (United Nations Regional Information Centre).

At the Centre Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders could find plentiful information. There are over 370 million Indigenous People in some 90 countries, living in all regions of the world.

The Sami could be worthy of attention on the part of curious Indigenous People living in Australia.

The Sami, also Sámi or Saami, traditionally known in English as Lapps or Laplanders, are an Indigenous Finno-Ugric people living in the very north of Europe, in Sápmi, which stretches across the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula. They are a minority in today’s Norway (between 37,890 and 60,000), Sweden (between 14,600 and 36,000), Finland (@ 9,350), Russia (@ 1,991), and but a majority in the innermost parts of Finnmark county in Norway and in the municipality of Utsjoki in Finland. They are regarded as one people, but there are several kinds of Sami based on their patterns of settlement and how they sustain themselves. Furthermore, their rights and general situation differ considerably depending on the nation state within which they live. (The Sami of Northern Europe – one people four countries, United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe).

The first of the Sami’s political organisations was probably established in Kvænangen in 1903, on the initiative of Anders Larsen, who belonged to the Sea Sami, a group which lived mainly by fishing. Repeated attempts to ‘Norwegianise’ the Sami provided a strong incentive for organised resistance. Anders Larsen founded the first political Sami newspaper Sagai Muittalægje. The newspaper gradually became an important political influence, not least because Anders Larsen used its columns to promote the politician Isak Saba, who was subsequently elected to the Storting (the Norwegian Parliament) and served there from 1906-1912. In the 1920s Per Fokstad, a teacher, was politically active, but in the interwar years there was little activity in the Sami organisations.

After the second world war activities were resumed. The oldest surviving Sami organisation in Norway is the Sami Reindeer Herders’ Association in Norway, N.R.L., which was formed in 1948 with the goal of promoting the interests of the reindeer-herding Sami. The National Association of Norwegian Sami, N.S.R., established in 1968, seeks to uphold the rights of the Sami as a people and an indigenous population and to improve their general circumstances. The Norwegian Sami Union, S.L.F., founded in 1979, aims to protect and develop the Sami language. It also safeguards the special interests of the Sami in areas where they form a clear minority.

Nordic cooperation among the Sami was initiated in 1953 at a conference in Jokkmokk, Sweden. A second conference, which took place in Karasjok in Norway three years later, voted to establish a Nordic Sami Council. This functions as a liaison body between the Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish Sami’s political organisations. The following organisations and organs are members of the Nordic Sami Council: from Sweden, the Swedish Sami Association S.S.R. and Same Atnam the Swedish Sami League or Alliance R.S.A., from Norway, N.R.L. and N.S.R. and from Finland, the Sami Parliament. Russian Sami will be represented in the Sami Parliament. The S.L.F. is expected to become a member of the Council.

Through the agency of the Nordic Sami Council the Sami participate in the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, W.C.I.P., which is a worldwide organisation whose aims are to encourage solidarity between Indigenous Peoples, to promote the exchange of relevant information between these peoples, and to strengthen their organisations in the various member countries. The first world conference of W.C.I.P. was held in Port Alberni, Canada in 1975, the year in which W.C.I.P. was established.

The common aims of the Sami are presented in a Nordic Sami-political programme, which was adopted in Tromsø, Norway in 1980. It sets out the following principles:

“1) We, the Sami, are one people, whose fellowship must not be divided by national boundaries.

2) We have our own history, traditions, culture and language. We have inherited from our forefathers a right to territories, water and our own economic activities.

3) We have an inalienable right to preserve and develop our own economic activities and our communities, in accordance with our own circumstances and we will together safeguard our territories, natural resources and national heritage for future generations.”

It was not the voice of a people begging freedom from a ‘sovereign Crown’, but ‘the Voice’ of a people proclaiming its freedom, determined to reach it – and on the way to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, just 27 years away.

The colours of the Sami flag, displayed since 1986: blue, red, yellow and green are those most commonly found on traditional Sami garbs. The circle derives from the sun, in red, a symbol appearing on many shaman drums. The blue half of the circle represents the moon.

The Sami have 11 flag days, one of which is 6 February, the Sami National Day. The flag and flag days belong to all Sami, regardless of which country they live in.

* * * * *

There are between 37,890 and 60,000 Sami living in Norway. Sami have their own parliament, the Samediggi, which promotes political initiatives and manages missions and laws delegated to them by national authorities. It deals specifically with matters which are perceived as being of particular concern to the Sami people. However, as with many Indigenous Peoples, the Sami in Norway have suffered a past dominated by discrimination, particularly in the practice of their religion and the use of their language. Their traditional animistic/shamanistic way of life was replaced in the eighteenth century, and today their characteristic drums can only be found in museums. Pursuant to the education laws enacted at the end of the nineteenth, the official language of education was to be Norwegian, a policy which remained in place until the second world war.

Today, the situation is much improved, but far from ideal. The Sami experience ten times more discrimination than ethnic Norwegians according to a recent study. Furthermore, their language is severely threatened. U.N.E.S.C.O. has classified three of the Sami languages which are, or have been, spoken in Norway as extinct, two as severely threatened, and the last one as threatened.

The issue of land rights is also pressing. Norway was the first country to ratify the protection of land rights pursuant to the International Labour Organisation, I.L.O. Convention No. 169 (Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989, which entered into force on 5 September 1991) concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries in 1990. However, the phrase “ownership and possession” has been interpreted narrowly, and the conclusion was reached that a “protected right to use” was also covered by the phrase. As a result of increased Sami activism, the controversial Finnmark Act of 2005 conferred upon Sami and the population in Finnmark rights to the land and water in Finnmark when about 95 per cent (about 46,000 square kilometres) of the area in the Finnmark county was transferred to the inhabitants of the county. (Sámediggi, Ávjovárgeaidnu 50, 9730 Kárášjohka,

According to international law, the Sami people in Norway are entitled to special protection and rights. The legal foundation of the Sami policy may be found in the following instruments:

1) Article 110a of the Norwegian Constitution.

2) The Sami Act (Act of 12 June 1987 No. 56) concerning the Sami Parliament (the Sámediggi) and other legal matters pertaining to the Sami). The constitutional amendment brought forward in that act provides that: “It is the responsibility of the authorities of the State to create conditions enabling the Sami people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life.” This establishes a legal and political protection of the Sami language, culture and society. In addition, the “amendment implies a legal, political and moral obligation for Norwegian authorities to create an environment conducive to the Sami themselves influencing on the development of the Sami community.”

The Sami Act provides special rights for the Sami people:

1) The Sami shall have their own national Sami Parliament elected by and amongst the Sami. (Chapter 1–2).

2) The Sami people shall decide the area of activity of the Norwegian Sami Parliament.

3) The Sami and Norwegian languages have equal standing in Norway (section 15; Chapter 3 contains details with regards to the use of the Sami language).

In addition, the Sami have special rights to reindeer husbandry.

The Norwegian Sami Parliament also elects 50 per cent of the members to the board of the Finnmark Estate, which controls 95 per cent of the land in the county of Finnmark.

Norway has also received international conventions, declarations and agreements applicable to the Sami as a minority and Indigenous People, including:

1) The International Covenant on Civil and Political Right (1966). Article 27 protects minorities, and Indigenous Peoples, against discrimination: “In those states in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities, shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or use their own language.”

2) The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965).

3) The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).

4) The U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979).

5) The I.L.O. Convention No. 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (1989). The convention states that rights for the Indigenous Peoples to land and natural resources are recognised as essential to their material and cultural survival. In addition, Indigenous Peoples should be entitled to exercise control over, and manage, their own institutions, ways of life and economic development in order to maintain and develop their identities, languages and religions, within the framework of the states in which they live.

6) The Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (1995).

7) The Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional and Minority Languages (1992).

8) The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007).

In 2007 the Norwegian Parliament passed the new Reindeer Herding Act acknowledging siida as the basic institution regarding land rights, organisation, and daily herding management. The siida (in different Sami languages cearru, siida, sita, kite) is a Sami local community which has existed from time immemorial. A siida or a “reindeer pastoralistic district” is a Sami reindeer foraging area, a group for reindeer herding and a corporation working for the economic benefit of its members.

In Norway, pastoralistic activity requires membership in a unit (driftsenhet), corresponding to a reindeer herd. The rights to conduct pastoralism are based on statute of limitations and limited to individuals of Sami descent.

Still, the Sami siida had not, until 2007, been legally acknowledged by the Norwegian state. Instead, the authorities maintained their own construction of reindeer herding districts. The siida, and its use of Sami traditional herding knowledge, have on the other hand been living alongside, and often in conflict with, official accounts and decisions. The recently achieved legal acknowledgement of siida in Norway must result in recognition of its autonomous processes of knowledge as well as recognition of its land rights.

* * * * *

There are about 9,350 Sami living in Finland. More than 60 per cent of them live outside their homelands, which means there are particular requirements for teaching, services and communication in the Sami language.

The three northernmost municipalities Utsjoki, Inari and Enontekiö and part of Sodankylä are officially considered the Sami area.

The Sami were recognised as an Indigenous People in the Finnish Constitution in 1995. Since then the Sami have a recognised legal right to maintain and develop their language and culture as well as their traditional livelihood. In Finland, non-Sami can herd reindeer.

An Act establishing the Finnish Sami Parliament (in Finnish: Saamelaiskäräjät) was passed on 9 November 1973. (Sámediggi | The Saami Parliament, Sajos | Inari).

Since 1996 the Sami have had constitutional self-government concerning their language and culture in their homelands. According to Finnish law, the Sami are entitled to service in their own language in official matters.

Just as in Norway, land rights and language issues are the top concerns of the Sami in modern Finland. Not enough services are provided in Sami, and even those which are provided are sometimes inadequate. The Sami do not have secure land rights in Finland because 90 per cent of the Finnish Sami land belongs to the government. Finland has not yet ratified I.L.O. Convention No. 169, which makes the land rights issue more challenging to handle. (Joona, 2005, “The Political recognition and Ratification of ILO Convention No. 169 in Finland, with some comparison to Sweden and Norway”, Nordic Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 23 (3), at 306-321).

Finland has ratified the 1966 U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights although several cases have been brought before the U.N. Human Rights Committee. Of those, 36 cases involved a determination of the rights of individual Sami in Finland and Sweden. The Committee decisions clarify that Sami are members of a minority within the meaning of Article 27 and that deprivation or erosion of their rights to practice traditional activities which are an essential element of their culture do come within the scope of Article 27.

According to Martin Scheinin, a professor at the Åbo Akademi in Turku, Finland, the Sami way of life is threatened by the competing uses of land. If the government decides to cut down forests in the reindeer herding area, it destroys the pastoral areas.

In 2011 the European Council criticised Finland for handling the Sami and other minority issues poorly. The Council suggested some actions that Finland could take, firstly the ratification of the I.L.O. Convention. Other proposals include a Sami language newspaper and better Sami representation in the political decision making.

The Sami themselves fear assimilation into the Finnish population. This will affect their traditional livelihood, such as reindeer herding. Very often the Sami are treated only as a linguistic minority and not as a people. Johanna Suurpää, Finland’s Minority Ombudsman, has stated that the government does not practice a deliberate assimilation policy. The Sami are not the only ones practicing reindeer herding in Northern Finland, therefore, “there are no simple solutions that would be fair for all parties”, but the language issue, she adds, is becoming critical.

A United Nations report examining the human rights situation of Sami people in Finland, Norway and Sweden called on the Nordic states to provide Sami parliaments with more funding to help boost general knowledge of the Indigenous Arctic people, their language and their culture. (UN report calls for Sami language boost –, 18 January 2011).

Sami people have had very few representatives in Finnish national politics. In fact, as of 2007, Janne Seurujärvi, a Finnish Centre Party representative, was the first Sami ever to be elected to the Finnish Parliament.

Finland Sami have had access to Sami language instruction in some schools since the 1970s, and language rights were established in 1992. There are three Sami languages spoken in Finland: North Sami, Skolt Sami and Inari Sami. Of these languages, Inari Sami, which is spoken by about 350 persons, is the only one which is used entirely within the borders of the municipality of Inari.

Minority languages in Europe are protected by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which was adopted by the Council of Europe in June 1992 and came into force in 1998. It seeks to promote threatened languages as part of Europe’s cultural heritage and facilitate their use in daily life. Article 22 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights guarantees that “the Union shall respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity.” (1900-2017, English, Periodical, Journal, magazine, Galdu cala: journal of indigenous people’s rights, Trove – National Library of Australia).

Continued Friday with: One last chance (Part 2)

Previous instalment: Much law, scarce justice (Part 3)

Dr Venturino Giorgio (George) Venturini, formerly an avvocato at the Court of Appeal of Bologna, devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents.




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