Rights of the Sámi people

Ministry of Justice safeguards the rights of the Sámi people 

The Ministry of Justice supports the development of Sámi cultural autonomy and coordinates the handling of Sámi rights across the ministries. The Ministry of Justice also provides a link to Sámi organisations and works in cooperation with parties promoting the rights of indigenous peoples. In practice, this may mean that the Ministry of Justice ensures that legislative projects take into account the rights of the Sámi people, provides advice and guidance to the authorities on the negotiation obligation under the Act on the Sámi Parliament , and provides training for law drafters on Sámi rights. 

Safeguarding the rights of the Sámi is part of the Ministry of Justice's work to promote equality and good ethnic relations. Discrimination against the Sámi includes unfair treatment or harassment based on ethnicity. The Ministry of Justice monitors incidents of discrimination and hate speech against the Sámi on a regular basis and provides training on these issues. 

The Ministry of Justice also ensures the realisation of linguistic rights. The Sámi Language Act applies to North Sámi, Inari Sámi and Skolt Sámi. These languages play a key role in the Ministry’s work to promote and monitor linguistic rights.  According to the Sámi Barometer, published by the Ministry of Justice, services in Sámi languages and information provided on them were found inadequate.

The Sámi people in Finland

The Sámi are the only indigenous people in the European Union. An area inhabited by the Sámi, comprising northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia, is called Sápmi. In Finland, the Sámi are a linguistic and cultural minority group. Three Sámi languages are spoken in Finland: North Sámi, Inari Sámi and Skolt Sámi, all of which are endangered languages. 

Around 3,500 Sámi live in the Sámi homeland comprising the areas of the municipalities of Enontekiö, Inari and Utsjoki, and the area of the reindeer herding cooperative of Lapland in Sodankylä municipality. The Sámi homeland includes a Skolt area that borders on the Sevettijärvi–Näätämö and Nellim–Keväjärvi areas in the eastern part of the municipality of Inari. Around 500 Skolt Sámi live in this area. Some 6,500 Sámi live outside the Sámi homeland in Finland. 

The Sámi culture is diverse and constantly evolving. The traditional Sámi culture includes fishing, hunting, reindeer herding, and a handicraft culture and tradition (duodji). Sámi cultural heritage, its forms of expression and traditional knowledge are an important part of the Sámi culture. Traditional knowledge refers to the community’s intergenerational and local experience of the world, for example concerning natural phenomena which may be linked to traditional livelihoods and other areas of life. 

Rights of the Sámi as indigenous people 

The rights of the Sámi in Finland are safeguarded by virtue of international treaties and the obligations laid down in the Constitution of Finland and other laws. Safeguarding and respecting the right of indigenous peoples to self-determination is central to all these obligations. The right to self-determination means that indigenous peoples have the right to freely decide on their political, social and economic matters.

International human rights conventions set a minimum level for the protection of the rights of indigenous peoples. The minimum level means that national legislation must be developed and applied in such a way that protection does not fall below a certain level. Even in cases where the authorities do not have to observe any legislative provisions on fundamental and human rights, they are directly bound by the fundamental and human rights conventions. 

For example, if a project were to undermine the rights of indigenous people, the project organiser must obtain a free, prior and informed consent from the indigenous people. Through prior consent, the project organiser can ensure that the indigenous people’s right to self-determination is respected. It is therefore important to secure sufficient time and resources for the political organs of indigenous peoples to make an independent decision on the proposed project.

Rights of the Sámi in national legislation 

In the Finnish national legislation, the core provisions on the Sámi rights are laid down in the Constitution. Under the Constitution, the Sámi, as an indigenous people, have the right to maintain and develop their own language and culture. Similarly, the Sámi have linguistic and cultural autonomy in the Sámi homeland.  The purpose of the Constitution is that the Sámi can independently govern their own affairs and guide their direction. Each authority must actively promote the realisation of Sámi rights and the prevention of their deterioration. The authorities also have an obligation to promote equality and prevent discrimination. 

The authorities must negotiate with the Sámi Parliament on matters that may affect the status of the Sámi as an indigenous people. Such matters may include the drafting of acts or the implementation of administrative decisions. The purpose of the negotiation procedure is to facilitate genuine, timely and consensus-seeking discussion.

Provisions on the Sámi linguistic and cultural autonomy are laid down in the Act on the Sámi Parliament. For the duties related to their autonomy, the Sámi elect from among themselves the Sámi Parliament  once every four years. The Sámi Parliament has 21 members and four deputy members. Duties related to the autonomy include promoting the Sámi culture and expressing the official position of the Sámi people. 

Under the Skolt Act, the Skolt Sámi Siida Council and Skolt Sámi Councils deal with Skolt issues along with the Sámi Parliament. The Skolt Sámi Councils are tasked with preparing matters for the Siida Council, ensuring the implementation of decisions and issuing opinions. The Skolt Sámi Elder is a representative elected by the Skolt Sámi who oversees the interests of the Skolt people and manages their common affairs. 

In addition to the Constitution, provisions on Sámi rights are laid down in many other acts, such as the Reindeer Husbandry Act, the Nature Conservation Act and the Mining Act.  

Ongoing projects 

A Sámi Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been established and a reconciliation process concerning the Sámi people has been launched. The Commission is independent and autonomous, and the process is coordinated by the Prime Minister’s Office. The objective of the Commission’s work is to gather Sámi people’s experiences of the actions of the Finnish state and authorities and their effects on the Sámi people, and to make this information visible.

Finland’s Strategy for Arctic Policy brings Sámi rights to the fore. At the heart of the Strategy are the carrying capacity of the natural environment, the need to protect the climate, sustainable development principles, and respect for the rights of indigenous populations. 

The Government Action Plan for Combating Racism and Promoting Good Relations between Population Groups, coordinated by the Ministry of Justice, includes measures promoting the equality of the Sámi people. 

Useful links

The Ministry of Justice has drawn up a memorandum in cooperation with the Sámi Parliament containing good practices for public officials on the realisation of the negotiation obligation. The memorandum includes a diagram summarising the practical matters concerning the negotiations, which serves as a tool and a checklist for public officials .

The SÁRA – Promoting wellbeing and equality for the Sámi (2019) study examines the wellbeing and coping with everyday life among the Sámi people living outside their homeland from the perspective of social inclusion.

Human rights and multiple discrimination of minorities within minorities within minorities: Sámi persons with disabilities and sexual and gender minorities (2018), a study conducted by the University of Lapland, indicates that Sámi persons with disabilities have experienced multiple discrimination, especially when accessing health and social services. 

Actualizing Sámi Rights: International Comparative Research (Heinämäki et al. 2017), a study commissioned by the Government, provides information on the Sámi land and participatory rights and the definition of a Sámi. 

Sámi Parliament website

Skolt Sámi Siida Council website 

Inquiries: 

Elina Vaara, Ministerial Adviser, t. 0295150148, [email protected]
Yrsa Nyman, Ministerial Adviser, t. 0295150293, [email protected]
Corinna Tammenmaa, Unit Manager t. 0295150181, [email protected]