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Sweden: Sami Indigenous Rights

(Apr. 22, 2011) It was reported on March 30, 2011, that the Sami Parliament will send a report to the Swedish government in May demanding more self-determination for the Sami indigenous population in Sweden, which is estimated to number about 20,000 people. There are an estimated 70,000-100,000 Sami (also known as Laplanders) found in Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russia, with the largest number, about 40,000, in Norway. As of January 1, 2011, as a result of a recent amendment, the Constitution of Sweden explicitly recognizes the Sami as a people, as distinguished from a minority group. (Swedish Constitution (as amended by SFS 2010:1408, in force as of Jan. 1, 2011; in published form, SFS 2011:109), § 2, ¶ 5 [in Swedish], Riksdag [Swedish Parliament] website; Tom Sullivan, Sami Parliament Demands More Powers, RADIO SWEDEN (Mar. 30, 2011); Swedish Parliament Votes in New Constitution, THE LOCAL (Nov. 24, 2010).)

Ingrid Inga, President of the Sami Parliament, argues that the Sami should have the right to make decisions about their own affairs and not just have the responsibility for the reindeer industry alone. “We want reforms that give us powers over areas that affect us – language, education, land use and so on. We need this so that the parliament becomes a real decision making body and not just the state agency which we are at the moment.” (Sullivan, supra.) The Swedish government minister responsible for Sami affairs, Eskil Erlandsson, pointed out that the Sami Parliament had refused a government proposal on consultation put forward two years ago, on grounds of wanting to think about it further, but the Sami MPs contend they had not been consulted on it beforehand. The members of the Sami Parliament have now reached agreement on proposals for additional powers and “a change to the divisive system which accords land rights to just a tiny minority.” (Id.)


The Sami Parliament in Sweden (there are separate Sami parliaments in Finland and Norway) was established in Kiruna, Samiland, in 1993, “as a publicly elected body and a state authority, with the overall task of working to achieve a living Sami culture,” but it is not a body for self-government; its “operations are controlled by the Swedish Parliament and the Government through laws, ordinances and appropriation decisions.” (The Sami Parliament in Sweden<fon
(last visited Apr. 20, 2011). The Swedish Sami Parliament has 31 publicly elected members who meet three times a year. The Sami have no representation in Sweden's Parliament. (Id.) With “less power than a Swedish county council,” the Sami Parliament “is not formally consulted by the Swedish government despite being in existence for almost two decades.” (Sullivan, supra.)

More than half of the Sami Parliament seats are held by reindeer herders, even though at present they represent only about five percent of the Sami, and as a result, land-related disputes predominate, leaving out the concerns of the roughly nine in ten Sami who lack traditional land rights. Thus, according to Peter Sköld, head of the Centre for Sami Research at Umeå University, “Swedish legislation has given the limited rights that indigenous people have to land and water use to the reindeer herders, … [a]nd that gives them a better political ground to speak from – the others are totally excluded.” (Sullivan, supra.)

In a report published in January 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on indigenous people, James Anaya, heavily criticized Sweden, especially over “the lack of say the Sami have over applications for prospecting, mining, forestry and wind power projects” (Sullivan, supra) and over “the structure put in place for the Swedish Sami Parliament under the Sweden Sami Parliament Act.” (James Anaya, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fu
ndamental Freedoms of Indigenous People
, Addendum: The Situation of the Sami People in the Sápmi Region of Norway, Sweden and Finland, Human Rights Council, A/HRC/18/XX/Add.Y (Jan. 12, 2011), at 12.)

Anaya further noted, “[c]ompounding the difficulty faced by Sami in securing rights over lands and resources is that Swedish courts place the burden of proof on Sami claimants for demonstrating land ownership.” (Id. at 14.)

It may be noted that in addition to the individual Sami representative bodies, there is also a pan-Sami body, the Sami Parliamentary Council, formed in 2000. It is composed of the Norway, Sweden, and Finland Sami Parliaments, with the permanent participation of Russia's Sami. (Id. at 5.)