Disappointing Results of Nearly Thirty Years of EU-Sápmi Relations


Sámi people
The Sámi © Ørjan Bertelsen

Previously, some researchers expected positive results from the implementation of Green Colonialism in the European Union's Arctic policy. Luke Laframboise, Ph.D. Student in Sámi Studies at Umeå University in northern Sweden, wrote in his article that the policy, by emphasizing economic development in line with the broader European Green Deal, would support an industrial program in the Arctic.

Luke Laframboise, the author of the article, cited the Fosen case in Norway as an example of the policy’s positive influence.

In 2021, the Norwegian Supreme Court ruled that the Fosen wind park was built without direct and sustained consultation with the Sámi reindeer herding communities. Their construction violated Sámi rights under international conventions. The Court declared the issued licenses invalid. But the turbines remain in operation today.

This sparked a wave of protests.

"It has been 700 days of human rights abuse and the Norwegian state has not done anything to stop it. So I have chosen to come here and set up camp until the human rights abuse stops," Sami activist Mihkkal Haetta said.

Sámi Rights

In connection with these events, the importance of the state actors’ role in respecting and protecting Indigenous peoples' rights is once again emphasized. For the Sámi people in Finland and Sweden, these rights should, at least in theory, go beyond their application at the state level.

In 2007, the European Union adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Sámi people are outside the policy set that defines indigenous rights for European countries and their partners.

This has created a paradox. Although the Sámi in the EU have the same problems as their Norwegian counterparts, they do not benefit from the additional layer of protection that EU policy offers.

Thus, the rights that the EU advocates and claims and the real rights of the Sámi are totally different.

The beginning of the problem

In late 1994, Finland and Sweden voted in favor of joining the European Union, while Norway voted against it. This is when it all started.

At the time, many Sámi living in three different states were afraid of such a development of the situation. The idea of becoming a minority within a supranational bloc did not appeal to them.

Before the referendum on EU membership, in 1994, the Sámi political leaders were, in general, very skeptical about the EU…In the minds of the people of Lapland, the EU was seen as a ‘monster’, which only would be interested in exploiting the natural resources of Lapland, Reetta Toivanen wrote in her work.

To prevent the division of the Sámi, Swedish negotiators demanded guarantees of traditional nomadic rights of reindeer herders. In this way, protocol 3, known as the Sámi protocol, was developed. It granted “exclusive rights to reindeer husbandry within traditional Sámi areas”. So far, it is the only document that grants specific rights to the Sámi at the European level.

Initially, despite fears, the Sámi enjoyed some benefits upon accession to the EU. For example, additional funding became available to them. The European Regional Development Fund was a particularly important source of the necessary funds for cultural and language projects.

However, the situation began to change when the EU itself became more active in Indigenous peoples' rights issues.

Shaping EU policy on Indigenous peoples

The first formal inclusion of Indigenous peoples on the EU agenda was in 1997 during the 2012th Council meeting in Luxembourg.

Later, in 1998, the Commission developed a working document titled On support for indigenous peoples in the development co-operation of the Community and the Member States.

The goals outlined in this document were further developed, leading to the endorsement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.

EU Arctic Aspirations and Sámi role

In 2000, at the Giron/Kiruna Sámi Conference, the Saami Council called for the establishment of an Indigenous rights regime in the EU and demanded to be included in Arctic decision-making.

In 2004, the Saami Council finally celebrated an EU acknowledgment of their Indigenous status.

In 2011, the Saami Council was invited for the first time to discuss the state of affairs in the Arctic. Subsequently, these meetings with other representatives of Indigenous peoples and stakeholders became regular.

This led to the creation of the Arctic Stakeholders Forum, known now as the EU Arctic Forum and Indigenous Peoples’ Dialogue.

The EU's omission

There is no doubt that the Saami Council was pleased with this development. They became closer to EU decision-makers and continued to work with Indigenous partners. However, there was an inequality of rights between these external peoples and the Sámi. As it turned out, the unique EU rights granted to external Indigenous peoples did not extend to the Sámi.

How did this come about?

After the endorsement of UNDRIP, the EU continues the process of strengthening the scope and protection of Indigenous rights.

“Through repeated Council resolutions and conclusions rights had become a key part of external funding schemes and diplomatic efforts of the bloc. These same rights were repeatedly reaffirmed, notably through the 2016 follow-up on the EU’s policies towards Indigenous rights and all three of the most recent EEAS Action Plans regarding Human rights. In short, Indigenous rights were as enshrined into the EU’s external plans as any other human right,” Luke Laframboise, Ph.D. Student in Sámi Studies at Umeå University in northern Sweden, wrote in his latest Article.

However, no domestic instrument relating to Indigenous peoples' rights has ever been enacted. As a result, Indigenous peoples' rights have been placed under the jurisdiction of Member States.

Struggle for equal rights

In recent years, the Saami Council, together with its partners in the country, has begun working to bridge this gap between external policy and internal reality.

In 2019, the Saami Council established an EU unit that. It focuses on establishing direct links between the EU and the Sámi. One of its recent projects is “Filling the EU- Sápmi knowledge gaps”.

“The overall aim of the project is to strengthen the relationship between Sápmi and the EU, through creating a knowledge platform on EU-Sámi relevant topics but also to develop a more strategic approach towards the EU,” stated the Saami Council.

In 2022, the Saami Council published the official EU-Sápmi strategy. One of its main aims is to address the gap between external Indigenous policy and the reality of Sámi rights.

“The EU´s lack of awareness and knowledge of Sápmi is hampering the implementation of Sámi people’s rights. A prerequisite for a true partnership between the EU and Sápmi is the recognition of the Sámi people as an Indigenous People within the EU framework,” emphasized in the Sámi Arctic Strategy



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