Tuesday, December 13, 2005

'Common law' nearer for Samis

'Common law' nearer for Samis

Efforts to give North European Samis a common law cutting across national borders took a major step forward on Wednesday as experts submitted a draft convention for the indigenous Nordic population. Of a total of 75,000 Samis – formerly known as Lapps or Laplanders – in the Nordic region, 50,000 live in Norway, 20,000 in Sweden and the rest in Finland. Each of the three countries currently applies its own laws to Samis and the new text, after three years of negotiations, aims to harmonize their economic, cultural and linguistic rights regardless of national boundaries. "The Nordic Sami convention will represent historic progress for the recognition of the rights of indigenous people," Pekka Aikio, president of the Sami parliamentary council, told reporters in Helsinki. "It has been clear for a long time that national borders obstruct cooperation between Samis. Cooperation has been made particularly difficult by the fact that all states treat Sami questions differently and have different laws and a different judiciary," he said. For the first time in a joint declaration, Samis are recognized as the region's indigenous population and not just a minority, and as having a right to self-determination as well as having suffered "injustices". The convention's authors said it was to establish a minimum level of rights, leaving each state free to go further towards granting Samis special rights. This is a reflection of divergent views between the three countries, with Finland dragging its feet on some Sami rights, especially the exclusive right to hunt reindeer. Finland was also still doubtful on the exact meaning of self-determination for Samis, as well as their water and land rights, Finland's minister for justice, Leena Luhtanen, said.

Norwegians - Indigenous People in Norway?

The Sami people were, before the recent waves of immigration, the most significant ethnic minority in Scandinavia. They inhabit parts of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and northwestern Russia, the region sometimes called Lapland. In the 1980s, they were granted a Constitutional right to preserve their culture in Norway. Earlier this year the Norwegian parliament, Stortinget, passed a law that went further than that, granting the Sami people special property rights in the northernmost province of Finmmark, over that of Norwegian citizens of non-Sami origin. Carl I. Hagen, leader of the right-wing Progress Party, has argued that the law is racist, in effect creating an apartheid regime in Finnmark. I tend to agree with him. My first thought about the law regarding Finnmark is that it should be repealed. It sets a very dangerous precedent to give a special legal status to a particular ethnic group, at a time when this country is rapidly becoming the home of people from all around the world. It is the road to Balkanization, and yet another indication that our leaders have completely lost their grip on reality. Groups don't have rights. Only individuals do.

On the other hand: The special status granted to the Sami people is based on the logic behind the UN Convention concerning Indigenous Peoples. The interesting question, which nobody in our intellectual establishment has asked, is what legal ramifications this law has for the rest of Norway. If the Sami people can be given status as indigenous people in the northernmost regions of Norway, why can't Norwegians be given the same status in the rest of the country? After all, we have stayed here for centuries, probably even for thousands of years. And we belong to a small "tribe" of only 4 million people, a drop in the sea of humanity. Again, I am as a matter of principle skeptical of granting rights to groups within a country. But it is an intriguing question. I have no illusions about the UN, but I find it difficult to see how our politicians could deny us this when they just gave it to others.


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