Creating a transnational body to advocate for and promote the rights of indigenous people

The Saami Council, established in 1956, emerged from the need to maintain strong connections across the politi­cal borders that divide the Saami people of northern Scandinavia, to promote cooperation and to preserve their rights as indigenous people. The Council advocates for rights in the area where the Saami have lived for more than 10,000 years, an area that currently spans four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula.

Saami Council members are typically involved with national Saami organizations in their home countries. The fifteen seats of the Council are divided proportionally based on the Saami population, which totals over 100,000 in each of the four countries. The Council has given strong support to the creation of Saami Parliaments in the Scan­dinavian nations, established in Finland in 1973, in Norway in 1987, and in Sweden in 1993. Each parliament is an independent, democratically-elected political body that consults with its respective national par­liament on matters of interest to the Saami. Though Saami Parliaments cannot pass their own legislation, they are able to promote initiatives before the national parliaments.

The success of the Saami Council can be attributed to its ability to organize its people simultaneously on local, national and international levels. In this way, members are able to use their cross-border unity to build constitu­encies and leverage for local policy changes, while at the same time drawing on smaller, local organizations to provide support for larger, transnational coordination of Saami issues. One effort currently underway is the drafting of the Nordic Saami Convention. In 2002, the governments and Saami Parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland agreed to establish an expert group made up of Saami and non-Saami members to produce a draft of the Convention by 2005. The Convention will deal with fundamental issues of self-determination and land rights, as well as the environment, cooperation between states and Saami parliaments and the preservation of cultural heritage. A critical area of consideration is cross-border land grazing rights for those who herd reindeer — a primary livelihood of the Saami people.

In addition, the Saami Council was instrumental in establishing the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the United Nations and played a significant role in creating the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights for Indigenous People under the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

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What we can learn from this tactic: 

Sometimes potential allies are obvious, but ways of bringing them together are not. The indigenous Saami people, living in four different countries in the Arctic Circle, have built governing bodies that coordinate with each other across national borders to advocate for cross-national policies on rights of a minority — particularly for grazing rights that directly impact the their day-to-day life.

As a minority in each of their home countries, separate Saami political bodies would have less power to shape the policies that affect them. But together they can be much stronger advocates for their own rights — a clear example of the value of collaboration. This also promotes human rights at the local level while simultaneously influencing the decisions of national, regional and international institutions. Similar collaborations could be effective in other situations where interest groups or human rights issues cross national borders, as is more and more often the case.