UNITED NATIONS - A crisis in Native land rights erupted in an unlikely location during the meeting of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, giving a striking display of its value as a sounding board.
The S?mi people, Natives of the European north also known as the Lapps, were already prominent at the Forum, when word came from home that they had entered into the sharpest conflict in decades with the government of Norway.
The issue, involving S?mi control of their own territory, might not have attracted much attention beyond the European arctic if it hadn't coincided with the Forum. Because of the gathering, however, the S?mi were able to present their case to the indigenous world in coordination with other arctic peoples and put the Norwegian government on the defensive.
The representative of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference delivered the S?mi Council statement on May 20 in a display of inter-ethnic cooperation. A Norwegian diplomat who addressed the Forum soon afterward limited his response to promising a fact sheet in the near future.
One S?mi spokesman made the complaint, applicable to other western democracies, that even though his country had an exemplary international reputation for human rights, things were not as good at home for its Native people.
The issue involved a bill before the Norwegian Parliament that would change political control of Norway's northernmost region, Finnmark County, the center of its S?mi population. (Its interior is said to be up to 90 percent S?mi.) According to the S?mi Council, the Finnmark County Land Management Act would erase the Native legal claim to traditional territory. The statement called the bill a return to Norway's past "colonial policy" of assimilation.
The Finnmark Act, according to the S?mi position paper, would transfer the land and natural resources in Finnmark County to a new entity, the Finnmarksegendomen. Its board would consist of seven members, three appointed by the Norwegian S?mi parliament, three by the County parliament and a non-voting member chosen by the central government. If the S?mi and non-S?mi members failed to agree, which the S?mi Council said could be expected frequently to happen, the government member could refer the issue to Oslo. The result, said the paper, would be to turn over final say on land and resources to the non-S?mi population.
The principle behind the bill, said the S?mi Council, was supposedly non-discrimination between the S?mi and non-S?mi population, but its result was to ignore traditional indigenous rights to land and resources. The Council called it a holdover of a Norwegian attempt from the mid-19th century into the 1960s to assimilate S?mi into the majority society. This "Norwegification process," said the Council, left lasting harm to many S?mi.
The S?mi now have their own Parliament in Norway and during the week of May 19, it strongly rejected the Finnmark Act. If the Norwegian Parliament adopts the act in the autumn, S?mi spokesmen predict the biggest split with the government since the bitter protests in the early '80s over the damming of the Alta River.
News of the S?mi Parliament's defiance arrived instantly at the Forum in New York in which S?mi were already highly visible. The chairman of the meeting was the well-known Norwegian S?mi leader Ole Henrik Magga, and some 15 others were representing S?mi parliaments and other groups in Norway, Sweden and Finland. (The S?mi population in Russia's Kola Peninsula was not able to send delegates, primarily because of monetary constraints.)
In addition to solidarity emphasized by their traditional dress, the S?mi networked effectively with the other arctic peoples. They issued joint statements with the Inuit Circumpolar Conference of Greenland and the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), composed of 40 hard-pressed Native nations. Aqqaluk Lynge, president of the Inuit group, introduced the Finnmark Act issue during his own speech to the Forum.
The Norwegian government representative Petter Wille, deputy director general of its Foreign Ministry, acknowledged the Finnmark issue in his reply, but he confined himself to describing the bill instead of making a detailed defense. Wille later told a S?mi delegate that he couldn't debate the bill because it was still pending before the Norwegian Parliament. Wille told the Forum, however, that Norway supported indigenous rights and called for completion of the Declaration of Indigenous Rights, still in draft form after nine years.
"Norway firmly believes," Wille said, "that the full realization by indigenous peoples of their human rights and fundamental freedoms is essential for eliminating discrimination directed against indigenous peoples.
"Their contribution to the development and cultural pluralism of society and full participation in all aspects of society is important for political and social stability, and for the development of the states in which they live."