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Setting a Standard for Reconciliation in Scandinavia?

Last updated on 29 November 2023

The Norwegian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report


1 June 2023 marked a historic day: the Norwegian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) submitted its report to the Norwegian parliament. It unambiguously declared that “the Norwegian state, through its policy of Norwegianization, committed an injustice against the Sámi, Kven and Forest Finn populations” (p. 128). The state’s assimilation policy continues to have extensive negative consequences on their languages, cultures, and ways of life. Although Norwegianization was a one-way State process, the Commission believes that “the road to reconciliation must be a joint process, in which civil society and local communities contribute, but where the Norwegian authorities bear a special responsibility” (p. 128).

Norway as a Role Model for Sweden and Finland?

The Norwegian TRC is the first of three Scandinavian TRCs to present a painful and enduring history of assimilation and the consequences thereof, including stigmatization and discrimination as well as health and social challenges of the affected groups. The TRCs in Finland and Sweden are expected to submit their reports on 30 November 2023 and 1 December 2025, respectively. Unlike its neighbours, the Norwegian TRC was created by the parliament and not the government and is therefore considered to have a higher legitimacy. And unlike its neighbours, the Norwegian TRC expanded its mandate to go beyond the indigenous Sámi people to include the Kven and Forest Finn minority groups, both officially recognized as national minorities and legally protected under the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (Report, pp. 152 and 154-155). The Norwegian TRC is notably one of only four commissions (Australia, Canada, and Greenland) in western democracies that that have concluded their work of investigating wrongs unconnected to an armed conflict and exercised by a State against its own indigenous and minority population.

Questionable Methodological Choices?

The expectations to the report were high, primarily from the affected groups. Yet, media coverage about the Commission’s work during the past five years was rather modest. On the day of the publication of the report, the headlines of three biggest mainstream newspapers dealt with forest fires, reality TV stars, and restaurant tips. The seeming lack of interest for a historic document that lays the foundation for permanent reconciliation among the majority and minority populations is striking. The Commission’s aim of creating a foundation for respect and equality between the different groups seems, although undoubtedly a – social and legal – necessity, at this point in time, wishful thinking.

Together with my colleague Anne Margrethe Sønneland, I have discussed elsewhere that the Commission’s method of holding mostly closed meetings rather than open and transparent meetings with publicly available interviews is not without controversy since it excluded the majority of the population from its work. It was therefore unsurprising that in May 2022, one year before the submission of the report, only 37 percent of survey respondents knew about the Commission. Despite containing selected short quotes by individuals affected by the Norwegianization policies, the report mostly generalises the experiences of the 766 individual stories that were presented to the TRC. Thereby, it does not take advantage of using testimonies to make palpable human experiences of “real people of blood, flesh and tears” that otherwise are unfathomable and overwhelming (Minow, p. 76).

Language and Superiority: A Perpetual Pattern?

Before turning to selected legal findings and recommendations, a comment on a questionable choice. Throughout the report, the matter of culture and identity of the Sámi, Kven, and Skogfinns is raised. The systematic Norwegianization policy had the purpose to suppress, forget or hide cultural expressions such as the Sámi and Kven languages (Report, pp. 112 and 116). The Commission notes and deplores the loss of traditional languages. It recommends economic, social, and political measures to revitalise the languages of all groups, which would contribute to strengthening their self-image and group identity (pp. 129 and 420). Yet, the report is written and published, at this time, in Norwegian only. While it contains summaries in Sámi, Kven, and Finnish, the impression – independent from the content – is that the publication reproduces the majority’s language dominance. Rather than meeting ethnic minorities by adapting “positive measures (…) to accommodate and recognize the minority’s language” (p. 116), the Commission itself arguably fell into a trap of thoughtlessness and/or superiority. Thereby, it silences and renders invisible the minority’s languages, and perpetuates a pattern of dominance, an assimilatory method that the Commission was mandated to examine.

Reconciliation in the Wake of Fosen?

In the report, reconciliation is defined as a process and a condition. As a process, reconciliation involves targeted reconciliatory actions and measures and is characterized by a mutual willingness to reconcile. The process’ result can be reconciliation as a condition, which manifests itself in positive and welcoming attitudes and mutual trust and respect (p. 630). The lack of trust between the Sámi, especially those involved in reindeer herding, and the government hit rock bottom this spring when 500 days had passed since the Supreme Court rendered the Fosen judgment, which I discussed here. Sámi and environmental activists, together with reindeer herders, mobilized and chained themselves to the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, which is responsible for concessions for wind turbines like the ones in Fosen, protesting against the inaction of the government and the continuous violations of the Sámi’s rights to culture under Art. 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Aided by Greta Thunberg, the protests made international headlines. After a standoff lasting for several weeks, the government finally apologized to the affected Sámi reindeer herders. The TRC’s report dedicates several chapters to historical and current exploitations of nature in indigenous areas for hydroelectric and wind power plants, but also for construction of power lines, roads, infrastructure, mines, and tourism, revealing an area of potential conflicts, which require the authorities’ utmost attention and diligence, if trust and reconciliation are to be achieved.

Art. 27 ICCPR, which was the legal foundation of the Fosen judgment, is incorporated into Norwegian domestic law. It protects the right of indigenous peoples to cultural practice and traditional livelihood activities related to the use of land and natural resources (Report, p. 310). According to the Commission, other minorities — like the Kven or Forest Finns — with traditional lifestyles may fall within the ICCPR’s concept of culture if they have engaged with a cultural practice over time and generations (ibid.). The requirement of a longstanding cultural practice related to the use of land and natural resources might, however, not be coherent with the Human Right’s Committee’s General Comment Nr. 23 on Art. 27 ICCPR, that reads “culture manifests itself in many forms, including a particular way of life associated with the use of land resources, especially in the case of indigenous peoples” (Nr. 7). The Committee does notably not require a practice that has been passed on from generation to generation.

Implementation of Legal Protection?

Laws and regulations relating to Sámi rights to language and culture have been met with “direct opposition, partly there has been a lack of expertise and personnel with relevant qualifications, and partly laws and regulations have not been followed up through financial allocations” (Report, p. 311). Importantly, and implicitly related to Fosen, the Commission writes:

“The Supreme Court has concluded that the Sámi’s right to their own culture is protected by both human rights [law] and the Constitution. But even though the Sámi legal basis has been recognized, and its content is becoming increasingly clear, traditional Sámi livelihood is constantly being put under pressure” (Report, p. 313).

The Commission also notes that the Sea Sámi have received less public and legal attention than the reindeer herding Sámi – and encourages the government to award them equally strong protection (p. 314). As to live up to its obligations under human rights law, this too is an area that requires positive actions by the government.

David versus Goliath?

The Commission, in a somewhat oversimplified manner, groups indigenous and national minority rights into two pillars: 1) language and culture, and 2) land and water. “Rights to language and culture are well established” and similar for indigenous and minority groups, whereas rights to land and water have been reserved for the Sámi as indigenous people. “Here it has been far more difficult to clarify the rights” (p. 315). With this vague conclusion, the Commission seems to play the ball over to the judiciary, which should clarify rights to natural resources. Yet, it disregards two aspects: firstly, the TRC seems to contradict itself regarding national minorities, who can be awarded protection under Art. 27 ICCPR also for right to land and water, as discussed above. Secondly, in the case of Fosen, the use of land was directly connected to the right of culture, as will often be the case for indigenous peoples. One might wonder whether a categorical distinction of different right groups corresponds to the understanding of nature, culture, and rights from an indigenous perspective – and to international (human) rights law.

The TRC’s report reminds us of disbalances, injustices, and intergenerational harms. Arvid Jåma, a Sámi reindeer herder in Fosen, said: “We are fighting against forces that can present economically tremendously larger numbers in turnover, value creation, tax payments and income, numbers that make us minimal. It is an impossible battle. Money and power rule. Conventions and laws do not protect us” (p. 545). The process of reconciliation will be long, demanding, and require a lot of effort.

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