Multilateralism offers advantages for indigenous peoples

Åsa Larsson Blind raises the importance of multilateralism for indigenous people and how indigenous people can strengthen multilateralism in an interview with Annelies Hickendorff and José Alvarado, Programme Officers at the Foundation.

Photo: Rebecca Lundh

Åsa Larsson Blind is the vice president of the Saami Council, a non–governmental organisation promoting protection of Sami rights and culture and raising awareness of Arctic and environmental issues. She is a member of the Council since 2008 where she served as president between 2017 to 2019 and was later elected as the first woman to lead the Swedish National Sámi Association Sweden between 2019 to 2021.

Born and raised in a reindeer herding family, Åsa Larsson Blind holds a master’s degree in Human Resources Management and Development from the Umeå University, Sweden.

The Saami Council was founded in 1956 by Sami organisations in Sapmi, the traditional homeland of the Sami in Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia, to represent and amplify the voices of the Sami civil society. The conversation kicked off with Åsa Larsson Blind telling us more about the scope of the work of the Council.

‘The Council functions as the link between the international level and the national member organisations. Local Sami organisations might not have the resources and the capacity to work in international processes. The Council has worked with the United Nations (UN) for decades and in recent years it has also engaged with the European Union (EU)’.

She describes how the organisation is the voice of the civil Sami society in the Arctic Council (an intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation in the Arctic) as well as other forums such as the UN environmental conventions and other international fora.

The Council is currently co-chair of a body under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), called the Facilitative Working Group of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP). Furthermore, the Sami Council co-hosted the 50th anniversary of the first Arctic Peoples Conference (Copenhagen) in Ilulissat, Greenland, this July.

When asked why multilateralism is important for indigenous people, Åsa Larsson Blind answers that:

‘From our perspective, multilateralism has a lot of advantages. The international level can be used to advance the cause of indigenous rights by holding States accountable, making them review each other and pointing out that certain groups should be taken into account. The international level forces States to uphold their international obligations.’

‘We still need a real discussion on the implementation of indigenous rights in the Nordic countries’.

The most important multilateral agreements in this context are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP, 2007), which stipulates that all people have the right to self-determination. Åsa Larsson Blind explains that despite these agreements, in practice it has been a struggle to get these rights implemented:

‘We still need a real discussion on the implementation of indigenous rights in the Nordic countries. For example, I see the current wave of industrialisation and the massive investments that are being made now in the north of Sweden in the name of green transition and climate change as a new wave of colonisation because the same structures and power balances are in place’.

She notes that ‘it must be said that in the Nordic countries, indigenous people are privileged in the way that we can advocate for our rights safely and securely – which is often not the case for indigenous peoples in the rest of the world. So, it’s difficult to kind of pin down that that we actually need a change.’

Sweden has received significant international criticism regarding indigenous rights issues, particularly in conflicts between the reindeer herding Sami and the extractive sector. An example is the 2013 case of the government’s permission to start nickel mining in an area close to Tärnaby, making reindeer herding impossible.

‘The Saami Council helped the affected communities to submit the case to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which ruled that the government was in breach of international law. In 2020, the CERD called for a halt on the project and a revision of the Mineral Act, that governs the issuance of exploration licenses.’ She adds ‘this is why it is so important to use the international level to get things done – but it is not for the impatient’.

The year 2023 marks the half-way point to achieving the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Stakeholder engagement and inclusion of those left furthest behind are key principles of the 2030 Agenda. How important are the SDGs for Åsa Larsson Blind and how does she review progress from an indigenous peoples’ perspective?

‘First, the SDGs are embedded in everything and are in that sense very much at the core of what we do.’ She starts.

‘However, while steps forward have been made, tangible progress in advancing inclusion of indigenous people at the global, regional and country level, is yet to be achieved. Indigenous peoples are still at the level of securing participation and advocating to be included in the discussions – not only by giving input and perspectives, but also by participating in the political decision-making processes in the initiatives that affect us.’

She refers to the promulgation of the Sami Consultation Law in March 2022, which came into force because of international criticism that Sweden did not uphold the right for influence in the decision making as stipulated in UNDRIP.

‘Collaboration and interdependence are essential indigenous viewpoints. For our livelihoods, we are dependent on our nature and our natural surroundings, but we are also dependent on good communication and a good collaboration with neighbours’.

The Law requires the Swedish government to consult with the Sami representatives on issues that particularly affect them. However, there is still room for progress.

‘The law is an important step forward for Sami impact on decision-making, but the UNDRIP concept of ‘free prior informed consent’ is not yet catered for. As long as consent is not required, it suffices to consult, discuss and document that there are different opinions’, says Åsa Larsson Blind.

She continues: ‘This is related to the fact that major industrial projects in Sapmi only tend to squeeze us in when all decisions are already made. If we were invited to participate early in the process, we could still suggest amending the plans. However, by the time we can bring our perspectives on the table, companies have already invested so much that it’s only a matter of compensation and how to execute the project. This puts us in the unfair position of having no choice but objecting to most initiatives. We usually say that if it’s not possible to say ‘no’, it’s not possible to give consent either.’

She concludes by emphasising that indigenous peoples have a lot to contribute to multilateralism and the collaboration between peoples.

‘Collaboration and interdependence are essential indigenous viewpoints. For our livelihoods, we are dependent on our nature and our natural surroundings, but we are also dependent on good communication and a good collaboration with neighbours. We are dependent on these resources together hence we need to find the balance of making this work. And of course, it can be complex and of course there can be competition, but it’s still embedded in the way of thinking. Our role in preserving and disseminating indigenous knowledge and culture is paramount to multilateralism.’