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27.01.11

UN report calls for Sami language boost

18 January 2011.  A UN report examining the human rights situation of Sami people in Sweden, Finland and Norway calls on the Nordic states to provide Sami parliaments with more funding to help boost general knowledge of the  indigenous Arctic people, their language and their culture.

The report notes that overall, each of the Nordic countries pays a high level of attention to indigenous issues, but that more remains to be done to ensure that the Sami enjoy the full range of rights that are guaranteed to indigenous peoples.

Drafted by the United Nations' special rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, James Anaya, the report pays particular attention to efforts "to revitalise Sami languages and provide children and youth of that minority with an appropriate education".

The special rapporteur calls on Nordic countries to provide "immediate and adequate funding" to Sami parliaments to assist in the implementation of concerted measures toward these ends.

In parallel, Anaya suggests that "the states and the Sami parliaments should cooperate to develop and implement measures to increase awareness about the Sami people within the media and the public at large," including in school curricula.

According to the report, the media often portray Sami stereotypes, which contribute to their negative image in society. The Sami people - estimated to number 70,000 to 100,000 - traditionally inhabit a territory spanning the northernmost parts of Europe, including Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia's Kola Peninsula.

Despite national borders, they continue to exist as one people, united by cultural and linguistic bonds and a common identity. There are nine language groups divided across national borders, but the UN report notes that the wide variety of Sami languages is actually decreasing.

Sami people do not generally speak the language outside home and those who do speak it are spread out over large areas, contributing to the loss of their linguistic heritage.

Access to services

UN rapporteur Anaya notes that unlike Norway and Finland, there is no legislation in Sweden that specifically protects the Sami language.

In Sweden, the language is granted special protection within certain designated "administrative areas," but the municipalities that make up the Sami administrative area have difficulty complying with their obligations "due to a lack of Sami-speaking staff and a reported negative public attitude towards the minority".

While the Finnish Constitution guarantees the rights of Sami people to maintain and develop their own language and culture, "as a practical matter, these legal protections are not implemented, due in a large part to the lack of knowledge of municipal and national state authorities in Sami languages".

Even within the Sami heartland in Finland, access to social and healthcare services in the Sami language is described "as a matter of chance".

Education

One common feature in all Nordic countries is that Sami students may study in the Sami language within designated Sami areas, which are defined by law. But the problem, notes Anaya, is that some 50% of Sami people, and 70% of children under the age of 10, live outside these areas.

The fragmentation of Sami settlements and a shortage of teachers present a problem for education in the Sami language and culture, and there is also a shortage of education materials.

And while some measures have been taken to facilitate long-distance learning, at least in Finland, these programmes have experienced problems, primarily due to a lack of funding, according to the report.

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