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Sweden: Government Announces Truth Commission at Sami Repatriation Ceremony Following Official Sami Request

(Dec. 12, 2019) On August 12, 2019, the Swedish government repatriated 25 skulls belonging to the Samis, an indigenous group living in an area known as Sápmi, which is spread over northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. The skulls had been excavated during the 1950s during an archeological dig and sent to the Historical Museum in Stockholm. Since 2015 the remains have been stored at the Västerbottens Museum. The repatriation was part of a collaboration between the Lycksele Municipality, the Västerbottens Museum, Lycksele samiska förening (the Lycksele Sami Association) and Svenska kyrkan (the Swedish Church).

At the ceremony the minister for culture, Helene Öberg, announced that the Swedish government intends to start a dialogue with Sami representatives on establishing a truth commission (sanningskommission) to investigate the Swedish state’s historical relationship with and abuses of the Sami people. The Minister declared that

[t]he government, in close collaboration with the Sami Parliament, wants to establish a truth commission. I am happy to announce that the dialogue has hereby been initiated.

We shall now, by the use of increased knowledge, attempt to heal the trust between the state and the individual, and between individuals. Through the use of a truth commission, which can highlight the history and relationship between the state and the Sami people, and the continuation of efforts to repatriate human remains that have unlawfully been removed, it is our hope that reconciliation and healing may be achieved in the long run. (All translations by author.)

The minister’s announcement followed an official request (hemställan) on June 10, 2019, by representatives of the Samí Parliament (an indigenous body that is part elected parliament and part state administrative agency), which was delivered in person to the Swedish minister for culture on June 12, 2019, calling for the establishment of a Swedish Parliament truth commission that would review the historical treatment of the Sami population. Specifically, the Sami Parliament requested that the truth commission guarantee the following:

  • That the preparations for and completion of a truth commission on the Swedish state’s abuse of the Sami People and the Sami’s human rights be financed by the Swedish state.
  • That long-term funding [for] and mechanisms to address unforeseen needs [of the commission] be ensured.
  • That the funding be independent of other efforts that the state has committed to in the Sami political sphere.
  • That the commission have an independent and strong mandate.
  • That the members of the commission enjoy great trust of both the Swedish and Sami communities.
  • That the process be anchored in the Sami community so that the undertaking reaches different groups of Sami with diverse experiences in order to avoid further internal divisions among the Sami community.
  • That social and psychosocial support functions be established early in the process.
  • That cross-border exchanges of experience be continuous with the process [currently underway] in Norway and Finland.
  • That [the commission] throughout the process access experiences from international commissions.
  • That the Sami Parliament arrange public meetings/hearings throughout Sweden to anchor the commission’s work in the Sami community and, on the basis of the result, develop a mandate for the truth commission.
  • That the work of the truth commission, upon completion, be presumably followed by a reconciliation process, provided that the recommendations the commission presents are met.

Truth commissions to investigate and reconcile the relationship between the national states and the indigenous groups in light of past crimes committed by the national states against Sami people are currently underway in both Norway and Finland.

Reactions to the Government’s Announcement

Amnesty International in Sweden has welcomed the Swedish minister’s announcement that a Sami truth commission will be initiated but notes that Sweden has not recognized the International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 169 on Indigenous Rights, the international legal framework that protects indigenous rights.