A Truth Commission in Sweden?

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This text was written by Dr. Christine Evans.

How many people know that an official truth commission for Indigenous Peoples has recently been set up and become operational in Sweden?

For the first time ever, the Swedish Government decided to establish a Truth Commission for the Sámi people in 2021. Its members were appointed in June 2022. The Truth Commission started having meetings across the country in early 2023 to collect testimonies and information about the impact of State policies against the Sámi people.

The Truth Commission is mandated to review how public policies were undertaken in various areas, including through forced removals, the application of racial biology and the dispersal of Sámi language and culture. The legal framework for exploitation of natural resources on Sámi lands should also be scrutinized.

The Swedish Truth Commission is also responsible for highlighting and disseminating information to increase public understanding of Sámi history and the impact of historical injustices on the current conditions of the Sámi people. In its concluding report, which should be submitted latest 2025, the Truth Commission should submit proposals for measures to contribute to redress and promote reconciliation.

During the Anna Lindh lecture at Lund University in April 2023, the former Swedish Archbishop Antje Jackelén shared her views on reconciliation:

‘Reconciliation is a process that can bring healing and in the long run create and sustain just peace…To restore and to repair a relationship takes acknowledging the harm caused. It also means taking responsibility for one’s actions as well as making efforts to rebuild trust and repair the damage done’.

Where do truth commissions come from?

National truth commissions have for several decades been undertaken as part of transitional justice initiatives in a broad range of countries that have undergone armed conflict and dictatorships. While truth commissions do not achieve accountability, they have created  nuanced national narratives of violent events, provided critical assessments of official policies and been informed by victim participation.

Only a few such truth commission have focused on the impacts that violations have had on Indigenous Peoples. Examples where measures were adopted to incorporate culturally appropriate methodologies in order to give specific attention to Indigenous Peoples include truth commissions in Guatemala, Timor Leste and Colombia.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence has noted that:

‘Of the more than 40 truth commissions established in transitional contexts over the past four decades, very few have addressed the colonial period or examined the economic and social injustices rooted in that period’ (A/76/180).

Indigenous Peoples want truth commissions

In recent years, Indigenous Peoples around the world are increasingly advocating for the establishment of truth commissions dedicated to document their experiences of violations, in order for their voices to be heard and for them to have an active voice in re-setting the historical narrative. This development is related to the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007. UNDRIP calls for ‘effective mechanisms’ for redress, remedies, restitution and compensation in connection with a range of rights. The Declaration in its entirety is considered a ‘remedial’ instrument that aims at repairing the effects of the historical denial of the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Among the countries that have led the shift towards recognition of how Government policies have affected Indigenous Peoples are Australia and Canada. In Australia, national inquiries have documented deaths in custody and racism in the criminal justice system and the forced removal policies of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, known as the Stolen Generations.

In Canada, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2009–2015) examined violations that occurred in indigenous residential schools over the period 1874–1996; and a National Inquiry was conducted into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2016–2019).

In 2021, for the first time a mass grave site was found in Canada with the remains of over 200 indigenous children at the site of a former residential school. The public outcry, and criticism by UN experts, triggered renewed calls for further investigations and accountability. The 2015 report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined that at least 4’000 Aboriginal children died of disease, malnutrition, neglect, accidents or abuse while at such schools.

The investigations to document the impact of Government policies on Indigenous Peoples in Australia and Canada have acted as catalysts for mobilising both national and international calls for similar initiatives in other countries.

Truth commissions are being set up across the Nordic countries

In the last few years, national truth commissions dedicated to documenting violations against Indigenous Peoples have been established and are currently operational across the Nordic countries;  Norway (established 2017), Finland (established 2021), Sweden (established 2021), Denmark and Greenland (Denmark and Greenland announced a joint truth commission in June 2022). These truth commissions are tasked to scrutinise the consequences, past and present, of nationalist assimilationist policies. In Norway and Finland, the term ‘reconciliation’ also explicitly figures in the titles of the truth commissions.

In addition, in 2022 startling revelations brought to light that thousands of Greenlandic Inuit women and girls, some as young as 12 years old, had intrauterine contraceptive devices inserted under the direction of Danish government officials as part of a population control policy starting in the 1960s. A specific official inquiry into the use of IUDs has been established by Danish and Greenlandic authorities to investigate the consequences of this policy, which is estimated to have affected around half of the fertile female Inuit population. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples conducted an official visit to Denmark and Greenland in February 2023 and stated that he was particularly appalled to hear the testimonies of Inuit women who had IUDs inserted without their knowledge or consent.

While the Nordic truth commissions are still in their early operative phase, some concerns have already been raised regarding their composition, mandates and Government commitments to ensure implementation of final recommendations. A common denominator of most truth commissions and inquiries around the world is the lack of effective measures to follow-up and put recommendations into practice. The impacts of truth commission reports are often hampered by inadequate dissemination and inclusion of the findings into national school curricula- in order to reset historical narratives and provide reparation elements of satisfaction and non-repetition.

Looking at historical policies but also towards the future

Photo credit: Andreas Ausland.

The current truth commissions in the Nordic countries face additional challenges, as their mandates require them to address not only historical policies but also the contemporary situation. ‘Green energy’ projects are swiftly being promoted on indigenous lands as part of the solution to the global climate crisis and European energy shortages.  The race to extract rare earth minerals and build wind power deemed necessary for the ‘green transition’ is by some Indigenous Peoples seen as a new kind of ‘green colonialism’.

Several international human rights mechanisms have expressed concern over the processes whereby different development projects, including the Gállok mine, have been approved in the Nordic countries. In addition to the effects brought on by the climate crisis, ‘the cumulative development of mines, wind farms, hydroelectric power plants, roads, and powerlines have resulted in loss and fragmentation of pasture lands and constitute serious threats to the sustainability of reindeer husbandry’.  A study presented in 2022 mapped and concluded that only 15% of all the land assigned for traditional reindeer herding in Fennoscandia is currently undisturbed from competing human land-uses. Indigenous Peoples’ land rights and knowledge of environmental management must be recognised and respected in order to achieve the targets of the 2030 Global Biodiversity Framework.

The lack of consultations with, and measures to seek the free, prior and informed consent of, affected indigenous communities is resulting in increased litigation and tensions within Nordic societies. As illustrated by the Fosen wind farm case and the Rönnbäcken mine case, Indigenous Peoples are finding that even if their rights are upheld in the highest national courts or by international expert bodies, in practice legal wins are not respected.

The Sámi have raised fears that the increased attacks against their reindeer may be racially motivated and linked to land rights disputes. In 2022, the Swedish Government tasked the National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå) to undertake an in-depth study of hate crimes against the Sámi.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has asserted that ‘the unfulfilled redress for historical and ongoing wrongs is the main obstacle for reconciliation. Without adequate truth and remedy processes, it is difficult to ensure relationships between Indigenous Peoples and the States within which they live based on mutual respect and partnership. Meaningful reconciliation must also include steps to ensure the non-recurrence of violations. This is essential for rebuilding trust and restoring confidence in the State – it is difficult to envision true healing by Indigenous Peoples in an environment in which violations continue to occur.’

The ongoing Nordic truth commissions provide important momentum to address both the past and current human rights issues- and set forth pathways to construct more diverse and inclusive societies.

More from Christine: The Importane of Taking Indigenous Peoples Knowledge into Account

Photos; Christine Evans & Andreas Ausland
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