National minorities’ and indigenous peoples’ rights

Last updated: 14/12-2022

About Sweden – an orientation about Swedish society.

This text is about national minorities and indigenous peoples. Sweden has an indigenous people called the Sami. The Sami have lived here for thousands of year, since long before Sweden became a country. In the past, the Sami lived from hunting, fishing and reindeer herding. Some Sami still make a living this way. The Sami have their own language, culture and history. They also have their own flag and national anthem. Are there any indigenous peoples in the country you come from? Or do you belong to an indigenous people?

The text describes what the national minorities are. It also describes efforts to stop discrimination of national minorities and indigenous peoples.

What are the national minorities?

Several ethnic groups have lived for a very long time in Sweden. There are five recognised historical national minorities in Sweden: Jews, Roma people, Sami people, Sweden Finns, and Tornedalians. A historical national minority has a shared language, culture, and history. It is each individual's own choice as to whether they belong to a minority.

There are five national minority languages in Sweden: Yiddish, Romani, Sami, Finnish, and Meänkieli. Not all the members of a national minority can speak the minority's language.

Periodically, the national minorities were treated badly in Sweden. Some groups were forced to move, for example, or were not allowed to speak their language or even had their children taken away from them.

What is the difference between the five recognised national minorities and other minority groups in Sweden who share a language, a culture, and a history?

National minorities in Sweden are in a better situation today

The situation for the national minorities is better today than it was in the past. The members of the minorities have themselves contributed to the change. They have fought for their rights and demanded to be respected as other people in society are. The Sami people, for instance, began getting organised to defend their rights about a century ago. In 1993, Sametinget, the Sami Parliament, was formed in Sweden. It is an elected assembly that works to preserve and develop Sami culture.

It still happens that minorities are subjected to discrimination. Such discrimination includes having greater difficulties getting a job, being treated differently when entering a shop, or being bullied at school. But Sweden is working today to ensure that the national minorities do not suffer discrimination and that their cultural heritage lives on in our country.

Sweden has recognised Jews, Roma people, Sami people, Sweden Finns, and Tornedalians as national minorities. By recognising the historical national minorities, Sweden is acknowledging the great value of these groups' contribution to the country's culture, as they have been a part of Sweden's history for so long.

Can you give any examples of minorities in other countries who have suffered discrimination and who have not been free to speak their language or practise their culture?

Agreements and commitments

In order to protect the rights of minorities in Europe, the Council of Europe has drawn up agreements between the countries of Europe. The Council of Europe is Europe's leading organisation for human rights.

Here are two such agreements, which have applied in Sweden since 2000:

  • The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Countries who have signed the convention have to counter discrimination against their national minorities. Countries who have signed the convention also have to work for the preservation and living presence in society of the minorities' traditions and culture. For example, a Roma person must have the option of speaking and writing to government agencies in Sweden in Romani.
  • The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The purpose of the charter is to protect languages that are at risk of disappearing.

There are also special agreements about human rights to protect indigenous peoples, such as the Sami people:

  • The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This states that indigenous peoples have a right to self-determination. Self-determination for an indigenous people is about the right to decide for themselves what is best for them.
  • The ILO (International Labour Organisation) Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention. Sweden has not signed this convention, but those fighting for the rights of the Sami people want Sweden to.

It is the government, government agencies, and municipalities in Sweden who have to make sure they follow the rules that the countries in the Council of Europe and the UN have agreed on. If a country does not follow the rules, the Council of Europe and the UN can censure them and tell them where they have to improve. Sweden has been censured because Sami people, Roma people, and other minorities suffer discrimination. Sweden has also been censured because crimes against the national minorities are rarely tried in the courts.