Europe largest overland test-range on indigenous people's land

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By Cattis Laska

North European Aerospace Testrange (NEAT), Europe's largest overland military training area, covers 24 000 sq km of space in northern Sweden, right above the land that historically belongs to and still is used by the indigenous people of Sweden, the Saami. The land areas where the bombs are dropped during military exercises are the same areas where the reindeers are herded. According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, “military activities shall not take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples”, but if so, the indigenous people need to be consulted through an official channel. This did not happen before military exercises started at NEAT.

Colonization of Saami land and oppression of the Saami people in Sweden

The Saami people have a long, unbroken historical connection to the land areas that today are part of northern Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia. This is where Saami people have lived and worked for centuries and where the Saami culture developed. Saami history dates back to long before the nation states colonized the land. Swedish colonization of Saami land began in 14th-15th century and then was intensified from the 17th century onwards; hollowed by centuries of forced labour, displacement of Saami and the exploitation of Saami land. In short, the same pattern of oppression and exploitation of indigenous people as usual. This exploitation was justified through racist depictions of the Saami as a people inferior to “Swedish” people, which also included so called research on Saami in the Eugenics institute.

Sweden recognized the Saami as an indigenous people in 1977. According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (adopted in 2007), indigenous people have special rights, in addition to the rights resulting from the status of national minorities (Saami is one of five national minorities in Sweden, the others are Roma, Jews, Tornedalen people and Finnish-Swedes). These rights relate in particular to self-determination and land rights of the areas traditionally belonging to an indigenous people. Sweden recognizing the Saami as an indigenous people has not improved their position in any significant way. The UN Declaration is not legally binding; it represents an international minimum standard for the treatment of indigenous people. In addition, there is a Convention on Indigenous Issues (ILO 169), which is legally binding, that Sweden has not yet ratified. The Saami in Sweden have thus not been given access to the rights that this Convention gives to the Saami as an indigenous people.

Formation of a military training area in Vidsel in the 1950s

In the mid-1950s, the Swedish military began their operations in the area of Vidsel (village in northern Sweden) and in the 1960s the current test area at Vidsel was decided upon through a parliamentary resolution. All activities on what was to be called “Robotförsöksplats Norrland - RFN” ("place to tests robots in northern Sweden") were under strictest secrecy as these activities aimed to develop a Swedish nuclear bomb. The "Defense Materiel Administration" (“FMV” in Swedish), is the government agency responsible for the activities at RFN. The civil servants working at RFN in Vidsel during the 1950-60s were not permitted to talk about their work, not even with their families. People who lived in the area that was made into RFN, both Saami and other Swedish people were "redeemed" and forced to move. This included several families and the Udtja Sami village.

Since the formation of RFN the operations there have developed and expanded, and after the state investigation "Snow, darkness and coldness" (2004), the training areas have opened up for foreign armies and companies to train for war. In this investigation it is claimed that this immense area of space and land in northern Sweden is very suitable for military exercises since it; has the unique conditions of offering 24h training in daylight during the summer and 24h training in darkness in the winter, has a geography and a climate that resembles other parts of the world where war is being waged, and also, it is "uninhabited land". Calling northern Sweden ”uninhabited land” says quite a lot about how the government of Sweden view the people living in northern Sweden; as non-existing, or at least as non-important people. Colonization and other forms of oppression are (more than in this specific case) justified by describing the periphery as uncivilized and/or something that exists to serve the centre/nation state. Exploitation of Saami land has historically been about hydroelectricity, mining and logging and now it's about training for war, but all of these is about the area and the people of northern Sweden serving the (centre and south) state of Sweden.

Since 2004, the war exercises have included armies such as the NATO Response Force, the U.S. Air Force and the British Air Force, and weapons companies such as Alenia Aeronautica and SAAB have been testing their new weapons and UAVs at NEAT. What was in the 1950s just the ground area at Vidsel has now expanded to include the air space reaching from Vidsel to the other ground area outside of Kiruna called Esrange, all of this constituting NEAT. In total there are about twenty Saami villages affected by NEAT and the activities taking place within the area. A Saami village is not a village in the literal sense but a local community of Saami people that, for example, herd their reindeers in the area.

Violating indigenous peoples' rights

For hundred of years the Saami people have lived and worked the area that is now NEAT. When the RFN was created in the 1950s, an agreement between FMV and the Saami people was settled, to regulate the conditions under which military exercises were taking place. This agreement is the one that still applies, although written in a time when the concept “Saami rights” were unheard of and thus never considered. Since then both declarations and conventions concerning indigenous people's rights have been implemented, though Sweden chooses not to follow these. In the agreement between the military and the Saami, it says that exercises should not take place during the reindeer calving season (from May to mid June). But this was exactly the time when the NATO Response exercise Loyal Arrow took place in 2009, using the Vidsel base for bomb dropping exercises.

According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, “military activities shall not take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples, unless justified by a relevant public interest or otherwise freely agreed with or requested by the indigenous peoples concerned”. And if a military exercise is taking place, “states shall undertake effective consultations with the indigenous peoples concerned, through appropriate procedures and in particular through their representative institutions”. Therefore, it is not enough to just inform the Saami villages concerned about military activities. If the indigenous people concerned, in this case the Saami parliament, is not consulted, this is a violation of the UN declaration. The Saami people have not been asked through an official channel when military exercises can take place at NEAT. What happens is that the military settles agreements with the different Saami villages concerned.

There have been some protests against the military exercises at NEAT related to the rights of Saami people. A representative from the Saami parliament said in public service radio that the NATO exercise would risk the reindeer calving since the reindeers would be so frightened by the aeroplanes. Before the U.S. Air Force bombing exercise in the summer of 2010, highlighting the excercise and the fact that the Saami were not asked, were made by Fjärde världen (indigenous people magazine) and by Same Ätnam (oldest Saami organization in Sweden). As Lilian Mikaelsson, vice-president of Same Ätnam, puts it;

- We have not been able to say anything. Neither through Saami nor Swedish channels of information no one has been informed about this or been able to say what one thinks about it. The government ignores the people who live up here.

The NEAT military training areas on the ground (in Vidsel and outside of Kiruna) offers both advantages and disadvantages for the Saami. Because these are restricted areas, Saami herding reindeer for example are not, as in other areas, disturbed by snowmobiles and other outdoor activities, and there is no logging or mining in these areas. This is, of course, with the major exception that the Saami have to evacuate on short notice before a military exercise. When this happens, they go down in shelters underground or are flown out of the areas with helicopters.

The exploitation of this area that is historically Saami land, by the Swedish government and military, as well as by foreign militaries and companies, is just a continuation of the exploitation of indigenous lands that has been going on all over the world since colonization began. It can be argued that making these areas into military, and therefore restricted, areas has been good for the woods and for the reindeer herding Saami. But this argument is fundamentally wrong. The woods, the natural environment and its resources should be left in peace and not be exploited, and the Saami, as well as any other people, should be granted their rights, as humans and as a people.

Thanks to Lilian Mikaelsson (Same Ätnam) and Henrik Persson (Fjärde världen) for providing information for this article.

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