Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) decision on mining concessions and Sami Reindeer Husbandry

Category: Case Law
Date: 18 November 2020
Sub Category:Case Law


State/Country:Switzerland , Switzerland
Legal Reference: CERD/C/102/D/54/2013
Subject Matter:Environmental Heritage | Recognition Agreement / Acknowledgement | Recognition of Traditional Rights and Interests
Summary Information:

The role of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD)

The CERD is a body of independent experts that monitors State parties' implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Sweden ratified the ICERD on 30 September 1975, and gave it domestic effect on 6 December 1971.

Mining concessions and Sami Reindeer Husbandry

Sami Indigenous people have been conducting reindeer herding on the same migration routes on traditional lands since time immemorial.

On 23 June 2010, the Swedish Chief Mining Inspector granted three exploitation concessions for open-pit mines to a private mining company in the Vapsten Sami reindeer herding community's (the petitioners) traditional territory. This was done without any consultation with the Vapsten community.

The mining processes spread dust and damaged lichen pasture necessary to reindeer nutrition. It also cuts off the migration routes between various seasonal pastures leading to detrimental effects on reindeer herding.

The Sami people appealed to the Swedish government (Sweden) against the granting of all three expoitation concessions. Their appeals were rejected on 22 August 2013 on the grounds that the area designated as being of national interest for reindeer husbandry was considerably larger than the areas covered by the exploitation concessions - meaning that the Sami people could continue animal husbandry on a significant portion of their traditional lands. The Sami people then applied to Sweden's Supreme Administrative Court for judicial review of Sweden's decision.

After the Sami people's appeal to Sweden was rejected on 22 August 2013, 15 members of the Vapsten Sami reindeer herding community made a complaint application to the CERD. 

The complaint was made on 16 September 2013 and alleged that Sweden had breached three articles of the ICERD:

  • Contravention of article 5(d)(v): that granting mining concession without the consent of Sami people breached their right to property;
  • Contravention of article 5(a): that the state party breached their right to equal treatment before the tribunals and all other organs administering justice by ignoring the fact that the right to non-discrimination requires that the Sami people be treated as an Indigenous reindeer herding community and not as a Swedish property rights holder; and
  • Contravention of article 6: that the state party breached the Sami people's right to effective protection and remedies, by denying them the right to access a domestic institution that could evaluate traditional property rights, given that the Swedish Supreme Administrative Court can only review application of domestic law.

On 22 October 2013, pursuant to rule 94 (3) of its rules of procedure, the CERD requested Sweden to suspend all mining activities in the Vapsten Sami reindeer herding community’s traditional territory while the applicant’s case was under consideration.

The Sami people's appeal to Sweden's Supreme Administrative Court was rejected on 29 October 2014.

The CERD decision

On 18 November 2020, the CERD found that Sweden contravened article 5(d)(v) and article 6 of the ICERD, and requested that Sweden:

  • provide effective remedy to the Vapsten Sami people by revising the mining concessions;
  • amend its legislation to reflect the status of Sami as Indigenous people; and
  • adopt the international standard of free, prior and informed consent.

Detailed Information:

Details of the Decision

Article 5(d)(v) of the ICERD

The CERD found that granting mining concessions without the consent of the Sami people was a contravention of Sami property rights under article 5(d)(v) of the ICERD. And declared that international human rights law provides that Indigenous peoples' traditional use of land, in accordance with their own cultural practices, establishes property rights. reference was made to the CERD's general recommendation No.23 (1997) and Article 26 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNIDRIP).

The CERD rejected Sweden's argument that Sami people's right to practice reindeer husbandry under Swedish legislation is not a right of ownership of land and does not provide formal title to ownership of land. The CERD stated that, the fact domestic legislation does not prescribe rights is irrelevant to Sweden's argument under international law.

A key finding by the CERD was that consent, as defined under article 19 of UNDRIP, requires the free, prior and informed consent of the Sami community. It necessitates serious engagement with the community, with a genuine attempt to reach consensus as equal parties. The Swedish state party had delegated the process of consultation to the private mining company, which merely asked for input by Sami people to minimise harms to reindeer husbandry from the mining projects. The CERD stated that the provision of a planned application, environmental impact statement and capacity to make recommendations/objections cannot be characterised as anything close to consultation in any international legal understanding of the term. The duty to consent in such a context is the responsibility of the State and cannot be delegated without supervision to a private company.

The CERD also agreed with the Vapsten petitioners that it is only in exceptional cases that a state can limit Indigenous property rights and then, only provided it meets specific criteria. These exceptional cases are measured by a proportionality test. In this case, Sweden would be required to demonstrate that the granting of the mining concessions were motivated by a legitimate aim and were proportionate in effect, so as to not endanger the survival of the Sami people and their practices as required under article 26 of the UNIDRIP.

The CERD rejected the State's view that the extraction of nickel is an important national interest, and that deposits are located in a certain area and cannot to be extracted from elsewhere, whereas it is possible for reindeer to use alternative grazing grounds.

Article 5(a) of the ICERD

The Sami people claimed that the mining legislation and concessions discriminate against Sami people, not by treating them differently from the majority of the Swedish population, but by not doing so. They claimed that the discrimination occurs through blindness to Indigenous Sami culture, which is dependent on reindeer herding for survival. Mining activities have a devastating impact on Sami people in a way that does not occur for the majority Swedish population. In contrast, Sweden argued that no act of racial discrimination based on their ethnic origin has occurred because the petitioners were treated on an equal footing with other landowners who were concerned by the mining project.

The CERD considered that, in the present case, the Sami petitioners did not sufficiently substantiate their claim under article 5 (a) of the ICERD. As a consequence, the CERD was not in a position to consider whether the State party violated article 5 (a) of the ICERD.

Article 6 of the ICERD

The CERD re-affirmed that where Indigenous peoples have been deprived of lands and territories traditionally owned without their free and informed consent, the State should take steps to return those lands and territories. Monetary compensation should only be provided when it is impossible to return ownership to the Indigenous people.

The CERD found that it was impossible for Sami people to obtain judicial review by the Supreme Administrative Court because the legislation treats Indigenous communities as private landowners affected by mining operations and ignores the fundamental rights of Indigenous peoples to their traditional territory.

The CERD found that Sweden did not submit any evidence on the ways that the Sami could be adequately compensated. Further, since the decisions of Sweden's courts could not evaluate the taking of land from the perspective of the Sami people's fundamental rights to traditional lands based on their customary laws, the CERD concluded that Sweden violated article 6 of the ICERD.

CERD's requests to Sweden

As a result of these violations of the ICERD, the CERD requested that Sweden:

  • provide effective remedy to the Vapsten Sami community by revising the mining concessions after an adequate process of free, prior and informed consent;
  • amend its legislation, in order to reflect the status of the Sami as an indigenous people in national legislation regarding land and resource rights, and to adopt the international standard of free, prior and informed consent;
  • give wide publicity to the CERD's views; and
  • translate the decision into the official language of the Swedish State as well as the language of the Sami people.


Sweden is currently reviewing the CERD decision and has said that the country was committed to stopping all forms of discrimination (ArcticToday News).

The Sami People have said that the CERD decision was "truly historic" and that it "re-iterated that Swedish authorities were required to address the impact of projects on herders before it could issue a permit" (ArcticToday News).

Related Entries

  • United Nations
  • Sweden - State Party
  • Event
  • International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination 1966 (ICERD)
  • People
  • Members of the Vapsten Sami Reindeer Herding Community - Petitioner/s

  • References

    News Item
    ArticToday News (9 December 2020) UN criticizes Sweden for failing to consult Sami on mining permit