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The example of Åland: autonomy as a minority protector

By Susanne Eriksson, senior legal adviser, Åland Parliament, April 2007

Photo: Hannu Vallas
Passenger ships in Mariehamn

The autonomy enjoyed by the Åland archipelago off the southwestern tip of Finland is not only of interest to the local population.

Over the past few years, the islands have attracted growing international attention as an example of how to successfully secure the position of a minority.

The words "war" and "armed conflict" bring to mind classic warfare between nations, but in today's world such clashes are becoming more of an exception than a rule. Accordingly, most of the approximately 40 armed conflicts currently being fought around the world are internal struggles in countries with some sort of minority problem. Such problems cannot be solved by creating new small independent states ad infinitum. Looking for alternatives to nation-building, countries are increasingly turning their eyes towards Åland, whose autonomy is perceived as a compromise between independence and total integration.

Over the past few decades, Åland has attracted growing international interest. A large number of politicians, reporters and researchers from all over the world have studied Åland's autonomy as a potential solution to conflicts. The list of regions and minorities that have led people to take an interest in Åland is long: Israel-Palestine, Nagorno-Karabach, Northern Ireland, Georgia, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Aceh in Indonesia, Kashmir between India and Pakistan, Zanzibar, and East Timor. A number of the parties have examined Åland's model in an attempt to avert a crisis, while others are trying to find a solution to a conflict that has already broken out.

Making the constitution work

How, then, can Åland really serve as an example? Writing a functional constitution is hard, but it is not impossible. There are many experts on international and constitutional law who are capable of framing regulations that protect the rights of minorities, but the real problem is often to make them work in practice.

Go to the Åland Official Tourist Gateway's site
The colours and shape of the Åland official tourist logo are based on the Åland flag.

There is no doubt that Åland has a functioning system of autonomy based not only on a good constitution but also on workable reality. During numerous visits by representatives of various minorities, it has been interesting to recall how a minority that initially refused to accept any form of self-rule has by now, almost 85 years later, built up a well-functioning society with the help of such autonomy. It is a society that enjoys amiable relations both with its old and new motherland. What is more, Åland is a prime example of how autonomy can be extended over time. Every problem does not have to be solved at once as self-government can be expanded at an appropriate time.

There is full awareness in Åland that no single solution can ever be universally applied to other problems, which is why Ålanders would prefer to speak of Åland as an example rather than a model. They have no ambitions of imposing their solution on anybody, nor do they have the power to do so. In fact, the absence of any such power may be a blessing, just like the fact that nobody can suspect Åland of pursuing any self-interest in this matter.

Favourable preconditions help

The preconditions for autonomy in Åland have been and remain favourable. Aside from geographically well-defined boundaries and linguistic homogeneity, Åland has a sound economy that has been growing at a brisk pace. Moreover, Finland is a democratic country based on the rule of law and controversy over Åland's affiliation has never assumed any violent forms - circumstances that do not exist in many of today's conflict areas.

Photo left: Matti Tirri
Photo right: Peter Karlsson/
Click to enlarge the picture  Click to enlarge the picture
Left: Traditional Åland boathouses
Right: Åland Midsummer pole

That said, it was never self-evident that Åland would be a success story. After all, the odds are not the best for autonomy that is imposed on people against their will, as was the case with Åland. However, Åland's example shows that a solution with which all the parties were initially dissatisfied can be successful in the long term.

Features of autonomy

Numerous studies on Åland's political status have shown that the range of issues attracting interest were wide-ranging indeed. Here are some examples:

1. Autonomy secured by the Finnish Constitution. The Act on the Autonomy of Åland provides for a division of political power between Åland and the rest of Finland. Laws affecting Åland's status are passed following the procedure prescribed for the enactment of constitutional legislation subject to adoption by the Parliament of Åland (lagtinget), meaning that the island's autonomy enjoys very strong legal protection. In practice, this means that Åland can veto any changes to the division of power between Åland and the central government of Finland.

2. Origin of self-government in Åland. The fact that the Åland issue was settled by an international resolution arouses a lot of interest. The decision of the League of Nations was a compromise that took into consideration not only the two countries involved but also the interests of the local population and, above all, the need to protect their language.

3. International guarantees. As a result of the involvement of the League of Nations in the establishment of self-rule, Åland secured international guarantees for its language and local customs. Consequently, the preservation of the Swedish language is both a national and international matter.

4. Language regulations. Åland is the only region in Finland with only one official language, Swedish, whereas the rest of the country is bilingual. The regulations concerning the language used in administration and education attract a lot of interest.

5. Division of power. The fact that legislative powers are divided between the central government and Åland, and not delegated, is of interest. Many people have studied the question of what legislative powers can be assigned to self-governing bodies and what areas are of such a nature that they apply to the country as a whole.

6. Regional citizenship. Regional citizenship, which is a precondition for land ownership and transaction of business, is reserved exclusively for persons permanently residing in Åland. Additionally, regional citizenship is a prerequisite for eligibility to vote in local parliamentary elections.

7. Law and order. The fact that most members of the police force come from Åland has created a degree of interest in places where it is important that the police enjoy the confidence of the local population.

8. The Åland Delegation. The role of the Åland Delegation as an intermediary between the central government and Åland continues to attract interest.

9. Symbols. The flag of Åland is often of great interest to people, just like Åland's passport, which has the words "Suomi", "Finland", and "Åland" printed on the cover in equal size.

10. Influence over international agreements. Even though foreign policy is in the domain of the central government, Åland is not without influence in this area. Under the Act on the Autonomy of Åland, the consent of the Parliament of Åland is required for international agreements affecting the inherent powers of the province; for instance, this provision meant that the Parliament had to take a position on whether to join the European Union along with Finland in 1995.

11. Participation in Nordic cooperation. Nordic cooperation is a noteworthy form of cross-border cooperation which entitles the Nordic self-governing regions to participate more or less on the same terms as sovereign states.

12. Pragmatism. The people of Åland have always been down-to-earth with little interest in theoretical speculation. For one thing, they have never bothered to discuss whether they should be perceived as a minority, a matter that has generated lively debate and disagreement elsewhere. Instead, the people of Åland have focused on tangible regulations that secure their interests.

Åland as an international example

Åland has had and will continue to have the resources to respond to the interest that its political status generates world-wide. Over the years, Ålanders have hosted a large number of seminars and received lecturers and visitors from all over the world wishing to learn more about the Åland example. This helpful openness seems certain to remain part of the character of the province.

Ålanders have realised that it is of great importance for the credibility of the Åland example that representatives of both the majority and minority of the local population have declared that they are pleased with the solution. The central government is also interested in providing information about the Åland solution in situations where it may be of relevance. To this end, the Åland Government and the State of Finland have jointly appointed a contact group under the auspices of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.


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Åland's flag

The province of Åland, also known as the Åland Islands, has a special status in Finland as a demilitarized, self-governing region. The basis for this rests in the Treaty of Paris that ended the Crimean War in 1856. Their demilitarized, neutral status was confirmed and extended in subsequent treaties, in particular the multilateral Åland Convention concluded in 1921 on the initiative of the League of Nations.

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Åland's location

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...and a closer view

The autonomous status of Åland is also based on a decision of the Council of the League of Nations in 1921 that resolved a dispute between Finland and Sweden over the islands and is intended to guarantee the preservation of the local language, which is Swedish, and the local culture. Åland has its own representative on the Nordic Council, as have the other Nordic self-governing areas, the Faroe Islands and Greenland.

The province of Åland consists of more tha 6 500 islands and skerries, of which 6 400 are larger the 3 000 m². The current population of 65 000 live on only 65 islands, and over 40% live in the only town, the capital, Mariehamn.

Nature is perhaps Åland's greatest attraction. The climate is milder than elsewhere in Finland, the bird population is exceptionally varied and the flora very distinctive.

The special character of the islands has inspired painters, writers and musicians over the centuries, and today they attract many people interested in sailing, tradional boat-building, fishing, cycling, summer cultural events and historical ruins.

Source: Portraying Finland


Åland Official Tourist Gateway

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