New Contexts for Old Questions – The Centenary of the Åland Islands Solution in a Troubled World

von NORDfor

Sia Spiliopoulou Åkermark

The centenary of the Åland Islands Solution is commemorated around the world during 2021–2022. The ongoing pandemic, as well as the impossibility of singling out one particular date that captures the entire experience of one hundred years, is one reason for this lengthy period of cultural events, seminars, publications and other activities assessing and exploring the centenary for this autonomous, demilitarised and neutralised archipelago in the midst of the Baltic Sea.

The centenary events started taking place as tensions between the Russian Federation, Ukraine and the »West« were on the increase, resulting in the illegal aggression against Ukraine in February 2022: still another war that continues until the moment of writing in July 2022 with no immediate prospects for peace in the near future. How can we then understand the Åland experience in this context? Is it only an idealist utopia of the past, or does it carry any relevance for present and future times? What is the fate of the status of the Åland Islands now that both Sweden and Finland have applied for membership in NATO?

The Åland Islands archipelago consists of nearly 6,500 islands, islets and skerries of which only a few are inhabited. Åland was demilitarised originally in 1856 through a protocol to the Paris Peace Treaty which ended the Crimean War. The demilitarisation agreement negotiated and concluded between Great Britain, France and the Imperial Russia meant that no military fortifications and troops could be situated on the islands. This was the starting point of Åland’s international life and today the islands can be considered as a highly »glocal« place from a legal point of view. Swedish is the official and majority language in the islands, while Finland is constitutionally bilingual, with Finnish and Swedish both as official languages of the republic, even though Swedish is the first language of a minority of ca. 5% of the population in Finland. 

The Åland Solution of 1921

When Finland declared its independence in December 1917, just as the Russian Empire was disintegrating and the Russian revolution was starting, Ålanders voiced a clear preference for the islands to belong to neighbouring Sweden which was seen as the safest option at the time. Early on the alternative idea of territorial autonomy within Finland was floated and promoted actively especially among the Swedish-speakers in Finland. The dispute between Finland and Sweden was settled within the framework of the League of Nations while legal and constitutional developments were taking place in Finland, including a new constitution (1919) and a first draft law on territorial autonomy for Åland adopted (1920) by the Finnish parliament over the heads of Ålanders and therefore originally rejected by them. 

The Åland Islands Solution meant a complex compromise which took into account legitimate interests of all concerned parties. It included responses to three levels of issues:

a) The political governance concerns
b) The internal and external security concerns
c) The identity and culture concerns

Following two rounds of inquiries (one more legal and one more diplomatic-political) the League of Nations decided in June 1921 that the sovereignty over the islands should belong to Finland, that the islands should have broad and strong territorial autonomy, protection of language and regional culture and, finally, that the islands should not only remain demilitarised but also become neutralised. This last point added to the non-fortification of the archipelago an obligation for all states parties to the treaty that was adopted in October 1921 not to include the islands in any armed conflict, so that the islands would never become a threat to any state concerned. Bolshevik Russia had not been recognised by many other states in 1920–1921 and the Soviet Union was only established in late 1922, nor was it a member of the League of Nations until much later (1934). Russia was not among the parties to the 1921 Convention on the demilitarisation and neutralisation of the Åland Islands.

Developing the Original Solution

The territorial autonomy of the Åland Islands is broad in the sense of granting legislative and executive competence in a broad range of issues, including education, agriculture, trade, health, regional transport, environment and police matters. It is strong in the sense of being exclusive, which means that in the areas where Åland has legislative competence, then the Finnish Parliament and the Finnish Government do not have any competence. It is also strong since it cannot be changed unilaterally. Changes to the Autonomy Act can only be made with the approval of both the Finnish and the Åland Parliaments. Similarly, the appointment of the Governor (the highest representative of Finland on Åland) requires the cooperation between the President of the Republic of Finland and the Parliament of Åland, thus ensuring that the Governor enjoys the trust of both capitals, Mariehamn and Helsinki.  

Finland was in a precarious position during World War II, squeezed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, especially once the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact demarcated Finland as part of the Soviet sphere of influence and Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union in November 1939. In October 1940 and after the so-called Winter War, a bilateral treaty was concluded between the Soviet Union and Finland concerning the demilitarisation of the Åland Islands. No provision was included in this agreement as to neutralisation. The 1940 Moscow Treaty included a right for the Soviet Union to a consulate on Åland with the task to supervise the implementation of the demilitarisation provisions. It can be noted that Sweden has had a consulate on Åland since 1918 and since 2005 this institution has the status of a General Consulate, i.e. with consuls sent and employed by the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (not honorary consuls). The 1940 bilateral treaty was confirmed in 1992 when Finland and the newly established Russian Federation reviewed the validity of agreements between the two states.

Measures taken in the 1921 settlement to safeguard the internal dimension of security, an area of crucial importance for minorities, included the placement of police matters under the legal competence of the autonomous administration, the provision of a Swedish-speaking police force, and special solutions for the Swedish-speaking coast guard on Åland, which was placed during peacetime under the Ministry of Interior rather than the Ministry of Defence.

The international status of the Åland Islands was confirmed also in conjunction with the entry of Finland and the islands into the European Union in 1995, following two referenda that took place on Åland.

The Relevance of the Åland Example in Today’s Troubled World

The ideas of minority protection, territorial autonomy, international settlement of disputes through peaceful means and efforts to restrict the use of force are parts of the legacy of the League of Nations, with all their ambivalence, paradoxes and contradictions. For instance, the right of Finland to exercise self-defence and secure the demilitarised and neutral status of the Åland Islands at time of war is regulated in Article 6 of the 1921 Convention on the Non-Fortification and Neutralisation of the Åland Islands, as a precursor to the provisions on self-defence of Chapter VII in the Charter of the United Nations. Furthermore, Article 7 in the named Convention refers to the possibility of collective self-defence, something found today in the UN Charter as well.

Most importantly, Article 8 of the 1921 Convention provides that this agreement should remain in force »in spite of any changes that may take place in the present status quo in the Baltic Sea«. Most international lawyers and several pronouncements by states, including Finland and Sweden, have confirmed in recent decades that the status of the Åland Islands is also binding on the basis of customary law, i.e. by the normative force of a regulatory regime that has withstood the passage of time and has been implemented by states as legally binding.

The idea is that the demilitarisation and neutralisation, and the Åland Solution as a whole, is a realist political and legal compromise that addresses legitimate concerns of all core actors involved in the dispute. It was endorsed to ensure good neighbourly relations and peace in the Baltic Sea region while accommodating the needs of a minority living close to the border. Today the relations between Finland and Sweden are excellent and closer than ever, as evidenced by the parallel processes of applications to become members of NATO in spring 2022. This was not quite the case at the time of the Åland dispute in the early 20th century.

The Åland Solution also recognised the legitimate concerns of Russia since it confirmed the idea of the Baltic Sea as a mare liberum, as was also highlighted by Swedish Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Robert Rydberg, in a speech in October 2021. These elements have contributed to making the Baltic Sea into a region with exceptionally few regulatory gaps and a high rate of peaceful dispute resolution. Indeed, an increasing number of researchers argue today that regional integration is important for the success of conflict resolution.

The Åland experience incorporates some core lessons at the level of ideas and principles, and beyond the institutional solutions and practices as such. This long experience of one hundred years indicates, first of all, that power can be shared, if those concerned want to share it. Secondly, it makes the claim that compromise is not a sign of weakness but rather of strength under the condition that key legitimate concerns of the parties are acknowledged. Such legitimate concerns include those of minorities with regard to decision-making, participation, security and protection of language and identity. Thirdly, the Åland experience shows that all parties need to stick to the rules of the game. Relations between minorities and majorities, between kin-states and states with minorities, and more generally between neighbouring countries, rely on good faith and some level of trust. These things require a lot of effort to be established and are easily destroyed. Finally, all the above in sum implies that there is need for efficient and constructive communication, even communication with those we do not necessarily like and agree with. Communication is a precondition for the peaceful resolution of disputes.

The institutional solutions concerning governance, security and identity as well as the principled considerations outlined above with regard to the Åland example remain at the centre of most situations of regional and minority differences, disputes and conflicts around the world. This is also why so many scholars, journalists, politicians and others study and compare similar experiences from around the world. The Åland Islands is one among some 65 asymmetric territorial autonomies in the world. There are globally also other demilitarised regions, such as Svalbard/Spitsbergen in Norway and Antarctica. However, the Åland Solution combines contingently and in a unique and resilient manner the elements discussed previously of autonomy, demilitarisation/neutralisation and minority protection.  

The War in Ukraine Prompts Finland and Sweden to Apply for NATO-Membership

Finland and Sweden applied for membership to NATO in May 2022 after a rather speedy process of parliamentary and governmental activity in both countries. They both received observer status in early July this year. The Russian war against Ukraine was the catalyst for this process even though discussions and enquiries about a possible NATO membership have regularly occurred, especially in Finland, throughout the years.

There are voices in Finland, in Sweden and perhaps internationally, that have questioned the viability and relevance of the Åland status, in particular with regard to demilitarisation and neutralisation. These voices are partly fuelled by genuine concern, even fear, for the intentions of an authoritarian regime such as the Russian one. They may also be fuelled by opposition to the idea that minorities are granted differentiated solutions. We know that minorities are often victims of nationalism and populist rhetoric especially during tense security conditions. There are also those that are hardcore realists, for whom military solutions and armed force are the only possible response to all disputes and situations of tension. Finally, such views can perhaps sometimes be attributed to poor knowledge about the specificities and comprehensiveness of the Åland Solution as well as of its position as an integrated part in the totality of ideas of the rule of law. The Åland Solution is a small component of international law as a system. It can be changed only following the procedures prescribed by international law.

Why should we living on Åland, in Finland and other countries respect international agreements and rules if Russia violates international law through its act of aggression against Ukraine? From a legal and diplomatic point of view each situation needs to be assessed individually. The war in Ukraine is a violation of international law and collective self-defence has been put in place with unprecedented deliveries of weapons, technology and other support needed by Ukraine. The war is, however, in Ukraine and neither against Finland, nor in the Baltic Sea. Sanctions and reactions to be put in place by states wanting to render support to Ukraine need thus to be proportionate, legitimate and linked to the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Risking an escalation and unintentional spread of the war is not in the interest of any state or their populations. Such development would only be a further gain for the military industry.

In his new year speech in January 2022 Sauli Niinistö, President of the Republic of Finland, underlined that each country has the right to define its security policies. Spheres of interest do not belong to the 2020s, he argued. This is in fact the very principle of sovereign equality of states also found today in the UN Charter. Already in October 2021 he had confirmed the continued validity of the status of the Åland Islands in a speech at an international conference concerning the demilitarisation and neutralisation of the Åland Islands. The Russian Federation made remarks on the Åland Islands and the Saimaa Canal once the news of the Finnish intention to join NATO became known.

During the NATO negotiations and accession procedure on July 4th 2022, Minister for Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto also confirmed Finland’s understanding of the continued validity of the Åland status in international law and no objections were raised by other NATO member states or by NATO as an international organisation.

Considerations for the Future

It is sad and unfortunate that the world is once more being polarised into very few blocks. President Niinistö was correct that spheres of interest do not belong to the 2020s (see above). It remains to be seen how Finland will be able to manage the three longstanding post-Cold War principles of its foreign policy, namely keeping the country out of war, ensuring room to manoeuvre and enhancing internationalisation and rule of law. The Åland Islands Solution has contributed to the realisation of all these three principles in addition to being a source of inspiration and knowledge in international conflict resolution.

In order to be able to forge future global alliances which are needed to defend and enhance international law and find solutions in areas such as digital freedom, environmental protection, climate change, law of the sea, international criminal responsibility, human rights and disarmament, countries need to ensure they do not excessively limit their room to manoeuvre, in law or in practice, for instance by opting into international organisations and other networks not conducive to a constructive, peaceful approach to international cooperation. How Finland and Sweden will manage to achieve such a goal when they become members of NATO and abandon their longstanding policies of non-military alignment remains to be seen. Aspects of the price of such an option became visible already during the membership negotiation process when Turkey raised objections and lengthy trilateral negotiations had to be conducted, involving also the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg from Norway.

For the Åland Islands there is still much to be attended to in the operationalisation of an expected NATO membership for Finland and Sweden. Concerns include the need for the planning and conduct of military exercises to remain outside Åland, ensuring that military overflights do not violate the demilitarised zone, that all digital systems are updated with the coordinates of the demilitarised zone and that all NATO staff concerned is aware of the regulations pertaining to the Åland Islands. Issues around the democratic control of armed force are likely to receive increased attention as defence goes international.

NATO needs also to be perceived as a legitimate and constructive international actor, following Article 1 in the North Atlantic Treaty, in particular after failures such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Respecting the longstanding status of the Åland Islands seems the least that can be done to ensure such an effort.  

Sia Spiliopoulou is associate professor of international law and director of the Åland Islands Peace Institute.