The Aaland Question


Published in/Publicerad i/Julkaistu: The Contemporary Review 118 /1920, 790-794.

The Edvard Westermarck Online Collection, (Eurooppalaisen filosofian seura ry), ed./red./toim. Juhani Ihanus, Tommy Lahtinen & Yrsa Neuman 2011. Transkribering/Litterointi/Transcription:

THE Council of the League of Nations will presumably before the end of the year give its recommendation in the question of the Aaland Islands. The issue may be stated as follows.
     The inhabitants of the Aaland Islands, which belong to Finland have expressed a wish to be reunited with the Kingdom of Sweden of which the islands, together with the rest of Finland, formed a part before they were ceded to Russia as a result of conquest. In accordance with the principle of the self-determination of nationalities, the Aalanders desire to be allowed to decide their own fate by a plebiscite. The Swedish Government has most energetically upheld and defended their cause, adopting it as its own. It appealed to the Peace Conference, inviting its decision on the matter; but the Conference declined to intervene on the ground that the Aaland question was one of a special character not directly affecting the belligerents. The dispute was then relegated to the League of Nations, at the initiative of Lord Curzon, who desired to bring to the attention of the Council of the League the case of the Aaland Islands, "as a matter affecting international relations which unfortunately threatens to disturb the good understanding between nations upon which peace depends." On behalf of the Government of Finland its representative, M. Enckell, objected that in the present case no war nor threat of war could arise, that the difference of opinion which had arisen between the population of the Aaland Islands and the Government of Finland was a crisis not of an international but of a domestic nature, and that consequently, according to the Covenant of the League of Nations, the League had no right to deal with the dispute. The Council decided to appoint a Commission of three international jurists to give advisory opinion on the question whether the Swedish case, as presented to the Council, arises out of a matter "which, by international law, is solely within the jurisdiction of Finland, within the meaning of Paragraph 8 of Article 15 of the Covenant." The Commission answered the question in the negative, and was therefore of opinion that the Council of the League of Nations is competent to make any recommendation which it deems just and proper in the case. At its September meeting in Paris the Council accepted this view—in spite of the severe criticism to which it was subjected by the representative of the Finland Government—and decided that three persons should be appointed to furnish the Council with a report which would "enable it to frame a final or provisional settlement of the question and to establish conditions favourable to the maintenance of peace in that part of the world."
     The report of the three jurists caused the most profound disappointment in Finland. It did so less on account of the con-

clusion which led the Council to declare itself competent to deal with the question than on account of the premises from which the jurists had drawn this conclusion. To many persons in Finland, as elsewhere, it seems both appropriate and desirable that the League of Nations should be a protector not only of small States but also of minority nationalities inside the States, and considering how often nationalistic tendencies of governments are apt to disturb international relations, it may be that in a question like that referring to the Aaland Islands the League, even according to its present Covenant, is justified in making a recommendation. But the conclusion of the three jurists is based on quite different grounds. They point out that positive international law does not recognise the right of national groups as such to separate them­selves from the State of which they form part by the simple expression of a wish, any more than it recognises the right of other States to claim such a separation. The grant or refusal of the right of a portion of its population to determine its own political fate, by plebiscite or by some other method, is exclusively an attribute of the sovereignty of every State which is definitely constituted; hence a dispute between two States concerning such a matter bears upon a question which international law, under normal conditions, leaves entirely to the domestic jurisdiction of one of the States con­cerned. But, the jurists argue, the present dispute between Sweden and Finland arose from a situation caused by a political transforma­tion of the Aaland Islands which originated in the separatist move­ment among the inhabitants and certain military events accompanying and following upon the separation of Finland from the Russian Empire "at a time when Finland had not yet acquired the character of a definitely constituted State." And in such circumstances "the principle of the self-determination of peoples may be called into play."
    The argument that Finland in the beginning of the year 1918 was not definitely constituted as a sovereign State, and that there­fore the Aaland Islands are not under its sovereignty, cannot be understood in Finland. She declared her independence on December 4th, 1917, and the resolution concerned the whole terri­tory of the former Grand Duchy, to which the Aaland Islands had always belonged and continued to belong. A month later the independence of Finland was recognised by Russia, Sweden, France, and Germany, a week afterwards by Denmark, Norway, and Austria, and in February by Switzerland; other recognitions were given subsequently. It was only after the independence of Finland had been declared by the Diet constituted for this purpose that a deputation of Aalanders was sent to Sweden to manifest a desire for separation from Finland—although the Aalanders had


themselves taken part in the Parliamentary elections. Again the military events mentioned in the jurists' report occurred in the spring of 1918. When the troops of the Government of Finland appeared on Aaland for the purpose of driving out the bands of Bolshevik marauders, they met there a Swedish "humanitarian" expedition sent to protect the inhabitants; and afterwards the Germans also landed some companies on the islands. But how could these circumstances in any way affect Finland's legal rights over Aaland ? And how could the short civil war between "Reds" and "Whites" deprive Finland of her character of a definitely constituted sovereign State, considering that it was a class war which had nothing whatever to do with the question of the political independence of the country? Its independence was recognised by Reds and Whites alike.
    Moreover, Finland was a State long before she gained her independence. She became a State in 1809, when she was incorporated in the Russian Empire, but at the same time received a very wide measure of autonomy. This has been explicitly recognised by most European jurists who have written on the subject. The three international jurists who have now referred to this question observe that "the State of Finland .... since 1899 was in fact treated by the Russian Government as an ordinary province." She was never treated as an ordinary province, but her Constitution was grossly violated by Nicholas II. In 1899 a protest against this violation was raised by the leaders of European civilisation in the form of an international address to the Czar. No Finlander could then have imagined that the Czar's breach of faith would one day be used as a sort of argument in a juridical discussion of Finland's right to be regarded as a State. Besides, the Con­stitution of Finland was de facto restored by the Russian Govern­ment after the great revolution.
    Apart from all juridical conceptions, it may be truly said that, since the middle of the nineteenth century at least, the national and patriotic feeling, the feeling of political unity, has been in Finland as strong as in any country in the world. How would it otherwise have been possible for the Finlanders to preserve their national individuality, to resist the enormous pressure of their mighty Russian neighbour, and finally to gain their complete independence? This feeling is shared by the Swedish and the Finnish-speaking Finlanders alike, and, so far as the  Aalanders are concerned, their former representative in the Diet, M. Sundblom—who is now the leader of their separatist movement —has on various public occasions, and even as late as the year 1917 given the most emphatic assurances of their everlasting fidelity to Finland, their fatherland.


    We now come to the second point in the three jurists' argument, namely, that as long as a nation is not definitely constituted as a sovereign State the principle of the "self-determination of peoples" may be called into play. Now the Aalanders can certainly not be called "a people." Geographically, ethnographically, and culturally they belong to the Swedish nationality in Finland, as nobody has previously doubted; and if the principle of the self-determination of nationalities is to be applied in the present case it is the Swedish nationality in Finland, as a whole that has to be consulted. Its General Assembly, or Folkting, which is charged with the duty of guarding its political and cultural interests, has declared that it is opposed to the step which has now been taken by the Aalanders. For strategic and economic reasons Finland cannot afford to lose Aaland. The loss of it would, moreover, cause an irreparable injury to the Swedish nationality in Finland as such. Although the Aalanders form only a fifteenth part of that nationality, their severance from it would, on account of its own smallness, involve a serious reduction of its strength and influence. And it would lead to consequences of even greater moment. It would disturb the friendly relations between Finland and Sweden, which are of the utmost importance for Finland in general and for its Swedish nationality in particular. It would create a feeling of bitter hostility in the hearts of the Finns, which would undoubtedly also display itself in the attitude of the Finnish majority towards Finland's own Swedish-speaking people. The Folkting regards the separatism of the Aalanders as a desertion from their natural friends and tribesmen. And it maintains "that the principle of the self-determination of nationalities, which it holds in the highest possible regard, cannot imply that a fraction of a nationality has a right to go its own way to the detriment of that nationality as a whole."
    The Swedish Finlanders of the mainland are just as determined as the Aalanders to preserve their nationality for all future. It is among them that the Swedish national movement in Finland has originated. It is through their influence that the People's High School, the Young Men's and the Young Women's Associations, and the musical societies on the Aaland Islands have come into existence. They have recently established a purely Swedish university at Abo, which, owing to its vicinity to Aaland, ought in a large measure to benefit its inhabitants. They maintain that the preservation of the Swedish nationality in Finland is not only a right which belongs to them, but also a duty to the country which they share with the Finns, because their language forms the cultural bridge with Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries with their old civilisation. But they believe that just as the French-



speaking inhabitants of Switzerland can preserve their nationality without becoming subjects of France, so the Swedish-speaking-Finlanders can preserve theirs without becoming subjects of Sweden. Finland's Constitution of 1919 recognises both Finnish and Swedish as the national languages, and it recognises in theory that the cultural interests of the Swedish-speaking population shall be supported by the State in accordance with the same principles as those applied to the Finnish-speaking population. But these stipulations presuppose as their supplement special legislation regulating details. The Swedish Finlanders consider themselves entitled to legislative measures fully guaranteeing the preservation and undisturbed development of their nationality. They desire autonomy within the State for the various Swedish-speaking districts and the establishment of a higher administrative unit comprising the whole Swedish-speaking Finland. They demand that the relations between them and the Finns shall now be definitely settled in a satisfactory manner. And they have, through their delegates, expressed the hope that if the Council of the League of Nations cannot now make the recommendation that the Aalanders shall remain, as they are at present, part of the Swedish nationality in Finland, it will postpone its decision until the Diet of the Republic has regulated the position of that nationality as a whole.
    The Council of the League of Nations desires by its settlement of the question of the Aaland Islands "to establish conditions favourable to the maintenance of peace in that part of the world." We cannot conceive that, if the Aaland Islands continued to remain under the sovereignty of Finland, Sweden would make an attempt to conquer them or support an armed rebellion on the islands. If, on the other hand, Finland in some way or other were compelled to cede Aaland to Sweden, there is the danger that Finland may in the future look for the assistance of some mighty ally on the Baltic to regain the territory torn from her. As a native of Finland and a sincere friend of Sweden, I hope that such a danger will never arise. I trust that the Council of the League of Nations will find some recommendation which, instead of alienating the two countries from each other, will bring them closer together and make them friends and allies. As there is a Fenno-Scandia spoken of by the geographers, so there should be a political Fenno-Scandia as well. As friends with common aims, the four small nations of the North may form a political combination of importance on the shores of the Baltic. A tension between them can only weaken the influence of that Scandinavian culture which is common to them all.

                                                                                      Edward Westermarck.