Contemporary Challenges and Finnish Membership of the UN Commission on Human Rights
Madam High Commissioner, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure for me to welcome you, Ms Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to Finland, and address all of you attending this seminar, which is organised by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
The High Commissioner plays a key role in the protection and promotion of human rights globally. I am therefore delighted that it was possible for the new High Commissioner to include Finland in her tour of the Northern part of Europe. At the same time I would like to take this opportunity to warmly congratulate you, Ms Arbour, on your recent nomination.
Finnish foreign policy is premised on respect for human rights, and the Government programme has set human rights as one of its policy priorities. The principal concerns and main objectives of the Finnish human rights policy are defined in a Government Report on our policies in this area, which was recently submitted to Parliament.
Now that Finland has been elected to the UN Commission on Human Rights, for the first time since 1993-95, it is clear that the priorities set in the Government Report will provide the general framework for the Finnish CHR membership as well. However, these general priorities have to be specified and spelt out more clearly with a view to meeting the challenges of the Human Rights Commission.
In order to make our objectives more concrete, the Foreign Ministry has launched consultations with key partners, such as the Advisory Board for International Human Rights Affairs gathering representation from human rights NGOs, political parties and academic institutions focusing on human rights. This seminar can also be seen to constitute an element of these consultations.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
When the results of the vote at ECOSOC last May were made public and Finland was elected to the CHR – with a very satisfactory number of votes – we also had to answer questions on why Finland should be interested in membership of a body where countries with quite a bleak human rights record were elected alongside us.
So does the CHR continue to provide a meaningful and credible platform for the promotion and protection of human rights? The question is legitimate. It is well known that, because of strong internal controversies, the Commission is often in real trouble when it tries to take the cause of human rights forward. Countries are seen to seek membership of the CHR not in order to promote human rights but to defend themselves against criticism. Instead of moving forward, there is at times a real risk of sliding backwards in terms of human rights protection.
Because of these limitations, the Commission’s capacity to perform the task it has been entrusted with has been increasingly questioned. Some of the main human rights NGOs have voiced such concerns.
The Finnish view is, however, that the Commission on Human Rights is as important as before. This opinion is based, first of all, on our strong commitment to the universality of human rights and the multilateral framework. As the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan put it in his address to the CHR last spring, no country, not even the big and powerful, are able to solve global problems on their own. We need to work together.
The Commission on Human Rights does not work in isolation. Its weaknesses – as well as its potential strengths – reflect existing political realities in today’s world. The CHR is accused of being ”politicised”, but then we should realize that human rights are indeed in many ways political, and political will is needed to promote them.
The CHR has an impressive range of human rights mechanisms – the special rapporteurs, working groups etc. – to monitor the implementation of human rights norms in different countries. These mechanisms occasionally come under criticism from Member States – but then this is hardly surprising in a world where the implementation of existing human rights standards leaves so much to be desired.
The fact that Finland highly values the role of the Human Rights Commission does not mean that we should not be prepared to consider, with an open mind, suggestions for its reform, including also far-reaching proposals. Rather the opposite: the main global human rights forum is so important that safeguarding its effective functioning should be of primary importance.
Later today the UN High Level Panel on UN Reform will publish its findings in New York. The Report includes also suggestions for reforming the Commission on Human Rights. Let me therefore share with you some of the fundamental notions on which we base our views.
The promotion and protection of human rights are among the main objectives of the United Nations. Its main bodies in this area – the Commission and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – should thus be developed so as to be able to take their due place in the UN system. Because of problems related to membership of the CHR, for instance, universal membership could well be considered. In the long run, the upgrading of the status of the CHR may be an option, but in the meantime, CHR Member States should continue to contribute by means of small but uninterrupted measures to the rationalization of the agenda and the working methods of the Commission. The EU should also be prepared to look at its own role with a critical eye.
However, the improving efficiency should not come at the cost of the participation of the civil society. Without openness and the presence of NGOs, the CHR would just not be the same.
Adequate funding must be ensured: the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights continues to receive quite modest and, I would say, inadequate funding from the UN general budget. This cannot be without implications on the functioning of the UN human rights organs. Member States, including Finland of course, should be prepared for their part to consider possibilities of increasing the voluntary funding of the Office of the High Commissioner, including its special mechanisms and the treaty bodies.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As stated before, Finland is still in the process of consultations with regard to formulating more detailed goals for its CHR membership. Some themes of concern are based on Finland’s long-standing and active interest in human rights issues and, I believe, Finland has a credible record of achievements. Finland holds a comprehensive and broad view of human rights. Civil and political rights, on the one hand, and economic, social and cultural rights on the other, are in many ways interlinked and mutually reinforcing. The fact that Finland often emphasizes economic, social and cultural rights is not based on any underestimation of civil and political rights, surely not, but simply on the fact that the value of ESC-rights as genuine and equally important human rights continues to be challenged. Even the EU countries continue to give differing degrees of emphasis to these issues. Therefore, Finland will carry on working actively for the adoption of a protocol that would establish the right of individual petition also with regard to economic, social and cultural rights and to promote ESC-aspects in other CHR initiatives.
Women’s rights have traditionally been high on our human rights agenda. The CHR needs a strong gender perspective: both in terms of separate initiatives based on gender-specific human rights violations, such as violence against women, and as a mainstreamed view on how various violations affect men and women. Women’s rights can be identified as an area where a certain backlash at UN Fora has occurred in recent years. Hard-liners attack even achievements, such as those of the Beijing World Conference on Women.
The rights of minorities and indigenous peoples are also among Finnish priorities. Persons facing multiple discrimination, like girls belonging to minorities and sexual minorities, are often in a particularly vulnerable situation. In future years, the rights of persons with disabilities will also be one of the focal areas.
Globalization has been emphasized by Finland as a phenomenon affecting, among other things, also the human rights situation in different parts of the world. Globalization is seen not only as a source of possibilities for combating human rights violations but also as a risk preventing the realization of human rights, especially as concerns the widening gaps in development among and inside countries. Thus the CHR should also be made sensitive to developments related to globalization. Finland, for instance, welcomes the increasingly intense discussion on the role of transnational corporations in promoting human rights and on the relevance of the rule of law in responding to current challenges, including combat of terrorism.
I wish to take this opportunity to refer to recent initiatives in this field. The Helsinki Process, co-chaired by my Tanzanian colleague and myself, brings together government representatives, civil society actors, private enterprises, academic experts as well as representatives of international organisations to discuss globalization. Our aim is to promote the establishment of new global partnerships that could lead to lasting positive results of globalization on the basis of equality and inclusiveness. In the framework of the Helsinki Process, the human rights of the most vulnerable are viewed from the human security perspective.
The ILO World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, co-chaired by President Halonen of Finland, and President Mpaka of Tanzania, was assigned to recommend measures to incorporate the social dimension into the development of globalization. These initiatives represent efforts to complement globalization with dimensions that are related to democracy and human rights.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Lastly, I still want to emphasize one aspect of the work of the CHR. As human rights are universal and belong to the objectives of the United Nations, the international community has a legitimate right to discuss all human rights aspects, including those related to individual countries. Nevertheless, country initiatives at the Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly have become subject to direct attacks recently. Countries with, in many cases, disputable human rights records accuse these initiatives of selectivity and lack of objective judgement.
Finland is convinced of the pivotal importance of the UN as a forum where human rights developments in different countries are discussed. In recent weeks, three country initiatives, namely on Belarus, Sudan and Zimbabwe, were rejected as a consequence of a non-action motion in New York. The international community was, on the basis of a procedural vote, made prevented from discussing human rights developments in these countries. Of course we should openly discuss how the instrument of country initiatives should be developed, but I find the increasing use of procedural motions as a means to curb discussion on human rights clearly unacceptable.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am now honoured to give the floor to Ms Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights since July 2004. Ms Arbour has an extraordinary background in the area of human rights law. Before this nomination, Ms Arbour served as a judge in the Canadian Supreme Court. In 1996 she was appointed as Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, a post she held for three years. She also has a distinguished academic background.
Let me, Madam High Commissioner, take this opportunity to once again reaffirm Finland’s firm commitment to supporting your Office in its absolutely essential tasks. I am looking forward to our future cooperation in the context of promoting human rights.