Ihmisoikeudet YK:ssa -seminaari, Helsinki, 17.4.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A warm welcome to today’s seminar, entitled ”Human rights in the UN system; trends, successes and challenges”. It forms part of a series of events relating to the ongoing process of updating Finland’s UN strategy. At the same time it is also intended to benefit the ongoing update of Finland’s international human rights policy which includes preparation of our first ever human rights strategy and action plan  where we set out the principles, goals and modes of action.

I hope that our discussions today will focus on topical challenges and opportunities, as well as pave the way for new ideas and initiatives, related to the promotion of human rights, both in and through, the UN.

In my initial remarks I will provide some comments and ideas from a Finnish perspective, but I am looking forward to your active contribution and an open exchange of views that, if need be, challenges ”traditional perceptions” and includes ”thinking outside the box”.

I will start with a few thoughts on some of the main trends and challenges on the international agenda affecting the promotion and enjoyment of human rights and the general principles and goals underlying Finland’s international human rights policy. Then I will comment on the role and importance of the UN system in human rights protection and current challenges and opportunities in this respect. 

Finally I intend to present some thoughts on possible priorities for the Finnish human rights policy in the UN in the near future.

Current global challenges

During the past few years, efforts to promote and protect human rights have faced a number of challenges old and new, and the international climate in the area of human rights has become even more difficult. It is of utmost importance to maintain the integrity of human rights law in a situation where its universal nature is increasingly questioned on the grounds of cultural relativism.

Especially in the field of women’s rights there is a danger of a backlash, while we have seen some positive developments for example through the adoption of the Agreed Conclusions of the  Commission on the Status of Women last month. Efforts to promote sexual and reproductive health rights continue to meet stark resistance in international fora. Finland is committed to continue its work to promote and protect gender issues, both nationally and internationally.

Globalization has resulted in an increased interdependence between all nations. It provides new opportunities, but also challenges, including from a human rights perspective. The inequality within and between nations is growing. The financial crisis and challenging economic situation in many countries has hardened attitudes and often resulted in inequality and increasing discrimination, occasionally even in hate speech and violence. 

At the same time the international political landscape is changing rapidly. The emerging economies, in particular, are exercising an increasing influence over and taking more responsibility for global affairs. There is also a growing demand for a stronger role for emerging powers on the international stage. In the multilateral context this is often translated into a strong emphasis on national sovereignty and a reluctance to accept so called ”western-led solutions”. However, the role and importance of Non-Governmental actors is also growing.

Media, including the internet and social media, opens up new channels of action for civil society and the promotion of democracy and human rights. At the same time massive human rights violations and humanitarian crises constitute serious challenges for fragile states, often affecting also neighboring areas.

Population growth, the struggle for natural resources and climate change provide additional challenges for the promotion and protection of human rights as well as to security and sustainable development as a whole.


People all over the world are voicing legitimate demands for human rights, social justice and economic and political reforms.These concerns were reflected also in the events of the so called Arab spring, which have set in motion a profound process of change, the concrete results and extent of which are too early to tell.

In short we currently face a number of important challenges and opportunities affecting the possibilities to promote and protect human rights at and through the UN. Despite the mentioned challenges, mainstreaming of human rights into the UN system, including in the work of the Security Council has, to some extent, improved over the last years. A great deal of this is due to the setting up of the New York office of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the pivotal and active role that Assistant Secretary-General Simonovic has played in this work.

Human rights in Finland’s foreign and security policy

The key aims of Finland’s foreign policy are to strengthen international peace and security as well as to promote development and the rule of law, democracy and human rights.

The UN World summit in 2005 confirmed that international peace and stability, sustainable development and human rights are interlinked and mutually reinforcing. Peace and stability are dependent on an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable development and sustainable development can only be achieved in a peaceful stable environment where everyone’s human rights are respected.

The promotion and protection of human rights are thus at the core of the Finnish foreign policy. Finland aims at a coherent and comprehensive human rights policy and the integration of a human rights perspective into all areas of foreign and security policy.

A key principle guiding Finland’s policy is the universality of human rights. Human rights are based on international law and the international human rights instruments contain binding norms that bestow rights upon individuals as well as groups. It is important to underline that human rights apply equally to everyone without discrimination, regardless of origin, gender, language, cultural background, sexual orientation or identity or any other characteristic.

Finland is also a strong promoter of the indivisibility of human rights. Civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural rights are of equal importance and mutually reinforcing. As the economic, social and cultural rights still often tend to be underrated we attach particular importance to an unbiased implementation of all human rights.

Finland pursues a human rights-based approach to development and to the operative work of the UN. Its aim is that everyone, including the poorest people, knows their rights and are able to act to enforce them. It is equally important that the authorities know their human rights obligations and are capable of implementing them.

UN Agencies have a common understanding on the implementation of human rights-based development. This gives Finland good preconditions to promote human rights through both the agencies’ political forums and the multilateral funding that Finland provides. Finland particularly emphasises the significance and resourcing of the rights of women and the most vulnerable population groups.

The UN and Human Rights

The primary responsibility for respecting and promoting human rights lies with national governments. A strong multilateral system is, however, also of great importance for the national and international advancement of human rights. In this respect, the role of the United Nations has been and still is unique. 

Through its universal membership, the UN provides us with an unrivaled forum both for creating internationally agreed, binding norms, as well as for advancing and monitoring their implementation. Finland recognizes the importance of the international normative framework for human rights protection created within the UN and aims at further strengthening the UN and its human rights work.

The existing human rights instruments provide a comprehensive protective legal framework, but their implementation on the ground is still far from satisfactory. Finland is thus working for the swift universal ratification of all key UN human rights instruments in order to ensure that everyone, including the poorest and those belonging to the most vulnerable groups, can enjoy their human rights.

At the same time we of course need to continue our efforts to identify and rectify any lacunae in the existing legal framework.

To mention the role of the Security Council, notable normative developments have taken place in recent years such as passing of thematic resolutions and adoption of monitoring mechanisms, as well the inclusion of human rights issues into the work of sanctions committees and country-specific crisis situations.

Another key aim for us is to preserve and strengthen the integrity and effectiveness of the UN mechanisms for the promotion and monitoring of human rights. The role of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human rights (OHCHR) is central in mainstreaming human rights throughout the UN-system and advancing the human rights agenda internationally and at country level. In order for the OHCHR to be able to perform its work properly we need to protect its independent position and strong mandate from outside influence. We also need to ensure the proper functioning of the OHCHR, including through stable and adequate funding.

The ongoing reform of the so called UN Treaty Body Mechanisms needs to be conducted in a way that respects the independent nature and mandate of these mechanisms and involves all relevant parties, including inter alia the OHCHR and civil society representatives. The aim should be to ensure the proper long term functioning of these mechanisms, not only to cut costs.

In order to develop and deepen the inter-linkages between peace and stability, sustainable development and human rights at the practical working level, we need to encourage different UN actors to further intensify their cooperation. The mutual aim should be to mainstream human rights into all activities of the UN.

A human rights based approach to development needs to be firmly integrated into the Post-2015 agenda and the work of and between all UN development agencies. In our view particular attention needs to be paid to the promotion of gender equality and the rights and status of women and girls. Women are subjected to human rights violations more often than men, but are at the same time important agents for change. Without their full and equal contribution there can be no long term sustainable development. As I noted before, we also need to pay particular attention to the growing inequality worldwide and the huge challenges faced by those belonging to the most vulnerable groups and those suffering from multiple discrimination.

Human rights need to be taken into account more systematically also in the UN crisis management activities and peace-building efforts. Human rights violations, discrimination and inequality are often among the main factors underlying and aggravating armed conflicts. It is encouraging to see the increased interaction and exchange of information between the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Security Council. Much more could, however, still be done, for example by using the expertise of the High Commissioner to help preventing the escalation of certain situations involving grave human rights violations into armed conflicts (an early-warning role).  There are also some other positive developments, like e.g. the introduction of a human rights due diligence policy (HRDDP) in support of both the UN and Non-UN security forces and peacekeeping operations. All peacekeepers should receive sufficient human rights training and must be held accountable for any human rights violations. The work on implementing certain key Security Council resolutions, such as 1325 promoting the role of women in peace-building and keeping, also needs to be intensified.

The increasing importance of Non-Governmental actors also needs to be better recognized in our work at the UN. We must cooperate on e.g. mutual goal setting and become even better at harnessing the considerable knowledge, skills and resources of civil society towards a common work agenda. We need to make sure that our decision making is as inclusive and open as possible. Specific measures are needed so that the voice of those belonging to vulnerable and marginalized groups is heard; in particular, they need to be included in the decision making on issues affecting them.

The General Assembly continues to be a key forum for developing the normative human rights framework. In parallel, the Council for Human Rights has established its position as another key human rights forum for inter alia dealing with human rights violations in a timely manner wherever they happen to occur in the world.

In both arenas the political dynamics are rapidly changing. The stronger role and influence of e.g. the emerging economies has changed the traditional balance of power and more than before, we all need to engage in a constructive dialogue and concrete cooperation with new partners. An innovative approach not based on traditional regional constellations might be helpful .

We must continue to stick firmly to internationally agreed human rights, which reflect our core values and goals. Any attempts to undermine the universality of human rights must be firmly resisted. Respect for different cultures, traditions and religions is an integral part of all international relations. This needs to be acknowledged in the dialogue at the international level. However, human rights can never be violated by referring to for example traditional values or practices which all too often rather reflect unequal power structures than values in different societies.

The Universal Periodic Review or UPR-process, an increasingly important mechanism for evaluating the overall human rights performance of all UN member states and promoting the universality and indivisibility of human rights, has entered its second round. We must do whatever we can to make sure that the mechanism can function and perform its task and that all member states remain committed to participating in the review process.

Priorities of Finland’s human rights policy

As mentioned before Finland has decided to adopt a new human rights strategy to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of its human rights policy. In a rapidly changing world we need to accommodate our priorities and the way in which we work accordingly.

With resources becoming scarcer, we need to have clearer priorities for our work. The number of areas in which we assume an active role must be narrowed down in order to increase the concrete impact of our human rights work. Priority setting must furthermore be based on a realistic assessment of where our actions can bring the most added value.

Our priorities should also be set in the light of what the main current human rights challenges are and they can of course change over time.

In order to achieve the best attainable results, we need to work together with other actors. We will continue to give our active support to like minded countries, who are promoting other human rights issues that are of importance to us and the civil society.

By setting a clear agenda and realistic, concrete goals for our human rights work we can ensure that we do not merely react to what is going on, but are able to actively take part in developing the international human rights agenda.

According to initial thinking our new Human Rights Strategy will be built on two cross-cutting themes; elimination of discrimination and the promotion of openness and inclusiveness. These two themes are taken into account in all our bilateral and multilateral activities. Based on these themes we will choose a few thematic priority areas for the near future which will then be operationalised in a Human Rights Action Plan.

The priority themes being considered for the next two years are; 1) gender equality and the promotion of the human rights and participation of women and girls, 2) the promotion of economic, social and cultural rights and 3) inclusive participation. These themes will also be reflected in our updated UN strategy, which will be finalized this summer. Especially gender equality has been a recurring topic in the discussions during the updating process.

As I mentioned in the beginning of my remarks, I very much look forward to today’s discussion and to your views and comments, which will feed into our strategic thinking.