Speech at the University of Palestine, 21.5.2013

Honorable Mr. Chairman, Mr. President, Professors, Staff members, Students, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me start by expressing my heartfelt thanks to the University of Palestine for the invitation to be with you here in Gaza today. My first visit to the occupied Palestinian territories was in very different circumstances already back in 1968. Since then I have returned on many occasions, and every time I’m touched by the warmth, resilience and optimism of the Palestinian people.

In January, I was honored to receive a distinguished delegation from your University, namely your Board Chairman Dr. Doghmosh, President Dr. Sabbah and Director of the European Institute for Research and Development Mr. Murtaja in Helsinki. The University had decided to award me a Honorary Doctorate. This is an honor that I value highly and express my humble thanks for it.

The Palestinian question has been in the center of our attention in the European Union foreign ministers meeting for a long time. For us in Finland, the image of Palestine is a dream not yet fulfilled, a dream of self-determination, of becoming a united and independent nation and of creating a viable state. All this is still in the process.

Due to our own historical background as a small and young nation, it is rather easy for us Finns to relate to the Palestinians. We also know from our experience that nation-building is a process which takes a lot of effort and time. Even more than that, it takes willingness to reconcile and compromise, not only with our neighbors but also – and maybe more importantly – amongst ourselves.

I am a historian and I always stress the importance of knowing your history. It is also necessary to avoid inadvertently becoming a prisoner of your history. And those who do not know from where and how they have arrived to where they are today, cannot be expected to see into the future and  to shape it either.

The more painful a nation’s past is, the more important it is to deal with the past openly, recognize the wrongdoings it includes irrespective of who bears the primary responsibility for them with the aim that this recognition must lead to reconciliation and allow everyone to put the past behind them and move forward.

The Finnish case is an example of this. Finland only became independent from 1917. In the aftermath of independence, our young nation was torn apart by a civil war in 1918, which divided our nation and left deep scars and a legacy of distrust and hate. Healing the wounds and reunifying the people was a long, difficult and sometimes painful process.

A common enemy during the Second World War helped our unification, but unity with the only common denominator being an external threat is neither desirable nor sustainable. Finland needed an internal healing process to unite the nation. It was also supported by a strong commitment to democracy which was able to resist both the anti-democratic forces of the 1930’s as well as the pressures that being drawn into the world war brought about.

As crucial has been the construction of a strong and inclusive welfare state based on the Nordic model of universal services and benefits and our commitment to building a united Finnish nation for all our people. 

Our nation-building efforts begun already long before the independence. A fundamental element of the Finnish nation-building has been the education system the core of which has been the provision of free and equal access of all children – girls or boys, rich or poor – to school. Already in 1866 Finland had a law on elementary school in place. In 1921, the law on compulsory education was passed, meaning that every child from 7 years to 12 years had to go to school.

Today the Finnish education system is ranked as one of the best in the world. There are many reasons for that, such as universal comprehensive school (i.e. primary and secondary level), qualified professional teachers, and independence of schools.

Finland and Palestine share a deserved reputation as very pro-educational societies. The achievements of the Palestinians are all the more remarkable given the most difficult circumstances that you have had to work in. In short, it is our shared experience that education is one of the key elements for nation-building.

It is also a key for promoting tolerance and modernization within society, and for expanding the people’s frame of reference. I strongly believe that education will enable people to participate in common decision-making in a constructive manner. Dictators may see an educated nation as a problem, but for democratic rulers educated voters are the best of all assets.

The Government of Finland has been privileged to have been able to support the education sector in Palestine, both financially and through technical expertise. We wish to support investment in youth and future generations.

Universities all over the world have been in the forefront for bringing down frontiers and establishing a truly borderless community of knowledge and learning. They should be encouraged and supported in this. In this regard I very much expect that the high-level visit of the University of Palestine to Finland in January will bear fruit and meaningful cooperation could take place between your University and our academic institutions in Finland.

Ladies and gentlemen,

More people than ever in history have the possibility to elect or dismiss their governments in free and fair elections. More and more people have risen to oppose the denial of their democratic rights, as witnessed also by the so-called Arab Spring. 

While free and fair elections do not guarantee democracy by itself, they are always a prerequisite for genuine democracy. Citizens who vote also aspire to a dignified and rewarding life through engagement with society. Democracy also relates to values such as equality and freedom.

Democracy should be approached in a holistic manner. It is associated with human rights, rule of law, good governance and anti-corruption. Democracy is not only a civil and a political right, but it is also about economic, social and cultural rights. Democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and a dynamic civil society create the preconditions for socially sustainable development, which in turn makes sustainable economic growth possible and thus improves the wellbeing of people.

Here in Gaza the conditions for economic sustainability and functioning market economy need to be strengthened and supported in order to create a healthy economic basis of a democratic society. To this end, Finland together with our partners in the European Union, continues to call for the immediate, sustained and unconditional opening of crossings for the flow of humanitarian aid, commercial goods and persons to and from the Gaza Strip, the situation of which is unsustainable as long as it remains politically separated from the West Bank. Despite limited progress, the EU urges the government of Israel to take further meaningful and far-reaching steps allowing for the reconstruction and economic recovery of the Gaza Strip, including by allowing trade with the West Bank and Israel. The siege needs to be lifted.

Democracy is practiced in diverse forms around the world and democratic systems may vary in form and shape. Nevertheless, I think that democracy has evolved into a universal value. Democracy ensures that rulers can be held accountable for their actions. Democracy also ensures that the rights of everybody – including the rights of persons belonging to ethnic, religious and other minorities, of indigenous peoples, and vulnerable groups – are respected.

Democracy and human rights go hand in hand.  The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is based on the conviction that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights. This sets the obligation to promote the core human rights principles such as universality, self-determination, non-discrimination and equality. All people have an equal right to influence and participate in the definition and implementation of development. The human rights-based approach to development we seek to promote includes civil and political rights and freedoms as well as economic, social and cultural rights.

These principles are universal, and no country that denies these rights to others can expect to be regarded a full-fledged democracy. At the same time no country can make a claim to infallibility, and it is a core principle of the international Human Rights regime that each and every country is accountable not only to its own people, but also to its neighbors and others as well as to the international community as a whole.

A fundamental right of all peoples is the right for self-determination. Finland remains committed to a two-state solution with the State of Israel and an independent, democratic, contiguous and viable State of Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.

We have witnessed how the Palestinian Authority now has institutions that pass the threshold of what one can expect from a modern state. This achievement deserves our full acknowledgement. The international community must and will continue to contribute to building the institutions of a future sovereign state of Palestine.

When Finland voted for the non-member observer state status of Palestine in the UN General Assembly last year, we appealed to all sides to build on this decision and to engage in negotiations, immediately and without conditions, and to refrain from any steps which could negatively affect the situation and the efforts towards a negotiated solution.

It seems to me that a key for the Palestinians’ self-determination is tolerance and co-existence, both externally and internally. The European Union has consistently called for intra-Palestinian inclusive reconciliation united behind President Mahmoud Abbas, as an important element for the unity of a future Palestinian state and for reaching a two-state solution. Together with other EU member states Finland looks forward to the holding of elections as an important contribution to Palestinian state-building. Palestinian should be united.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Finally a few words about gender equality. It is increasingly clear that there is no single variable that can be regarded in isolation as the key to development, except one: full gender equality. This means ensuring the full empowerment of women in all spheres of societal activities, beginning with education for girls, full equality before the law, including family law, removing all barriers for women’s advancement, ensuring their meaningful participation in all parliamentary assemblies, governments and international conferences, and so forth. This is not only vital for a genuine democracy, it is also the key to development, security, respect for human rights and successful conflict resolution; in short, for most of the things that people strive for.

This truth is increasingly being recognized at all meetings and conferences, where the adopted statements refer to gender equality and the empowerment of women as a matter of course. The reality behind this formal consensus is not quite as reassuring, however. There are signs of a certain retrogression regarding gender issues, not unrelated to the influence of vocal fundamentalism found in all major religions. In North Africa women played a crucial role in the movements of the Arab Spring, but now they risk being relegated once again to the backbenches.

Each country and all nations in the world can contribute in different ways through their experiences and examples to fulfilling the common aspirations of all peoples to live a dignified and rewarding life in freedom from fear and freedom from want and enjoying the right to their own culture, religion and way of life.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me once more emphasize that building a successful, democratic nation for all its people takes time, effort and patience, as well as genuine will to acknowledge one’s own mistakes and willingness to learn from them. It also requires ability to forgive and forget, reconcile both internally and externally. The process needs to be inclusive – everybody on board, together building a shared, common future. Education and providing equal opportunities for men and women, boys and girls, are in the core.

I can understand that some people may feel that all this emphasis on democracy, human rights, good governance and rule-of-law are irrelevant as long the Palestinian people are denied their basic freedoms and rights by an occupying power, but I cannot subscribe to this view. The more the Palestinians can point out to their commitment to these rights and their achievements in making them a reality under the difficult conditions you are obliged to live in, the progressively more difficult it will be to deny the Palestinian people their right to their own statehood in a free and viable Palestine.

Thank you for your kind attention.