Helsinki Policy Forum, Welcoming words of the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland, Helsinki, 3.6.2014

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to Finland for what I am sure will be two informative, productive and enjoyable days. I would like to thank Oliver McTernan and his team in Forward Thinking for organizing this important and timely meeting. I would also like to thank you all for participation.  It is indeed a great honor to be associated with this process and to host the inaugural meeting of the Helsinki Policy Forum here in Helsinki where, as you well know, the Helsinki Final Act was agreed and adopted almost exactly 40 years ago.

The Helsinki Final Act provided a framework for dialogue and was considered to be a historic breakthrough at the height of the Cold War. Although the world has tremendously changed since its adaption, the main principles contained in the Helsinki Final Act are still today as universal and relevant as they were at that time. Unfortunately, deep divides, be they political, religious, social or economic, still continue to threaten peace and security in many parts of the world.

I am fully convinced that more mediation and dialogues, not less, is needed in today’s world.  This is most recently demonstrated by the crisis in Ukraine. Dialogue, diplomatic efforts and renouncing the use of force are the only way to find a sustainable resolution to that crisis.

Mediation is one way in which diplomacy can prevent and resolve conflicts and increase the level of trust between the parties.Lasting solutions to conflicts can only be achieved by addressing the underlying political, economic and social problems.

Finland has a strong track record in mediation, and we are known as a constructive and respected partner in the international community. During the last years, Finland has been actively striving for strengthening normative basis, mobilizing resources and convening interested parties. This is a reflection of our strong commitment to a fair and inclusive society. Last year, Finland was again rated as the least failed state in the world, an important acknowledgement for the success of our societal model.

This achievement is all the more remarkable because we too have had our own experiences of conflict and reconciliation. After gaining independence from Russia in 1917, Finland went through a tragic civil war in 1918 which took the lives of almost 30 000 men and women and which caused deep rifts in the nation.

At the time the conflict was between the Whites and Reds, but there were also rifts between Monarchists and Republicans, between those committed to Democracy and those seeking Authoritarian rules as well as between the two language groups of the country. But throughout our years of independence the war years included we did not give up parliamentary democracy, and through inclusive national development and the progress of equality in society, Finland was able to have a successful reconciliation process, which, however, took decades.

Today, Finland is known for the decision-making culture based on consensus, meaning striving toward agreement and understanding through negotiating. There is a history to this; for a small country which has always had to get along with an external authority – Sweden, Russia – it has been beneficial to stay internally united. This has been particularly instrumental in labor market and social policy issues, where employers, employees, and public authorities have for decades collaborated closely.

Consensus politics based on pragmatism and certain ”down-to-earth” approach has often been successful and it has been regarded as a central background factor in the creation of a welfare state. At the same time it is important to note, that consensus politics in Finland are not imposed top-down by preventing dissent, but are rather the natural way that civil society and political parties seek results through cooperation while holding on to the principles and practice of free speech and unhindered peaceful political competition.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Inclusiveness appears as a necessary precondition for any dialogue to succeed, in any part of the world. Political transitions are always unique processes and it is difficult to transfer lessons or models across countries. Through open dialogue we can share experiences and insights with a view to bringing about improvements. We also need informal spaces and networks for open and confidential dialogues – like today’s meeting of the Helsinki Policy Forum – which can facilitate discussions and build conditions to talk, to shed distrust, to build relationships, and bridge differences.

There are no magic formulas to conduct a dialogue; they depend on the objective to be reached, the specific context and the particular nature of the problem. Nevertheless, there are some essential elements that are needed in order to engage in a genuine dialogue initiative. These include a strong political will and broad support from society; inclusiveness of all relevant stakeholders and a sense of national ownership among government and state institutions, political actors, and civil society. Dialogue cannot be imposed from above. It is inherently a voluntary and collective endeavor that can only bear fruit if all parties accept their mutual right to sit at the table.

Dialogue is a tool through which all sectors of society, men and women, have a chance to sit together on an equal footing to express their views and needs, and jointly seek for common grounds.

I am convinced that women’s full participation is an urgent priority in any dialogue, mediation effort or inclusive peace process. Lack of it is a major obstacle to peace. I speak from the Finnish experience since gender equality and the empowerment of women in all spheres of society are key factors for Finland and the Nordic countries who generally find themselves close to the top in the Index of Least Failed States and most of the other ”beauty contests” where countries are evaluated on their economic, social, environmental or educational achievements.

Ladies and gentlemen

Dialogues aim at putting the past behind you and building a better future. However this often calls for also openly addressing the sometimes painful experiences of history, which may reach back to a long time. Exhuming and dissecting this history may actually be a precondition for putting the past finally behind you so that it cannot come back to haunt you.

Here the admirable way Germans have addressed the horrible legacy of their 20th century history through the process of vergangenheitsbewältigung and of the South African Truth Commission are good examples of how openly addressing the most difficult parts of a nation’s and its neighbours history can contribute to peace and reconciliation.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I had a chance to visit Egypt, Tunisia and Libya in 2012, soon after the Arab Spring had swept the region. Although the initial euphoria of the revolution had already faded and given way to weariness and even despair, I met with many people sharing the view that the organized civil society holds key in ensuring that the momentum generated by the revolutions is not lost.

I was particularly impressed by the energy of young activists and women, many of whom had never previously taken part in political processes, seeking to change their societies for the better. That reminded me that the Arab Spring was originally in large part a product of the courage, creativity and sheer numbers of young people – both men and women – working together to demand political change and better life.

To change an old system and agree on a new one is not an easy issue and every country must find the solutions that best serve its needs. In Egypt we have witnessed a difficult period marked by insecurity, social unrest and polarization. These events have shown us that democracy is not only about winning elections, but also about listening to the demands of the whole society and about taking decisions that win the approval of the people – even when these decisions are difficult. We are concerned about the way in which civil and political participation has been restricted and the way mass death sentences have been handed out in Egypt. In our view, sustainable democratic and economic development can only be achieved in a system where all actors can participate and present their views. This of course does not give the right to anyone to resort to violent or unlawful action.  

The transition process that began in Tunisia since 2011 will continue for years to come. Most fundamentally, perhaps, there is a danger that the slow pace in realizing tangible benefits from the revolution may create a crisis of unmet expectations.  However, despite some undeniable setbacks, there are many important achievements in a relatively short period of time; anew constitution, empowerment of women in public life, development of civil society and a growing free press. As a result of the national dialogue, Tunisia was able to reach a historical political compromise and put its democratic transition back on track.

Although the situation remains fragile in the MENA region, and the sectarian divide seems to deepen, the recent positive developments in Tunisia merit our full recognition. They give hope not only to Tunisians but also to other countries in the region.  Each country in the MENA region has a different history and a different social model and different countries face different kinds of challenges that need to be addressed. Tunisia’s achievements, however, clearly demonstrate that although inclusiveness cannot guarantee quick or perfect results countries must – sooner or later – make inclusiveness the leading principle on which to ground political, economic and social policies, if they hope to build up trust and cohesion needed in order to consolidate peace and advance democracy.

The question is what allowed Tunisia to avoid falling back into increasing tension and political violence and instead lay down the foundations of the consensual legitimacy? And would that be possible in other countries in the region? This question is particularly pertinent in the case of Libya, which is facing very serious challenges at this point in time.

I hope this meeting will provide an inspiring space for reflection and sharing of knowledge and experiences. I am very much looking forward to both enjoyable and fruitful discussions.