Address by Secretary of State at the OSCE Human Dimension Committee

Address by Mr. Peter Stenlund, Secretary of State, OSCE Human Dimension Committee, Vienna, 6 September 2016.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to address the OSCE Human Dimension Committee today on the topic of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

Human rights and fundamental freedoms are prerequisites of an open, democratic and pluralistic society – as well as sustainable development.  

Freedom of assembly and association are closely linked to the freedom of expression and speech. These fundamental freedoms enable meaningful participation of individuals in society and in political decision-making processes.  They are a means to raise problems and issues with the authorities and hold governments accountable.

They are also founding elements of democracy and free and fair elections. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association Mr Maina Kiai has said that elections are a time when governments should give people more space –not less – to organize, voice their concern and express their collective will.

In Finland free and active participation of civil society in all spheres of life, including political decision-making, has been - and continues to be - an important contributor to building our society.  It is fair to say that a vibrant and pluralistic civil society has benefited Finland tremendously, including in terms of stability, equality and prosperity.

Our civil society has a broad base and Finns actively participate in all types of associations. Associations work in various fields:  freedom of speech, labour rights, literacy and education, women’s rights, rights of persons with disabilities, environmental and climate change issues, sports and youth, just to mention a few.

The Human Rights Strategy of the Finnish Foreign Ministry emphasises greater openness and inclusion. The empowerment and inclusion of groups subject to discrimination is a top priority. The equal protection and enjoyment of human rights must be ensured to all individuals and groups, in particular paying attention to women and girls, minorities and persons with disabilities.

Within the OSCE, Finland has systematically promoted fundamental freedoms, gender equality, minority rights, rights of persons with disabilities and the participation of civil society.  This year, we have striven to raise awareness about the rights of persons with disabilities. We will continue to focus on crucial questions regarding equal possibilities of persons with disabilities to participate in political life and equal access to information, for example. TheFinnish civil society is actively engaged in this work and is engaging with us to reach concrete results. We would warmly welcome a deliverable on the rights of persons with disabilities at the upcoming Hamburg ministerial meeting.

Our government is a strong supporter of the work of the OSCE in the field of human rights, the Rule of Law and democracy. We support the OSCE independent institutions and their strong and independent mandates. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the High Commissioner on National Minorities and the Representative on Freedom of the Media conduct vital work, including the promotion of the issues we are discussing today – freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. We urge all participating states to continue to work hard on keeping the institutions strong and independent, so that they can make a real contribution to human rights in our region.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thanks to the internet and social media, human rights are more widely known worldwide than ever before. However, in many countries around the world the space of civil society has shrunk. There are new threats to freedom of association and expression – for example growing attempts to use technical means to censor information and ideas online.

We are very concerned about increasing attempts to limit and prevent the work of human rights defenders in many countries.  NGOs, journalists, bloggers and others promote human rights or reveal human rights violations and corruption. Human rights defenders should be able to conduct their work safely without fear and harassment.

An important way to support human rights defenders is to strengthen the work of the UN and other international organisations. The Universal Periodic Review, UPR, at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, is a useful process in which to take up the situation of human rights defenders. Finland considers the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders to be essential. I am very pleased to see that Special Rapporteur, Mr Michel Forst is here today to give a presentation. Thank you Mr Forst for you valuable contribution!

Finland appreciates the work of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in the human rights defender issue.  The detailed Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders published by the ODIHR is an outstanding toolkit – as are ODIHR’s guiding documents on freedom of peaceful assembly. 

The Finnish Foreign Ministry has launched public guidelines on Protecting and Supporting Human Rights Defenders a couple of years ago. These guidelines are based on theEU guidelines and are meant to be a practical tool for our staff and particularly for our Embassies around the world.

There are several concrete ways in which we can support human rights defenders, including - but not limited to - funding human rights NGOs. Meetings, seminars, and other events with human rights defenders, monitoring court cases and visiting human rights defenders in prisons, are all important ways of support. Support to national human rights defender coalitions is also regarded as effective and useful. Individual human rights defender cases are often raised with the host country’s authorities bilaterally or with the EU. Much of this is silent diplomacy.  However, when silent diplomacy does not work, means of public diplomacy are also required.

Despite all our efforts in the field of human and fundamental rights, we must always be ready to admit that our own country, Finland, has its share of human rights problems, like all countries do. There is no place for complacency. In Europe and in the OSCE area, we face economic crises, conflicts and instability, not to mention terrorist threats.

Fundamental freedoms such as the freedom of peaceful assembly and association and the freedom of expression are often among the first to suffer. It would be a great error because the fact is - when human rights and fundamental freedoms flourish, a nation is strong, resilient and ready to meet new challenges.

In conclusion, I wish to thank Germany, the Chair of the OSCE, and all of you for excellent cooperation in human dimension committee during this year. The OSCE Human Dimension commitments and their implementation are important and imperative for us all. Therefore, the OSCE participating States should be open to agree on new or updated commitments as well. I wish all of you successful negotiations here at the OSCE.