Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja in Iran on globalisation and human rights

Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja in Iran on globalisation and human rights


Address by Erkki Tuomioja, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland, at the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS)

Tehran, Iran
14 January 2003




Globalisation and human rights

Mr Chairman,

Our world is a planet of many paradoxes. Take as an example the one concerning democracy. Throughout history, democracy has never been as widespread as it is today, as measured by both the absolute number and the proportion of people who can elect - and dismiss - their leaders in free and fair elections. At the same time, we have probably never witnessed the same degree of disillusion regarding the ability and the will of our democratically elected representatives to deliver what their electorates expect of them. There is a growing feeling that forces and events which shape our lives are out of control - certainly beyond the reach of the controls exercised by democratic governments.

The key to understanding this paradox is globalisation. Internationalisation and growing economic and political interdependence is nothing new as such. What is new is the combination of internationalisation and the spectacular development of new technologies, information and communication technology in particular, which serves well as a shorthand definition of the phenomenon we call globalisation.

Globalisation is not merely something inevitable but is, on the whole, potentially positive. One factor that makes it positive is its power to create wealth through an enhanced international division of labour and a more effective use of scarce resources.

It is positive also because of the increased scope that it gives for individual freedom to blossom and for societies to become more open. Any country which aspires to a better life for its people must make full use of the opportunities offered by new technologies, and this will inevitably put pressure on authoritarian, self-centred and undemocratic governments to change their ways. In a globalizing world repressive governments are finding it increasingly difficult to censor or control the use of new information technologies. Globalisation has also made it more difficult for human rights violations to be covered up, and for others to ignore them without reacting.

Human rights - as we know them today - are a fairly recent phenomenon. Before the Second World War, human rights were regarded mainly as an internal issue for individual states. Then the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights brought human rights clearly into the international arena. Human rights became an important part of international politics and a significant and still developing area of international law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights forms the basis of human rights agreements, the most significant of which include the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both of which have been ratified by Iran and Finland. These and other UN human rights conventions are based on the principle of universality, which entitles the international community to protect and promote human rights and prohibit violations of human rights the world over.

As I mentioned a moment ago, the basic premise on which all human rights are based is their universality. As The Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly affirms, human rights are for all without distinction of any kind "such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." Human rights are inherent in "the human family" and they are inalienable.

Human rights are, above all, rights of the individual. Governments are obligated to respect them and guarantee access to full enjoyment of them by all. Even if cultural, historical or religious factors may be taken into account to a certain degree when human rights are implemented, they can never be used to justify violations of human rights. This is important especially in the context of the human rights of women and girls in certain parts of the world. Finland's human rights policy gives priority to the rights of women, children, minorities and indigenous peoples. The priorities were selected bearing in mind that these four groups of people, in particular, are more likely than others to fall victim to discrimination.

The rights of these groups, including the rights of disabled persons, are specifically taken into account in Finland’s policy on international development cooperation. Implementation of human rights forms a sound basis for stable, long-term economic and social development. In the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development, Finland emphasized the importance of social aspects alongside economic and ecological considerations. Women and girls, in particular, play a crucial role in development. Accordingly, one should always bear in mind the primary nature of human rights over national laws and customs in situations involving women and girls.

I would like, in fact, to elaborate upon the issue of women's rights. Women's rights are human rights. In practice, however, women often face discrimination and the human rights of women are not respected as well as those of men are. That is why it is of utmost importance for every country to guarantee that women and men are accorded the same rights at the level of national legislation. Moreover, it is equally important to make sure that the protection and promotion of the human rights of women and girls really are implemented in practice.

Work in international forums on behalf of the rights of women and girls faces opposition especially over issues involving sexual rights, harmful traditional practices, land rights and inheritance rights. Harmful traditional practices and appalling acts such as so-called honour-killings, can never be justified. Violence against women, including domestic violence, is a human rights issue. Violence against women is a common problem and, unfortunately, not unknown in Finland . The Government supports measures to prohibit violence against women nationally and internationally. Trafficking in human beings, especially women and girls, has become a growing problem in Europe. Human trafficking threatens the realisation of human rights of an increasing number of individuals. The Government of Finland has introduced measures to fight these phenomena, for example, by launching national campaigns to prevent violence and prostitution. Last year, the Nordic countries, together with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, took part in a joint information campaign against trafficking in women. Furthermore, Finland supports the right of women to self-determination and to reproductive health care services at the global level. The Government has also emphasized women's economic rights - their equal right to land and their equal right of inheritance should be guaranteed everywhere.

Mr Chairman,

Economic globalisation is sometimes considered as a factor in promoting the realisation of human rights. But it can also do the opposite, if human rights are not taken into account in economic decision-making. The increase in wealth and wellbeing created by globalisation is being distributed more unequally than before, both within and inside countries and regions as well as globally. Globalisation based on neo-liberal free-market values can intensify damage to the environment. It can also threaten core labour standards and weaken trade unions as well as jeopardise national and minority cultures. Globalisation can be socially damaging, destroying sustainable traditional communities and threatening established welfare systems, which can never be replaced by purely market-based solutions.

The growth of world population is a fundamental challenge that affects all of the tasks we face in bringing about better global governance. Since World War II, during my lifetime alone, the world's population has grown from 2.4 billion to over 6 billion. While the rate of population growth has peaked, the world's population will reach at least 10 billion before it can stabilise.

This is obviously a fundamental challenge to our efforts to live in harmony with the requirements of sustainable development. We may have only a few decades to adjust our social, economic and production models and practices to the demands of sustainable development. But population growth also makes it imperative for societies to live in harmony and close cooperation with each other. There are no longer any so-called national interests in today's world which could be successfully pursued at the cost of others' interests.

As I mentioned earlier, democracy is more firmly established in the world than ever, but the commitment of democratic societies to support democracy, human rights and the rule of law as the guiding principles in international relations still leaves a lot to be desired. American efforts to circumvent and dilute the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, one of the most promising achievements in strengthening the rule of law in recent years, is a sad illustration of the problems involved.

Getting globalisation and trade to deliver prosperity and welfare to those most in need of it, and not vice versa, is the foremost economic challenge. While multilateral free trade is indisputably the best basis for increasing prosperity also in the poorest countries, the trade system will have to be adjusted to better meet the needs of developing nations.

Thus the key fact is that there is clearly a growing demand for governments to provide global governance - in whatever form it may take - that can effectively address the challenges of globalisation.

At the Conference on Democracy and Globalisation in Helsinki last December, I said I believed it was time to create a framework for global governance that would provide a code of conduct and a set of regulations for transnational businesses whose arena of economic activity has long since extended beyond nation states. The fundamental objective of global governance is to ensure decent living conditions for people - the ordinary citizens of the world.

The Helsinki Conference on Democracy and Globalisation was initiated in order to launch a new process that could provide a channel for genuine dialogue between North and South and among governments, institutions, non-governmental organisations and businesses. The Helsinki Conference also marked the start of a Helsinki Process on Globalisation with a set of new proposals and initiatives on its agenda.

Mr Chairman,

Globalisation has made the world smaller and brought people closer together. Steady technological advances and the development of information technology, in particular, have expanded the functions and the outreach of communication. Dialogue among individuals, nations and civilizations has become easier and more frequent. And it is clear that this very positive development will continue.

At this point, I would like to thank president Khatami for launching the initiative on dialogue among civilizations within the agenda of the UN General Assembly in 1998. In this context the year 2001 was celebrated as the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations. In his speech at the UN General Assembly that year president Khatami, speaking on the issue of dialogue among civilizations stated that: "All cultures, civilizations and faiths are now bound to co-habit the same world by the inviolable verdict of technology. It is therefore the best of times to bring in harmony and foster empathy amidst this variety."

Dialogue among varying civilizations strengthens tolerance, mutual understanding and respect. In fact, manifestations of intolerance usually arise from fear of the unknown. In the worst case, intolerance can lead to conflicts and attacks against individuals. Open dialogue involving individuals, peoples and cultures helps to lessen the possibility of misunderstanding and conflict.

Human rights - universal, inherent and inalienable - form a solid foundation for dialogue among civilizations. Respect for human rights does not mean that cultural differences would disappear. On the contrary, respect for diversity and the right to enjoy one's own culture are key elements of global ethics. In particular, the right of minorities and indigenous peoples to enjoy their own cultures, to profess and practise their own religions and to use their mother tongues, has to be secured. In this context, it has to be said that it is equally important for minorities themselves to respect human rights, including the human rights of women and girls.

Close dialogue, at both national and international levels, between governments and civil societies makes an important contribution to the strengthening of human rights. NGOs interested in this endeavour can put forward new ideas and provide relevant information and useful perspectives for the debate as well as suggesting new ways of improving the implementation of human rights.

Furthermore, freedom of speech and freedom of expression are necessary prerequisites for a grenuine dialogue among civilizations. The media have an indispensable and instrumental role in promoting the dialogue. It is important that we safeguard the independence of the media so that they can accomplish this task effectively.

I would like to conclude with a few words from my speech at the General Assembly session on dialogue among civilizations: "It is our responsibility as Governments to ensure that dialogue is fully inclusive. Every individual, regardless of his or her origin or status, must be able to take part in the dialogue."