Statement by Mr Erkki Tuomioja, Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the 56th meeting of the Commission on Human Rights, 27/03/ 2000
This is my first opportunity in my new capacity to attend and address a meeting of this Commission. I extend my congratulations to you on your election and wish you and the other members of the Bureau every success in your work, which is both important and challenging. This work, just as all the other human rights work within the UN system, would be obviously incomplete without the tireless efforts of Mary Robinson, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, carried out in the exercise of her office. I pledge my full support for her work.
Before presenting this national statement of Finland I would like to refer to the intervention made earlier by Mr Jaime Gama, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Portugal, on behalf of the European Union. It was a statement with which I and my government associate ourselves fully.
All value systems have through the course of history manifested a firm belief in the inherent dignity of human life. Ethical and religious traditions have developed the shared conviction that humans are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of fraternity. The UN, in the aftermath of two catastrophic world wars, built on that when it undertook to codify universal legal norms corresponding to the universal rights that derive from this dignity of the human person. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights was a codification of the existing fundamental values of all peoples.
I am pleased to note that the time has long passed since governments could unilaterally waive respect for these rights at their convenience. By virtue of their universal nature, their realisation is a legitimate matter of international concern. I believe that governments subject themselves to a crucial international obligation to this effect when they, under the UN Charter, sign up to take joint and separate action in co-operation with the UN to achieve universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.
All Governments are today also accountable to each other for ensuring full respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms. The comprehensive set of human rights treaties and protocols adopted under the auspices of the UN has established a fabric of legal obligations constituting voluntary but irrevocable limitations to the sovereign rule of states. Treaty-monitoring bodies are making every effort to scrutinise our performance both at the level of legislation, policies and practices as well as in individual cases. The steadily growing number of ratifications and accessions proves that there is generally wide support for further international human rights monitoring.
We still need to do more to make human rights a reality for everybody. We need to improve their implementation globally. This is not only true of governments that appear to act in bad faith and clearly in disregard of concerns brought forward by the international community. This is just as true for states that act in good faith but lack resources and expertise and where the level of activity of the civil society is low. In some regions states have found that a pertinent means of improving their own human rights record and individual protection is to make their accountability subject to binding decisions by regional courts.
In my view the Commission on Human Rights could do much more to monitor and encourage the realisation of human rights and to contribute to the prevention of human rights violations. At the same time Finland fully recognises the importance of the present machinery, established over the years by the Commission. Finland calls on all governments to co-operate fully with the Special Rapporteurs and working groups and respect the procedures and mechanisms of the Commission, who are doing a very good job within the constrained resources and the limitations imposed by their mandates. While I acknowledge the efforts of the inter-Governmental working group to enhance the effectiveness and independence of these mechanisms I would ideally like to see a more ambitious reform at an appropriate time in the future.
International accountability for the performance of governments in the field of human rights is meaningless if there is a lack of corresponding domestic accountability. The first responsibility for the realisation of human rights obligations lies with the state. Governments must guarantee that administration of justice meets the required standards and should to that effect also create appropriate independent national institutions.
Human rights violations occurring in Chechnya have raised deep concern among Governments and the public opinion alike. Suffering inflicted on the civilian population has been unacceptable. It is necessary to launch without delay full investigations into alleged violations of human rights and humanitarian law and to bring those responsible to justice. Ensuring full cooperation with international human rights mechanisms is essential. Finland expects that the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs Mary Robinson, will be able to visit Chechnya soon and also emphasises full cooperation with European mechanisms, the Council of Europe and the OSCE. Unhindered access to aid agencies must be secured so as to avoid further human suffering. Russia is bound by international human rights conventions and compliance with treaty obligations must be ensured in the future.
The involvement of civil society, non-governmental organisations and committed individuals is crucial if states are to fulfil their duty and responsibility to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms. Human rights defenders expose deficits in the realisation of human rights and they uncover human rights violations. They draw the attention of the respective Governments and Parliaments and, when necessary, of the international community to situations in which human rights standards are disregarded.
Governments should perceive human rights defenders as partners in a common effort to improve comprehensively a country´s human rights situation. Governments have accepted this in principle, when they have adopted the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
We need to move forward in making reality of the principles of the Declaration. The effective implementation of the Declaration needs to be promoted. The human rights defenders who are at risk must be protected. It has become clear that the existing mechanisms do not have the capacity to deal with this issue effectively. That is why we need, in this session, to request the Secretary General to appoint a Special Representative on human rights defenders.
The increasingly free movement of finance and international corporate mergers may pose challenges for governments to maintain control over their social policies and meet standards in the field of labour and human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights. On the other hand, civil society is networking internationally and has certainly put corporations under pressure to account to consumers for their performance in maintaining environmental and human rights standards. In this new situation governments need to respond to these increasingly global phenomena by improving their international co-operation and their interaction with civil society.
I wish to take up the continuing unequal status of women as a fundamental distortion of human rights. Even if human rights are the same for all, women and girls still do not see their rights become reality in the same way as men and boys do. Various reasons related to tradition, culture or religion are invoked to justify the unequal treatment of women. None of the reasons offered to uphold gender discrimination is acceptable. De jure discrimination still occurs when various restrictions on women´s human rights are imposed through legislation by states that should instead protect the rights of all their citizens. Women are not a vulnerable group: they are fully capable members of society – provided that their status is not abused by discriminatory laws or practices that prevent them from fully exercising their rights.
The imposition and use of the death penalty is a serious human rights problem with many dimensions. Finland is convinced that since the death penalty can never be applied in a way compatible with human dignity it should be opposed in all its forms until its complete abolition. In reality numerous human rights standards are jeopardised by the use of the death penalty, in addition to the most obvious ones related to the right to life and the right to freedom from inhuman and degrading punishment. A problem that occurs commonly where the death penalty is still applied, is that it is disproportionately imposed on persons belonging to disadvantaged minorities and on persons at the lower end of the income scale. Moreover, it seems to me that societies which are determined to narrow down social inequalities seem more apt to reject this degrading custom than are countries which are indifferent towards social exclusion and poverty. I am astonished that even some of the wealthiest countries do not always provide the resources to guarantee a decent professional defence for those in danger of facing the death penalty. In my view the very fact that an issue of such gravity becomes subject to budgetary argument in a wealthy country is a sign that the death penalty is being applied excessively and for crimes other than the most serious ones.
I am convinced that the prosperity and peace of modern society depend on our ability to accommodate differences and promote tolerance. Countries that have learned to benefit from a wide range of traditions seem to be the most prosperous both culturally and economically. In contrast, societies based on intolerance have not only put a heavy burden on the people who live in them, but have grown potentially dangerous to their neighbours.
In order to be able to promote tolerance effectively we need an insight into the character of the problems facing us.
The forthcoming World Conference on Racism provides us with an opportunity to obtain one and to develop our understanding of what the perception of racism as a human rights issue implies. Racism can be understood firstly as an ideology, which seeks to differentiate and dominate, or secondly as a practice. The Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination covers all forms of discrimination and offers valuable common ground for combating racist ideologies and practices. It condemns direct or indirect discrimination based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin. The Convention thus lays the foundation for a broad interpretation of racism according to which no form of discrimination is more defensible than another.
The scope of the World Conference must be broad if we are to face the challenge in its entirety. In the context of the World Conference a voice should be given to victims of racism and, to that effect, the active participation of non-governmental organisations in this process is indispensable.
The problems related to racism continue to pose a serious challenge in Europe. Migrant communities and persons belonging to national minorities often face problems related to the labour market and feel excluded from society in other ways. Finland emphasises the importance of the participation of minorities in all decision making that concerns them. As an example of this I can refer to our positive experience of the cultural autonomy of the Sami, the indigenous people of Finnish Lapland, and to the long-standing co-operation with the Roma minority in joint efforts to protect and promote their rights. We can combat exclusion from society by safeguarding minority rights and thereby reduce tension and the potential for racism.
The rights of indigenous peoples, including their linguistic and cultural rights, continue to be at risk in many parts of the world. Persons belonging to indigenous communities are often victims of racism. That is why Finland warmly welcomes the progress achieved towards establishing a Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues under ECOSOC. The forum is essential for safeguarding the effective participation of indigenous peoples and it must have a broad enough mandate to enable it to fulfil the purpose of promoting indigenous rights within the UN system. I hope that this meeting will produce a concrete recommendation for a mandate to establish the Permanent Forum.
Flows of refugees are often the product of violations of human rights directed at minorities. Issues related to refugees and asylum seekers must thus be viewed in the context of respecting and promoting human rights as well as preventing discrimination. The European Council in Finland last October reaffirmed the EU´s commitment to the obligations of the Refugee Convention safeguarding the rights of third country nationals and combating racism. This positive development must be sustained by effective follow-up.
Thank you Mr Chairman.