Opening speech by Secretary of State Stenlund, seminar on Protecting Human Rights Online

Opening speech by Secretary of State Peter Stenlund, Ministry for Foreign Affairs
Seminar on Protecting Human Rights Online, 2 May 2016

Excellencies, Ladies and gentlemen,

I have the pleasure to welcome you all to Helsinki and to this seminar, to discuss the protection and promotion of human rights online. All human rights – civil and political, and economic, social and cultural rights – are indivisible and interdependent. All human rights which apply offline must also be protected online – in particular the right to freedom of expression.

Our government is very proud to host the UNESCO World Press Freedom Day conference for the first time in Finland and the Nordic countries. Freedom of expression and the right to information are significant parts of our own constitutional rights and our free and open society. We promote these rights also as part of our foreign policy. At the same time, I am confident that we Finns will learn a great deal from good practices in other countries. Growing information flows and new information technologies create both possibilities and challenges to promote the right to relevant and truthful information. 

This seminar is organised together with the Freedom Online Coalition (FOC). Finland joined the FOC in 2012. We see it as an excellent instrument for advancing human rights online. We are very pleased to cooperate today with the Costa Rican government, which is currently chairing the Coalition (Ambassador Christian Guillermet-Fernandez). Finland has also joined and contributed to the Digital Defenders Partnership (DDP), which supports human rights defenders’ right to freedom of expression in the Internet. We are glad to have here in the panel discussion representatives of both the FOC and the DDP, to learn more about their important work for human rights online.

The Internet and social media play an increasingly significant role in the promotion of democracy, economic growth and development. The cyber world provides important means to foster civic participation. Access to information held by public authorities is a fundamental part of democratic and transparent societies. In Finland, this right has improved social capital, trust and cooperation between the government and civil society. Access to public information also helps to prevent and investigate corruption. No doubt it is one explanation for our relative success in creating prosperity and welfare.

Digitalization is also a cross-cutting theme in our current government strategy. The aim is to increase productivity in public services and administration.  Every individual´s right to decide about and monitor their personal information will be enhanced, while ensuring the smooth transfer of data between authorities.

We seek to build societies where all persons, without distinction of any kind, are empowered freely to create, receive, share and utilize information and knowledge. And this should happen in all media and regardless of borders.

International and regional human rights bodies have made recommendations related to freedom of expression and the eradication of hate speech and racism in public debate. Unfortunately, we have seen, also in Finland, that online debates are not free from sexism and racism. Women are disproportionally affected by sexist comments and harassment online. Furthermore, women with ethnic minority backgrounds are more exposed and young women and girls particularly vulnerable. Legislation plays its part in preventing and addressing these phenomena, but we also need to change social norms regarding what is acceptable. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

Everyone must have equal access to the Internet. At the same time, all states must respect and protect the right to privacy in digital communication. International cooperation is a key to ensuring these objectives. It is important to continue the efforts already made in the United Nations and UNESCO, among others. In the new UN 2030 Development Agenda, there is a special Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) which calls us to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements” (target 16.10). This target is relevant to achieving all other SDG goals. Finland promotes a human rights-based-approach to and accountability in all SDG implementation.

Our government also promotes freedom of expression and freedom of speech in regional organisations, particularly in the Council of Europe and the OSCE. We chair the OSCE Human Dimension Committee this year. That gives us an excellent opportunity to raise many human rights issues, including freedom of expression and media freedom.

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

We are very concerned with increasing attempts to limit and prevent the work of human rights defenders:  NGOs, trade unionists, environmentalists, journalists, bloggers and others who promote human rights or reveal human rights violations and corruption. Human rights defenders should be able to conduct their work both offline and online and governments should ensure an enabling environment for their work. A totally different issue is the need for intelligence authorities to prevent terrorism done by networks like ISIL/DAESH.

In the European Union Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy (2015-19), the EU commits to take active steps to oppose harassment and prevent and respond to violence against journalists, bloggers and other media actors, online as well as offline. The EU – and Finland as a member state – has a strong focus on the questions related to freedom of expression. In May 2014, the EU adopted comprehensive guidelines on freedom of expression online and offline. For its part, our Foreign Service has also adopted national public Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. It is a useful tool for the staff of the Foreign Service in cooperation with human rights defenders and we aim to actively implement it.

Finally, I am proud to tell you that this venue, the Finlandia Hall, will host ICANN’s (The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) upcoming 56th public meeting at the end of next month, 27–30 June 2016. We are expecting approximately 1 500 participants from all over the world for that meeting. Organizing the meeting here in Finland shows our commitment both to human rights and to the multi-stakeholder approach to internet governance. Human rights are a timely topic in ICANN. In the process of improving ICANN’s Accountability, a commitment to respect human rights will be incorporated into ICANN's Bylaws.

Again, let me welcome you all to this seminar. I wish you an interesting and fruitful discussion!