President of Finland

Speech made to the Assembly

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Dear colleagues – I think I may call you that, given our shared past – it is always a great pleasure to address the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. As the only genuinely pan-European Organisation based on the values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, the Council of Europe has played a uniquely important role in uniting the whole of our continent and removing many of the old dividing lines. That has created a solid foundation for further European integration.

As you know, I had the pleasure of serving in this Assembly as a member of the Finnish national delegation between 1991 and 1995, so I am aware, as is the President of the Assembly, that there are many people to thank for the rapid enlargement of this Organisation. Those years were a time of new hope and opportunities for Europe. As the wave of democratisation swept over the continent, joining the Council of Europe became the first goal for countries on the path to democracy. Those years were also the start of my long relationship with you here in the Assembly.

The Parliamentary Assembly has played an important role in helping member States live up to their promises. I participated in the process of establishing the mechanism for monitoring the compliance of member States with their membership obligations and commitments. Nowadays, the mechanism covers all member States. As no country is perfect, such monitoring mechanisms continue to be of the utmost importance, and therefore need our full support.

One of the many challenges facing our societies today is the increase in inequality, both within countries and between them. The United Nations High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, which I recently chaired together with President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, emphasised the equal importance of the economic, social and environmental pillars of sustainable development, which I often call “the modern trinity”. Growing inequality, discrimination and intolerance are not forces of nature. They can be fought, and to reverse their progress we must pay particular attention to the rights of minorities and other vulnerable groups.

Representative democracy gives the majority the right to make decisions that apply to everyone, but that right brings with it the responsibility to protect the rights of minorities without discrimination. There is a direct link between political security and stability, sustainable development and the protection of human rights, as we have seen many times in Europe and all over the world.

We must pay attention to the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights. Everyone needs decent work and basic social protection, and in this context I draw attention to the difficult situation of the Roma people. They are a truly pan-European minority but as a group are far more likely to face discrimination than other groups. Their socio-economic position is weaker than that of other groups in all member States, and even in this group women and children are particularly vulnerable.

The Council of Europe is a forum well suited to finding common solutions and ways to improve the situation of the Roma, and to learning from best practice in different member States. I appreciate the work done by the Council of Europe human rights mechanisms and the Parliamentary Assembly to raise their concerns, and the consistent work of the Secretary General. It is of the utmost importance, however, to ensure that the Roma themselves can participate in decision making at all levels and influence decisions that concern them. The establishment of the European Roma and Travellers Forum was an important step in this direction. This forum should do what it can to ensure that the voice of all Roma is heard in decisions affecting them.

Colleagues, you will know that I am nearly at the end of my second term as President of Finland, and that in February we will have the honour of hosting a meeting of European presidents – the so-called Arraiolos group – in Helsinki, at which we will discuss the issue of tolerance and ways of combating discrimination. I have invited the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Mr Jagland, to introduce the subject, and I hope that it will help the situation of the Roma and strengthen the links between the European Union, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

The Council of Europe’s human rights standards and mechanisms serve as an important inspiration for many. The proper functioning of the European Court of Human Rights is important to the safeguarding of effective supervision of the protection of human rights. We look forward to a successful reform of the European Court of Human Rights, which will help in freeing the Court from its backlog of cases. At the same time, it is crucial to safeguard the individual right to complaint. The protection of the human rights of Europeans must not be weakened. We must bear it in mind that the Court has been a true success story – as I said, it is full of sad stories with happy endings – which is why people are so interested in it.

All of us should look in the mirror now and then: the situation in the Court reflects the situation in our countries. The complaints reflect existing problems on the ground. Member states bear the main responsibility for ensuring that the domestic courts assume their primary role in ensuring the protection of human rights and the implementation of the Convention and its case law. I know that there is still a lot of work to be done, and it is important that the Assembly remains vigilant.

Finland was active in setting up the Office of the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights – I remember the day when we succeeded. The Commissioner’s mandate enables him or her to take up topical human rights problems in any member state, be it freedom of speech, the rights of minorities or emerging issues, such as the rights of the elderly – the senior citizens. I am pleased with how this institution has become the European human rights watchdog. It certainly deserves our support.

I would like to express my deepest appreciation to the first two holders of this function, Mr Álvaro Gil-Robles and Mr Thomas Hammarberg. They have both done excellent work and been very successful in promoting human rights as well as the role of the Council of Europe. I also congratulate the newly elected commissioner, Nils Muižnieks, and wish him all the best for the coming six years. We must give him and his office our full support in their valuable efforts to raise the human rights standards in all our member States. Let them feel that we are backing them, because in that way they can succeed.

Recent events in northern Africa and the Middle East have once again emphasised that development, human rights, and peace and security are interlinked. The popular calls for reform have also demonstrated the important role that civil society can play in advancing democracy and human rights. Women in northern Africa and the Middle East have actively participated in the political movements for democracy, social justice and equality. Women and men have marched together for a better future for themselves and future generations, and it is important that they continue to participate side by side in building democratic societies. I have said many times in this Chamber that you can throw away a dictatorship in one night but you cannot build a new democratic system in one night, so we have to be very patient in helping to build the new system.

There is still a lot to do in order to make sure that equality before the law also means equality in practice. The Council of Europe has always been a front-runner on issues of equality, and I look forward to seeing the entry into force, as soon as possible, of the latest Council of Europe Conventions on gender equality and on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

The situation of children and youth also needs our special attention. Opportunities for education and decent work are of crucial importance. Prolonged unemployment often leads to poverty and lack of future prospects. We need to make sure that young people will not become alienated or excluded from our society and will feel that they are welcomed as new members. I strongly support the reform of the Council of Europe, and so does my country. It will lead to an Organisation that is even better at promoting its core values of respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

The OSCE, the Council of Europe and the European Union all have their respective roles to play and their activities should be mutually reinforcing. It seems to me, as has already been mentioned, that the European Union and the Council of Europe have already found a fruitful synergy where the Council of Europe expertise is supported by European Union resources, but more would be welcome. Through its important work for human rights and all democratic forces, the Council of Europe has been an important source of hope for us all since its foundation in 1949.

Dear parliamentarians, this is the last time I address you as the President of the Republic of Finland, but do not feel relaxed – I might find reasons to come again in some other role. Let me thank you for the excellent and fruitful co-operation we have had throughout the years and wish you success in your important work.

THE PRESIDENT (translation)

Thank you very much, Ms Halonen, for your most interesting address. Members of the Assembly have questions to put to you.

The first question is from Ms Cigane who speaks on behalf of the Group of the European People’s Party.

Ms CIGANE (Latvia)

My question is about Finland’s domestic policy. There is at least one area where many member States can follow Finland’s good example – that of youth education. Finland scores very highly in different surveys in terms of youth education. How did Finnish society reach a consensus that this is an area in which you needed to invest? How did you implement the reforms to achieve such high youth educational standards?

Mr Halonen, President of Finland

Sometimes a lack of natural resources can provide other opportunities. You know that we lack oil or gas and these other natural resources – we have just had a nice cold winter with a lot of snow. The only capital we have in which to invest is the people. Like all other Nordic countries, we have a certain kind of collective responsibility because of these circumstances and we want to guarantee the future of the next generation. In that way, our long history has helped us to understand that education is the key. We have a long tradition of a very broad education, meaning that every boy and girl will be guaranteed an education free of charge. The quality is also important. The education of teachers has been the key answer to that. The Programme for International Student Assessment survey showed that my country is among the best in the world and very often the best. But we are still not happy because we want this to be continued with secondary education providing the opportunity to take up education, further education, employment or training. In that way, the young ones will consider that they were full members of society.

Secondly, I always say to the younger generation, “Be happy that you have the best education ever in our history but your education will be old-fashioned much sooner than it was for your parents. So be prepared for lifelong learning.” I think that this is the next step for all of us in Europe.

International comparisons show that the education system in Finland and other Nordic countries when it comes to hard global competition is a very good resource for getting not-so-bad results.

(Mr Mota Amaral, Vice-President of the Assembly, took the Chair in place of Mr Mignon.)


May I remind all members that the time limit for questions to our distinguished guest is 30 seconds?

The next question is from Mr Iwinski, who speaks on behalf of the Socialist Group.

Mr IWINSKI (Poland)

Given your great experience in Strasbourg and as the head of State in Helsinki, what is your opinion of the most effective ways and means of combating increasing waves of nationalism, often coupled with euroscepticism? It is enough to mention Mr Soini’s party in Finland and the present situation in Hungary — I shall confine myself to those cases.

Mr Halonen, President of Finland

I think it is the same problem whatever the society. It is natural to love your own country but to see also the experience of different nations is a real richness of Europe. With globalisation, every country is too small to be on its own. The best way to tell this to our people is to say that all European countries, including Germany, France, Italy and Spain, are not big in terms of global comparison. This is hard to explain because everybody thinks that their own home is the best; they want to close the windows and doors and be happy. But that is no longer possible in the globalised world. We benefit greatly from international co-operation, but it takes a lot of time to work together, which is the only way to achieve better harmony in the future. You are all members of parliament and experts in your own country; I would be very happy if you could exchange views and experiences and if we could learn from each other. Let us learn from the best practices and try to avoid the worst implementations.

Mr LIDDELL-GRAINGER (United Kingdom)

Given your views about the Court, what practical solutions would you suggest to cut costs, deal with the backlog and make the Court more efficient? What would your recipe for success be?

Mr Halonen, President of Finland

There are different signals. The European Court of Human Rights has been one of the Council of Europe’s best success stories. People know that sad stories can have happy endings but we also know that in many of these cases it would be better to explain to people in our member countries that they will not get a positive result. We have to solve this in different ways. Let us be happy that people have become active, but let us be more active in finding national, local and common solutions to these problems. I do not think that we should try to stop the flow of these requests to the Court because then we will hide the need for new reforms, but we should study more which cases and from which countries most of the appeals come, and then try to find a solution.

I sincerely encourage the Human Rights Commissioner to work in close co-operation with the Court in such a way that we can find the key issues. When member States have ratified the necessary conventions, we can also start to reform the Court. I am optimistic that we can find a fast track to reform. Please remember that the good side of this request by our citizens is that they have found the importance of the rule of law. So, by working at a local and national level, and with the help of the Human Rights Commissioner and that of the Court, we will get a more positive answer than just trying to cut costs.

Mr XUCLÀ (Spain) (interpretation)

thanked the President and commented that a democracy could not be created in a day. He asked what the necessary steps were to achieve democracy and noted that some countries were still developing their democracies while being monitored by the Council of Europe

Mr Halonen, President of Finland

Let us take first the question of Europe itself and the area of the Council’s member countries. It would be nice to see the miracle, but I do not think that we will. It seems a long time ago – the early 1990s – since we saw the rapid enlargement of the Council of Europe. But in historical terms, the building of a new democracy in those countries – countries that are now members of the Council of Europe, and of the European Union – has taken a very short time. The political system is working in most of those countries quite well, but it takes much longer to educate people about good governance and the rule of law and to establish a good civil service. These are important issues.

Countries that are not members of the European Union have the same rights, and some of them have done a very good job in this regard. Norway – Mr Jagland’s country – is an excellent example of a high-quality country that is outside the European Union, and so is Switzerland. Those are good examples of countries that take a different approach. I very much encourage you to work with newer members such as Ukraine, and please do not isolate Belarus, for example.

I know that your programme addresses near-neighbourhood regions such as northern Africa and the Middle East. The question of what constitutes legal and illegal immigration poses difficulties, as does the issue of trafficking people. We cannot just close the doors, because we do not want to live in a fortress. We have to work together with our neighbours in such a way as to create a more harmonious place to live.

In a global future, the populations of Europe and the USA will increase by little more than 10%. You might say to me that our economies constitute about 70% of the global economy, but you know that the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – and some others are becoming economically more important. It is high time that we created a more harmonious world in order to save the planet and protect generations to come.

Yes, we have to concentrate very much on our own member States, but please do not think that the world stops outside the borders of Europe.

Mr KOX (Netherlands)

Elected parliamentarians are the basis of democracy. Nevertheless, we see in several European countries that elected MPs are imprisoned because they are said to have abused the law. We see this contradiction between the electoral will of the voters and the law. As a wise person, could you give us guidance? Is it right to put elected parliamentarians into prison, or should we deal with this issue in another way?

Mr Halonen, President of Finland

I am not trying to flatter you just because you are the Parliamentary Assembly – I held ministerial positions, including as Minister for Foreign Affairs – for a long time so I am familiar with the ministerial side – but the Assembly is the best place to discuss such issues. Many of you represent your own parliaments, and you also have all your own contacts here with the Inter-Parliamentary Union, so there are different ways in which you can act. You know how elections work. Of course, ministers make good critics and they are democratic, but they need their colleagues.

My advice to you is to take primary responsibility for the democratic system, to draw attention to the difficulties that may arise in certain countries and to work together with the OSCE so that you can find more effective ways to monitor elections. The media are the watchdog of free and fair elections, but as we see in many countries, not everything that gets printed in the newspapers is true. Let us be realistic and pragmatic and try to achieve better co-operation with the European Union, the United Nations and other actors, so that we can achieve a more effective result. Please do not wait for the miracle; it will take time.

Ms MARIN (France) (interpretation)

noted the diversity of electricity production in Finland and asked why this approach had been taken.

Mr Halonen, President of Finland

That is a good question from the French! We have a different opinion when it comes to the politics of energy. Finland is one of the countries that have recently built nuclear power plants. When I was a member of parliament, I voted against that, but then came the Kyoto Protocol and many MPs in Finland and other countries recognised that nuclear power could be a way to solve the energy issue for the time being. However, there are serious consequences. We know that there is a negative side to the traditional ways of creating energy, and that is why I have supported renewable energy sources, in order to find a way to solve the important issue of sustainable development.

There are difficulties that Finland, Sweden, Germany and France are doing their utmost to solve, in order to be a good example. However, if we cannot get the emerging economies of the world to come on board, we will not be able to save the planet. That is why I hope that we can intensify international co-operation, which could cover the needs of industry and households so that we can achieve a more sustainable future.

I am very pleased that the Secretary-General of the United Nations has made special efforts in that regard, and I hope that my own country will obey the rules better in the future. I approve of the way in which the international co-operation system has worked so far, and I believe that, as a pragmatic people, we will make further advances in the future.


The countries of the European south, especially Greece, suffer considerably as a result of the massive influx of illegal migrants from Asia and Africa who enter our territory in the hope of passing through it and settling in northern and central European countries that provide better living conditions. Should not Council of Europe and European Union member States share the burden of that phenomenon and contribute to the humanitarian task – in practice, not in words – rather than simply giving safe lessons about respect for human rights?

Mr Halonen, President of Finland

The two issues are not contradictory. We must treat all people who come to Europe in the same way when it comes to respecting their human rights. However, we must not think that we can solve the problem on our own. As I said earlier, we must not think that we can close the doors and windows and create our own national order – our own continental home. We are part of the planet. I know that Europe is starting to co-operate with north Africa, but it is also important to work more effectively with central Africa. We should think about what has led to the conditions in which people in those countries are living. As its name suggests, the Council of Europe is here to represent Europe, but it must broaden its focus.

We must also do something about the criminality of those who try to make money by trafficking and making false promises to desperate people. Even if we manage to do that, however, we must bear in mind that in many countries people are so poor that they will voluntarily take the risks involved in trying to come to Europe and will pay a lot of money to do so. International co-operation is the best solution. As you said in your question, this is our common responsibility; it is not just the responsibility of the border countries. Finland is one of the border countries, in the north of Europe, but although it is a border country in European Union terms, it is no longer a border country in terms of the Council of Europe. Broader neighbourhood politics are a good answer, as is global activity in, for instance, the United Nations. We have not seen a single global agreement that could deal with the problems of migration and the movement of people over borders. The United Nations has not been able to produce such an agreement, but a great deal could be achieved with the help of the Council of Europe.

Mr VAREIKIS (Lithuania)

During the Cold War years, the key word in Finnish foreign policy was “neutrality”. Your country organised the Helsinki process, which could be said to have marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. What does “neutrality” mean in the 21st century? Perhaps it is no longer relevant. If that is so, what is the key word in your country’s present foreign policy?

Mr Halonen, President of Finland

You are right. We do not use the word “neutrality” any more. We describe ourselves as being militarily non-aligned, which means that we are not a member of NATO, along with Sweden, Austria, Ireland and, I believe, Malta. In the European Union, we are aligned in the broader security sense.

I believe that what we need in Europe is neighbourhood politics. Finland has interesting and active neighbours: Sweden to the west, Norway to the north-west, Estonia to the south and Russia to the east. Russia is, of course, no longer the Soviet Union. Because there have been many wars between us and our eastern neighbours, we must be patient if we are to build good neighbourly relations. I think that both the Russian and the Finnish delegations would agree that we now have very good neighbourhood politics. The more exchanges of ideas and trade – for instance, more and more tourists from the east have been coming to Finland – the more pragmatic problems arise, but the solutions to those problems increase as well.

Learning to know each other is key to our national foreign policy. We are very much members of the Nordic family, and this year we will be standing for the Security Council as a common candidate for the Nordic countries. We have many ideas for making global politics more active. We have our family of Nordic countries, and we have good relations with our neighbours. We have our common home in the broader Europe. However, we also feel that we are global citizens.

I could have given a much longer answer, but you would not have liked that, Mr President.

(Mr Mignon, President of the Assembly, took the Chair in place of Mr Mota Amaral.)

Mr GAUDI NAGY (Hungary)

I congratulate you on being the first female President of Finland, Ms Halonen. You are a strong fighter for human rights and you lead a country that provides one of the best examples of how national communities should be treated. You introduced the doctrine that is named after you – the Halonen doctrine – according to which a new country that enters a body like the Council of Europe must implement all the prescriptions of that body. What about countries such as Romania that are not inclined to implement, for instance, Recommendation 1201, which affords special status to the almost 1 million settlers who are living in Romania?

Mr Halonen, President of Finland

As I said earlier, at a time of rapid enlargement of the Council of Europe and, subsequently, the European Union, we faced the challenge of finding a way of advancing the democratic process in a more positive way. In the Council of Europe, we concluded that a new democratic State with full respect for human rights, the rule of law and social justice could not be built overnight, and that it would be best to start with a basic package. After the candidate country has passed this first threshold, it should make a serious public commitment to making reforms. This succeeded pretty well. I was once a rapporteur in connection with Slovakia and I hope that there are some members from Slovakia present. As I say, there has been success. The new member countries, as we called them in those days, used to complain and ask, “How is it possible that you are scrutinising our system in so much detail, when the old members could be seen to have made some mistakes themselves?” Sometimes we adopted a rather bad sense of humour and said, “You see, the founding members of the club always have all the privileges.” Sooner or later, however, we came to the same conclusion. Now there are no longer new members and old members; we are all equal members of the Council of Europe. We all have to acknowledge that nobody is perfect – not one person or not one country.

We must now follow up the processes, implement the agreements and find ways to face the new challenges. It should be quite natural for us to do that. Whatever country we are in, we know that the systems that were founded 20 years ago are still valid; we are making reforms all the time. Sometimes neighbours can help, and sometimes so can Strasbourg. They can help us to find our way to the goals we want faster and easier than we could do by ourselves.

Sometimes one member country says something about another member country, but I would say that they are being brotherly or sisterly critics of each other. I hope that what is said is for good purposes. If ways can be found, why not follow them? Conversely, those on the receiving end of the criticisms should not think, “Oh, they do not love us.” It is not a question of love; it is just a question of becoming better. Everyone, myself included, can talk about what new steps countries should be taking. However, I would say that we should not underestimate the help of our friends and neighbours, particularly here where the culture of Europe is a common forum and there are human rights organisations, including the new Human Rights Commission. They point the way – not to criticise but to help to find a solution.


The next question is from Ms Err. She is not here. The next question is from Mr Kaikkonen.

Mr KAIKKONEN (Finland)

As we have heard today Ms Halonen, you know Europe very well and you are very good at global policies. I would like to hear your opinion on this question. If you look at Finland from the global point of view, what does it look like?

Mr Halonen, President of Finland

Cold and small! Let us be honest when we are in our own family. If we visit African or Asian countries, we find that they have a rather old-fashioned picture of Europe. They have their own economic and cultural ties to Europe in some cases. People might know some of the big countries like the United Kingdom, France, Spain and perhaps some others; I suspect that they will not know much about Slovenia. They might have heard about Finland but they might have to think about whether we have a queen or a president. It is, of course, the same when it comes to our knowledge of African and Asian countries. We know some of the big ones, but not all of them; perhaps our picture is old fashioned.

That is why, Mr Kaikkonen, when my African friends say I should come and see the new Africa and Asia, I say they should come and see the new Europe. It might be the first contact for European countries with an African member of parliament or an Asian minister. Broader international co-operation is so important. I hope that we will secure the co-operation of those who have older and longer experience in Europe. They have often had experience of rapid development – and that will be greatly welcomed in many parts of the world.

As I have already said a few times today, we offer quality rather than quantity, but that does not mean that we should be arrogant. I have not always known exactly how much progress has been made in some countries when it comes to gender equality, environmental sustainability and so forth. There are not so many old-fashioned, arrogant gentlemen around; more and more are women. Let us break those old-fashioned pictures. We should be proud of which country we come from. Have people ever been to Finnish towns? Have they seen how far we have come towards being a modern European country in such a short time? We are ready to learn from them.

It sounds very poetic, but this is really our old planet and it should be okay for our future generations. We need very close co-operation with other parts of the world. In that way, we will help all our children to survive.

Ms PELKONEN (Finland)

The principle of gender equality is written in the European Union treaties. The Treaty of Rome demanded that member States guaranteed equal pay for equal work. Gender equality, however, is far from what it should be in Europe. On average, women still earn 17% less than men. In your view, Ms President, what are the greatest obstacles to gender equality in Europe? As one of the forerunners of equality, how can Finland serve as an example for the rest of Europe?

Mr Halonen, President of Finland

If nobody had achieved anything in this area it would be a very hard task. We know that there is a problem of lagging gender equality in many countries, but we can learn from each other. In Finland we have even survived having a lady president for 12 years, and in the recent past we had a government comprising a slight majority of women. However, we have not succeeded so well in business; many countries have a better position for women in business. I hope we can learn from you. Members of the Parliamentary Assembly have ties and networks. In Finland, when it comes to employees, the women tend to work very much in the sector of health, education and social welfare – and, more recently, in the environment. They often have a better education than men, and they do very well at school, university and even at higher levels.

The situation is still complicated in working life. Salaries in those sectors where women predominate are not as high as in those where men traditionally predominate – in heavy industry and so forth. We need to recognise the value of services; that is one way to proceed, although it is sometimes difficult to get this through. As the member who put the question well knows, we need decisive politics in our own countries, but we also need to follow examples from other member States. I hope that we do not need to wait for the following generations to get this work done. We in Finland have tried, and nobody else has made it any better. What we have noticed is that in business life those corporations that have both men and women on their boards get better results than those that have only men on their boards. I do not think that is only because they have women on their boards; it also shows that they have been more open-minded in finding new solutions. If anyone is interested in this topic, I think they will be able to find statistics illustrating what I have just said.


Thank you. We must now conclude the questions to Ms Halonen. It has been a great pleasure to listen to you and to hear your frank answers. It has been a great honour for us to welcome you here today. Thank you.