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Opening Statement by President Halonen at the seminar “UN at 70: Still Going Strong” hosted by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and The Erik Castrén Institute” on 28 August 2015

UN at 70: Still Going Strong, Säätytalo, 28 August 2015
Opening statement by President Halonen

“We the Peoples of the United Nations” – The contribution of the UN Charter to a better world for all


Ladies and Gentlemen, dear participants,

It’s a wonderful opportunity to be here and to address you at this important gathering. The anniversary of the United Nations is an occasion to look back at the achievements of the first 70 years of the organization.

The UN has made remarkable accomplishments in fulfilling its goals. It has saved millions of lives and created the basis for a reasonably stable international order. To put in some numbers, nearly 200 peace settlements and more than 500 international treaties have been concluded during that time. The UN now also provides a forum for a structured dialogue for its 193 member-states, observers and other stakeholders. Its specialized agencies have a variety of responsibilities in the service of the planet.

The UN Charter is the foundational treaty of the organization. It is also the single most important source of international law. The Charter was negotiated as a response to the horrors of the two World Wars of the 20th century. Countries were determined to ensure that such horrors should not be repeated in the future. That is also what the first phrase of the Charter states.

The second phrase emphasizes human rights and equality: “Determined … to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small,

The third phrase of the Charter stresses the importance of justice and international Law. The Charter also confirms as one of its core objectives the promotion of social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom. In addition to creating the basis for the new world order, the Charter paved the way for future developments in all these areas and remains as relevant today as it was for 70 years ago.

The UN Charter established three founding pillars of the UN system: peace and security, human rights and development. The three pillars are intertwined and mutually reinforcing. As the former Secretary General Kofi Annan has said: “we will not enjoy security without development, enjoy development without security, and we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights”.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

This seminar today will address all of the three pillars of the UN system. I will focus on human rights and development, as my current activities in Finland and internationally relate mostly to those fields.

The UN has made great efforts for the advancement of human rights beginning with the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” adopted by the General Assembly in 1948. Since then the universality and normativity of Human Rights have been reinforced by numerous human rights treaties and mechanisms.

The Charter and the reaffirmed human rights have unfortunately been under attack both in practice and in principle. Only member states are directly bound by the treaties. But governments have the obligation to oversee that the provisions they have agreed to are respected in their administrations, courts and are part of legislation.

Legal systems vary from country to country, but I would hope that courts would refer directly at least to the legally binding UN treaties as a source of law. The treaties are namely not just signs of good intent, but binding agreements.

One such treaty is the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is hugely important and has shaped the national legislation of, I believe, most countries in the world. This allows children to claim their rights before the national authorities and to raise awareness about their issues among their peers, parents and communities. Children’s rights are acknowledged and they can take cases to national courts if they think their rights have been breached. If national legislation is not in harmony with the Convention, national courts could make use of the principle of human rights friendly interpretation and implement directly the Convention in their proceedings and judgments.

It is indeed of utmost importance that national courts make more frequently explicit references to the Convention, and it’s Optional Protocols too, in their proceedings and judgments to further strengthen the Convention. To provide children with the opportunity to access justice at the international level, I encourage States to ratify the new Optional Protocol to the Convention on a communications procedure.

At the regional level, if the national courts wrongly reject their claim, they can take a case to the European Court of Human Rights, once they have exhausted all domestic remedies. The various references to the Convention in the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights is a proof of the practical significance of the Convention for the realization of the rights of the child.

The fact that people know of their rights (and obligations) and of those treaties, is the base for everything. And of course education, education and once more education is the foundation upon which to build that knowledge. Even the UN could think of ways to use the possibilities of new technology to create mechanisms to increase awareness of and enforce compliance with international treaties.

With regards to the various Summits where many non-binding treaties are agreed, my own experience is, that a morally binding tone and spirit should be created. With that spirit the Heads of State, diplomats and NGO representatives will feel that they are part of something larger, more meaningful that will also carry on to their everyday work. If Summits are regarded only as everlasting speech forums and photo opportunities, they will not encourage people to be brave and resilient in the implementation phase. At worst, the outcomes could just die on paper.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

The UN has done much to protect the most vulnerable and to give voice to the marginalized groups. Vaccination programs and humanitarian assistance have saved millions of lives. The Millennium Development Goals lead to much progress in poverty reduction, public health, school enrollment, gender equality in education, and other areas. Extreme poverty has been reduced by well over half since 1990.

The MDGs were a great success, but the importance of a Work – decent work – was really understood only later on. The ILO’s World Commission published its unanimous report in 2004. But now as part of the new Sustainable Development Goals, decent work has a proper place on our Agenda 2030.

Another important phase was the Rio+20 Summit: finally there women, the poor and youth were recognized both as agents of change, a great untapped resource as well as especially vulnerable in need of attention. It was a long due battle which we finally won.

These issues still require our continued attention and the work is by no means completed. The year 2015 has been crucial for the Post 2015 process on the SDGs as well as the UNFCCC process on climate change. Let me emphasize that the work for the eradication of poverty and controlling climate change is also hard work for the maintenance of international peace and security.

The new 2030 Agenda is an unprecedented, universal and comprehensive framework that integrates the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. No efforts should be spared to meet its aspirations of eradicating poverty, eliminating inequalities and fostering peaceful, just and inclusive societies.

My current work centers very much on sustainable development with a particular focus on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, gender equality, decent work, desertification and issues pertinent to gender and climate change.

I have co-chaired the ICPD Task Force together with the former President of Mozambique for the past 2-3 years. We have managed to keep SRHR in the discussions but the final Agenda 2030 will lack the last R, from the SRHR. As we all know there is certain conservatism on the rise also in international negotiations, and that’s why we have not managed with our likeminded partners to advance on the Cairo Agenda as much as we had hoped.

However, I am in general satisfied with the new SDGs. They are the result of very tough negotiations. Some work still on indicators is left to be done, and the Sustainable development Solutions Network, of which I am a member, is among others contributing to that work. Now the key is implementation. Implementation at all levels, by a multiplicity of actors from governments, to local institutions, the civil society and the private sector. This must be guided by key principles of inclusiveness, empowerment, transparency and a human rights-based approach.

As Secretary-General of the UN Ban Ki-Moon has recently said ours can be the first generation to end poverty — and the last generation to address climate change before it is too late.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I started by saying that this is a good occasion to remember and honor what the UN has done. This is also a great opportunity to look forward. I hope my words will encourage all of us to keep on working to transform and bring the outstanding principles of the UN into practice in our everyday lives.

I thank you.