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Speech at the seminar of the Finnish NGO Foundation for Human Rights (KIOS)

President Tarja Halonen’s speech at the seminar of the Finnish NGO Foundation for Human Rights (KIOS) on Human Rights Defenders as Actors of Social Change September 18, 2013

(check against delivery)

Dear friends, it is a real pleasure to be here today.

Human rights defenders are the people who on their own or with others take action to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights. They are lawyers, trade union activists, community workers, journalists and whistleblowers of corruption, women and men – many different kinds of persons. They are people like us.

The most important issue is not, however, who they are, but what they do. Human rights defenders reveal human rights violations. And they help to redress these violations by peaceful means. This is why they need not only our respect, but our protection and support.

We all know that without these courageous people the world today would look very different. They often risk their lives to make a difference, especially for the ones who don’t have a voice in a society – the most vulnerable ones. We can only be grateful for the work they’re doing: they document violations, seek remedies for victims and combat cultures of impunity, to mention a few of their most important actions. Often this work comes with a too big of a price: too often the defenders themselves end up becoming victims of human rights violations.

I encourage you to find ways on how we could do more. For instance, every day actions are important, like refusing to laugh at a racist joke. We know that there are always people who commend you for what you do but do not dare to act themselves. I believe that policemen, doctors and social workers, to name a few, can be part of the solution.

The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders defines HRDs broadly. An HRD is a person who promotes and strives to protect human rights at the national and individual level, regardless of profession or any other status. States have a responsibility to protect HRDs against any violence, retaliation and intimidation that comes as a consequence of their work.

Human rights defenders’ work is not limited to civil and political rights; they are also active promoters of economic, social and cultural rights. I consider this to be very important.

In Europe, the situation of the Romani people is as difficult as the situation of minorities can be in developing countries. This is an example of how discrimination does not disappear with wealth.

Working as an HRD entails revealing actions or omissions that are contrary to the obligations of the Government and the authorities to respect, protect and fulfil human rights. – As such, their work aims to reveal and correct serious problems in a given society or globally. This criticism should not be seen as something negative, or unpatriotic, but as a prerequisite for change.

Years ago, when I was a representative at CEDAW, we discussed that family violence should be raised. I remember a representative from another country telling me how sorry she was that family violence occurred in Finland. I replied that I though the issue was global, but our men and women had decided to do something about it. I guess this is similar to the situations you face in your work.

In recent years, we have seen a negative trend in different parts of the world: Governments in numerous countries are reducing the space for civil society. This has been done through new or amended legislation or regulation, by cutting available funding, or by promoting an environment that is hostile towards specific groups and human rights defenders. This year alone, several HRDs have been killed and many more attacked physically. Death threats are common, and impunity is widespread. HRDs all around the world are arrested, detained, taken to court and convicted on false grounds. Intimidation by civil or military authorities as well as by armed groups is also common. Even homes and offices, not to mention family members, are being harassed. Also attitudes towards many groups and minorities have hardened, leading to increasing discrimination towards the individuals belonging to these groups, as well as the HRDs’ promoting their rights.

Despite these facts, we witness a growing number and more diversity in the human rights defenders’ activities. The internet and social media is used more to expose violations and campaign for redress for victims. Therefore access to information and freedom of expression must be a part of cyber security standards. But please remember that the same channels are used for opposite reasons as well.

Female human rights defenders, as activists but also as family members, are often in a particularly vulnerable position. Because of social, legal and customary restrictions their work is often more difficult and the dangers more prevalent. Verbal assaults, sexual harassment and even rape are something no-one should have to go through. And yet something many female HRDs are too familiar with.

Finland is a strong supporter of the work done in international organizations to protect human rights defenders. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and the European Union Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders are the two main guiding documents for us.

Finland supports human rights defenders also bilaterally. We support institutions that protect human rights (such as National Human Rights Commissions, Ombudsman’s offices and alike). The questions of HRDs are raised up in the dialogues with the partner countries.

Finland gives also direct financial support to civil society organizations. Local human rights NGOs are supported either through Finnish NGOs (such as KIOS) or directly with embassies’ local cooperation funds. These NGOs are focused on a variety of human rights monitoring, promotion and protection issues and many times work in very challenging environments. They also have a key role in building awareness on human rights and democracy by arranging awareness raising campaigns on human rights and anti-corruption issues. According to my own experience, NGOs are normally first present in conflicts and the last to leave even in the most difficult situations.

The Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland published its first Human Rights Strategy and Action Plan 10th of June 2013. The Strategy outlines the principles, approaches and objectives of international human rights policy pursued as a part of Finland’s foreign and security policy.

Human rights are a high priority in Finland`s security and foreign policy. The Strategy defines two cross-cutting objectives for Finland´s human rights policy, the elimination of discrimination and greater openness and inclusion. These objectives will be taken into consideration in all activities and actively promoted bilaterally and through international organisations.

The current flagship projects are:
• Promoting women’s and girls’ human rights and opportunities for participation;
• Promoting the legal status and implementation of economic, social and cultural rights; and
• Greater inclusion.

Finland has taken a more active role also in the question of Human Rights Defenders. We have an Advisory Board on International Human Rights Affairs, consisting of human rights organizations and representatives of Finnish parliamentary parties, participated in the preparation of these instruments since the very beginning. The Board also plays a key role in the follow-up of the implementation.

In the Strategy the Foreign Service of my country has committed to intensifying cooperation with civil society both at home and abroad. Experience has shown that cooperating with the civil society is a key to positive changes in the human rights system.

Back when there was a military coup in Chile, the Finnish Embassy as well as other Nordic ones took refugees immediately, which I thought was courageous. I doubt this would happen nowadays, when Embassies are much more careful due to terrorist threats etc.

According to the Action Plan, Finland is committed to supporting human rights defenders in several ways. Examples of actions in this regard are:
• promoting the political and economic participation of women by: enhancing cooperation with relevant organizations as well as with women human rights defenders, while paying due attention to their safety;
• paying particular attention to the status and safety of human rights defenders working to advance economic, social and cultural rights, taking into account vulnerable groups in particular.
• instructing visa officials to pay particular attention to human rights and the situation of human rights defenders; and
• using the means at its disposal to offer protection for human rights defenders also in urgent situations where the risk for human rights violations is evident.

One of the most important commitments made is that the Ministry for Foreign Affairs will prepare public guidelines on the implementation of the EU´s Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders for diplomatic missions.

Because of the trust shown towards Finland our country also faces new challenges. Each case is unique, and cooperation at bilateral, EU and international level, as well as with NGOs, is essential in order to gain more effective results than by working alone.

The EU adopted its current Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders in 2008. The Guidelines are an important tool in strengthening the human rights policy of the European Union.

The Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders take as their starting point the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders with its vast definition for Human Rights Defender. This includes both individuals and groups working in different field of human rights.

According to the Guidelines, all EU actors are to be involved in promoting respect for the right to defend human rights. For instance, individual cases are raised and human rights defenders met during different EU visits to third countries.

One of the most concrete and important results of the Guidelines has been the joint Human Rights Defenders meetings held by EU Delegations and EU Member States Embassies together with local human rights defenders. These meetings not only serve as an important platform for changing information, but also give political support to the local HRDs.

Often the EU member states also contact local authorities together on different questions related to Human rights issues. This gives a stronger voice to the action.

For Finland human diversity is a starting point. Special attention is paid to multiple discrimination, which often affects those in the most vulnerable positions. I already mentioned women and girls. But also minorities, indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities can suffer from exclusion and marginalization. Minorities can be discriminated against on different grounds: linguistic or ethnic, based on religion or belief or, for instance, sexual orientation or gender identity.

For Rio+20 I co-chaired the UN High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability together with the President of South Africa. I now co-chair the High-Level Task Force for ICPD (the International Conference on Population and Development) together with President Joaquim Chissano, the former President of Mozambique. The Task Force works for advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights in the Post-2015 Framework as well as in ICPD Beyond 2014. I hope that the Post-2015 Framework will have a human rights approach.