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Speech by the President of the Republic of Finland Mr. Sauli Niinistö at the Doctor of Laws Honorary Doctor’s degree Ceremony of the University of Minnesota September 23, 2017 - The President of the Republic of Finland

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Speeches, 9/23/2017

Speech by the President of the Republic of Finland Mr. Sauli Niinistö at the Doctor of Laws Honorary Doctor’s degree Ceremony of the University of Minnesota September 23, 2017

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I would like to thank the University of Minnesota and its Law School for this honour. I will accept this honorary degree as an acknowledgement to Finland as well as an incentive to continue our work for the common good.

Finland's relationship with Minnesota is a special one. The North Star State is one of the most important areas to which Finns have migrated. An excellent example of our close connection is the Finnish language education provided by the University of Minnesota that began in 1940. It is the most extensive Finnish language programme in the United States.

Recently, education cooperation between our countries gained significant new momentum when the United States gave a donation to the Fulbright Finland Foundation in honour of Finland's centennial celebration. Thanks to the donation, cooperation and understanding between Finland and the United States will grow stronger. Most importantly, this will take place in great part through personal visits and contacts. Finland values the donation very highly.

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One hundred years ago today, the front page of the biggest Finnish daily – Helsingin Sanomat – was dedicated to the forthcoming parliamentary elections. The paper emphasised to the nation on the very threshold of its independence that, and I quote, "In these elections, the people must decide how they want the great affairs of their homeland to be handled.” The goal set for Finns by the paper was nothing less than full independence, as well as the return to the rule of law, civil liberties and good labour relations. At the same time the paper reminded that "when reaching for something new, we must not endanger the old."

This was an important point. By the time of its independence Finland had already accumulated quite a bit of "the old". Indeed, building on the good foundation laid previously was a decisive factor in helping Finland in becoming the country it is today. For me, one of the most important premises for Finland’s continued development has been the principle of rule of law. To echo the words of Abraham Lincoln, rule of law exists only by and for the people. To work properly it requires an active engagement by the citizens.

In my view three ingredients are required to foster active citizenship. Firstly, people must have access to information about issues that affect their lives. They must also be allowed to debate the issues that matter. Openness and freedom of speech are fundamental for a well-functioning democracy, regardless whether the country in question is young or old. The Freedom of Press Act passed by the Swedish Parliament 250 years ago opened up these rights for the Finns. The Act eliminated advance censorship and opened both administrative and legal documents, allowing the public to view them. The Act resulted in a strong Nordic tradition of openness that has survived many attacks. It has also brought us many benefits. For this reason, the objective of Finland's international activities is to promote the same principles, which we ourselves have felt are important. Safeguarding the rule of law at home and promoting it around the world are the cornerstones of Finland's activities.

Secondly, the ordinary people must have the ability to use and process the information they receive and act as active citizens. Achieving this was set in motion 150 years ago when the teacher education system in the Finnish language was established. The high level of competence held by teachers, as well as equal and child-centred teaching, have guaranteed that our schools provide a strong foundation of knowledge, skills and competence, which allow for success in later life.

Finally, the people must have equal rights to take full part in the political process. The foundation for a fair and equal Finland in this respect was laid down in 1906, when the still then Grand Duchy of Finland adopted universal and equal suffrage.

The decision to give women the full right to vote and allow them to stand as candidates in elections was a radical one at the time. But it was one that enabled Finland to develop into one of the world's most equal countries. It is also clear that without equality and equal opportunities, Finland's current success would not have been possible.

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One hundred years ago, the building blocks for our independence already existed. The Finns and their democratically elected representatives knew both then and later on how to make responsible decisions. Decisions that allowed a poor country to develop into a welfare state that is currently ranked as the world's least fragile country. Finland's experience demonstrates that democracy combined with the rule of law is the foundation on which a well-functioning society is built. A respect for stability, democracy as well as human rights and rule of law strengthens peace and enables sustainable development. An independent and well-functioning legal system in which people can put their trust is the precondition for the rule of law and a stable society. A democratic country based on the rule of law cannot exist without human rights. But the same applies in reverse as the realisation of rights requires democracy and the rule of law. Those Principles that we feel self-evident are not necessarily so in many other countries. Today we see problems even in the EU.

We cannot lull ourselves into the false sense of security that the progress previously achieved will simply continue by its own momentum. On the contrary, we must strive daily to promote the rule of law both internationally and in our home countries. This applies to all of us.

***

A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of having a discussion with the American author Paul Auster. While discussing literature and current world affairs, he stated the following:”If there is no justice for everybody, there is justice for no one.” This is a thought that we all should reflect upon. To my mind, it points to a destination but also suggests that we are not there yet – there is still much work to do. I thank you once for this great honour. I am indeed very happy and proud to be receiving this honorary doctorate today.

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Updated 9/23/2017

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