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The President of the Republic of Finland

The President of the Republic of Finland
Speeches, 3/1/2012

Speech by President of the Republic Tarja Halonen in Parliament, 1 March 2012

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My term of office as President of the Republic is coming to an end. I would like to thank the people of Finland and the Members of Parliament for the support I have received in carrying out my duties over the past twelve years.

We have done a lot of work on behalf of the Finnish people and for a better world. We have had some success, but we have also had to learn patience. A failure or setback can occur in a heartbeat, whereas positive developments are agonisingly slow.

In this new millennium, we have already seen the destruction of the Twin Towers, the rise of terrorism and the war in Iraq. There is still fighting in Afghanistan. Armed conflicts continue to arise within and between countries all around the world. The situation in the Middle East seems to be more inflamed than ever before. We have seen a constant string of natural disasters, from tsunamis to earthquakes, from floods to extreme drought. Financial crises are in the news on a daily basis.

And this was supposed to be the new and better millennium?

But we can change things for the better. The United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000, the Millennium Declaration and the Millennium Goals can in my mind be given as an excellent example of the power of international co-operation. The Millennium Goals have proven to be an effective tool in eradicating poverty and more generally in boosting social justice.

The World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalisation, appointed by the ILO, also contributed to these efforts by laying down guidelines on fair globalisation and how to control it better. The importance of decent work for human wellbeing was rediscovered. The notion that nation-states are irrelevant in a globalised world was proven wrong. On the contrary: it is now unanimously accepted that in order to be fair, globalisation must be governed by strong nation-states, such as the Nordic countries. Concerns about the risk inherent in the unregulated architecture of international finance have proved to be regrettably well-founded.

The United Nations High Level Panel on Global Sustainability, appointed by the Secretary General, submitted its report in January this year, presenting unanimous recommendations. Already, the comments received to this report give cause to hope that the world is ready to make the transition from seeking economic growth at any cost to a green economy where growth is welcomed but must be socially just and in keeping with the constraints set by the natural environment.

We are living in a world of crises. We should be able to perceive the correct shared long-term course we should take and to adapt our day-to-day actions to that end. We must learn to see natural values and human resources in the right way. Improving the potential for women to participate and exert influence and involving young people are fundamental requirements for sustainable development.

The global perspective is a commonplace in international politics today, even in Finland. However, this does not in any way diminish the importance of our immediate vicinity and our relations with the countries that border us. Neighbours are always important. The European Union requires prospective Member States to have good relations with their neighbours. Co-operation, economic and otherwise, benefits both individuals and society at large.

In our neighbouring areas, we have achieved close co-operation especially around the Baltic Sea. In addition to several existing official contexts, Finland has initiated the Baltic Sea Action summit and network focusing on environmental co-operation. The strength of this approach is that the governments of the Baltic Sea countries are working together not only with each other but also with NGOs and businesses. I hope that our Baltic Sea project will retain its vitality.

* * *

Finland is part of the world, but this country and this nation is our specific responsibility. In my actions, I have consistently sought to promote equality in Finnish society. This naturally involves many challenges.

It was already apparent at the turn of the millennium that income differences were growing. For some reason, we did not want to see this or were not able to do so. In recent years, Finland has become a country where traditionally small income differences have increased the most sharply. It is a huge change, and we should be very worried about it. Income differences have led to an increase in inequality in other areas of life too.

Society evolves in long, slow cycles. We must be vigilant enough to detect even weak signals of change. This is true not only in the area of social and financial wellbeing but also in social debate and the general mood in the country. It would be humanly wrong to demolish the foundation of the Nordic welfare society, which has given Finland a high level of international competitiveness.

We have made progress in the area of equality, though, even if it is slow. Attitudes shift gradually, and today gender equality is taken for granted and does not to be separately justified at every turn. In the world in general and in Finnish society in particular, women now occupy positions that they never held before. I am pleased to have contributed in some way to this development.

The presidential election we have just had in Finland fuelled the debate about regional inequality in our country. We must proceed from the assumption that we will continue to develop our country as a whole, respecting its regional special characteristics. Finland is a network whose regions depend on one another for their wellbeing. Regional development requires determination from the regions themselves and a capability for leveraging their strengths. It is important that we are able to harness our entire human potential nationwide. And in carrying out reforms, we must pay attention to the citizens whom those reforms will affect. I consider it important for the President to visit all regions of the country regularly.

Back when I was the Minister for Foreign Affairs, I was determined that Finland should ratify the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of the ILO. Unfortunately the ratification process has not yet progressed.

Equality is a broad concept, and for me it includes multiculturalism and non-discrimination. It is worrying that intolerance and hate speech seem to have increased in our society quite recently. This is aimed not only at immigrants but at all minorities. Preventing discrimination is ultimately up to the authorities, but we have a broader responsibility as well, from education, communications and working life to other contexts. We must improve the potential for immigrants to become integrated into our society, and we must promote dialogue between cultures and religions. Every individual can also consider for himself or herself how to contribute to non-discrimination.

Minority cultures and their languages are a richness. Finland has a relatively small population, and our language minorities are very small indeed. We must take good care of them. It is important to safeguard the status of Swedish as our second national language and to ensure that the language rights of Swedish speakers are upheld in accordance with good governance. Our Constitution protects the Sámi language, the Roma language and sign language just as well, and the status of the Karelian language is also now recognised in legislation.

A major part of work done on behalf of human rights is never actually seen in public. Throughout my present term in office I have engaged in a continuous dialogue with the civil society in a variety of ways. I have met representatives from numerous non-governmental organisations, interest groups, trade unions and religious communities. I consider it important to demonstrate an interest, both personal and official, in the diversity of our society. Things can be influenced in many different ways, and the results of any efforts undertaken will possibly not be seen until much later.

A rare public example of this background influence can be seen in the 20 presidential forums I have held on a wide range of topics from foreign policy to the development of Finnish society and from environmental issues to history and culture. The last of these forums, held in January, focused on what young people think about the future. The debate addressed the risk of social exclusion and increasing inequality among young people, an issue I have myself voiced concern about on several occasions. We need to take care of those who cannot keep up with the rest of us. I am gratified that my successor as President of the Republic also recognised the issue and promised to address it.

* * *

The most recent amendments to our Constitution enter into force today. The authority of the President of the Republic has been somewhat redefined. Although the provisions on leadership of foreign policy remain unchanged, the amendments enacted emphasise the importance of continued good collaboration between the President and the Government. The principal context for this collaboration is formed by the regular joint meetings of the President and the Cabinet Committee on Foreign and Security Policy. The already established practice whereby the President of the Republic can also convene such a meeting has now been enshrined in law.

Although I am myself a lawyer, I must admit that not everything can be resolved by legal points. Following these newest amendments to the Constitution, the focus will be on how the key institutions of government are able and willing to work together: the President of the Republic, Parliament and the Government. I hope that co-operation, communication and information exchange will continue to be understood as absolutely vital.

The President of the Republic is an institution embodied in one person, and according to the Constitution he or she is the President of the entire nation. The political reality is somewhat different. Anyone elected to this office will have to work to achieve that distinction. As for myself, I have always wanted to be the people’s President. The rest is up to the people. One can never please everyone and one has to take criticism. One must be prepared to pursue the best interests of the nation and to take the side of the weak if necessary. Public attitudes to the President, elected by majority of a popular vote, reflect attitudes to democracy in general. Once more I want to give my heartfelt thank you to the people of Finland.
I wish my successor good fortune and every success in his office. I hope he may have the strength, the wisdom and the patience to execute his demanding job for the best benefit of Finland and its people. I trust that he will receive all the support and help that he requires.

In closing, I wish each and every one of you a fortunate and prosperous future.

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Updated 3/1/2012

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