The New Year starts in an atmosphere that is serious in many ways. Violence has broken out in various parts of the world. The greatest cause for concern is the situation in Gaza. The spiralling violence should be severed and issues should be agreed around the negotiation table.
“Peace is a matter of will”, said President Ahtisaari upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on 10 December. The award was, most of all, recognition for his personal contribution towards building peace. I believe that many of us looked on this also as an incentive for the international community to find reconciliation for the conflicts still unresolved. The will for peace is now needed in the Middle East in particular.
The world is also beset by difficult economic problems. The international economic crisis has triggered off a chain of events that is bound to have an effect also on Finland. Economic development has already slowed down considerably and employment rate has deteriorated. These circumstances highlight the importance of social responsibility.
Many have undoubtedly recalled the recession in the 1990s. Surveys show that it still casts its long shadows over some families. According to experts, the position in Finland today is much better in both the private and public sectors. But there are lessons to be learnt from those times.
Sufficient attention must be paid in time to employment. We must take action to prevent the consequences of the slowdown in economic development coming down most heavily on people who are in the weakest position.
An active economic policy needs to be supported by effective education, employment and social policies. At the same time, we must invest in new expertise – technological and operational innovations. The aim must be the wellbeing of the entire population.
The strength of our society is based on cooperation. International competition will remain tough even during bad economic times. Our baby-boom generation is ageing, which means that our population is ageing rapidly even though the birth rate in Finland is higher than in many other European countries. We have, therefore, many reasons for investing in education and lifelong learning. Knowledge also brings quality to the lives of people of all ages.
The weaknesses in the international financial architecture have, in fact, been well-known for a long time. Many experts have given a warning about this. The ILO World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization stated in its report completed five years ago that in order to reduce the instability the international financial architecture should be renewed rapidly. The goal set was a stable financial system that stimulates global growth, provides adequate financing for enterprises and responds to the needs of workers for decent employment.
Today that goal is more topical than it ever. A broad-based common will is now needed. Finland must in the future cooperate strongly both inside the European Union and worldwide so that we can together contribute to calming the situation and to more stable international development.
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Economic growth can lay the ground for increasing wellbeing. It must, however be in accordance with sustainable development, both ecologically and socially.
The United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Poland in December showed that the countries of the world have set out in earnest to combat climate change in spite of the economic crisis. The UN Climate Change Summit to be held in Copenhagen at the end of this year aims at an agreement that will commit all countries to a reduction of emissions at the national level. Industrial countries have a central role to play in mitigating climate change, but the participation of developing countries is also absolutely essential.
Active participation by us Finns too will be needed. We can help developing countries in many ways: with advance warning systems and flood protection mechanisms or by developing good governance, energy efficiency and forestry. Finland has a lot to offer in this cooperation.
The people living around the Baltic Sea region are often said to be highly environmentally conscious people. Nevertheless, the Baltic Sea is one of the worst polluted in the world. At the turn of last year, I wrote a letter together with the Finnish Prime Minister, Matti Vanhanen, to all the heads of state and governments of the countries bordering on the Baltic, inviting and encouraging them to cooperate in order to improve the state of the Sea. The response to our initiative has been very positive.
The Baltic Sea forms a unique natural environment. The same characteristics that make our Sea unique also make it extremely sensitive. Everything that happens in its catchment area affects the Sea. Fortunately, what is caused by human action may still be remedied by human action. It is not easy and means that we will need to seriously consider our way of living and our every-day choices – and be prepared to make changes.
We do not need to start from scratch. Many good projects are already under way. Public and private partnerships, cross-sector and cross-border networks have been created around the region. I would like to thank everyone for the cooperation and encouragement. This is a good path along which to continue. I promise that I will also do my best in the future to save our shared Sea.
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Once again, I have to tackle the question of violence in Finnish society. I am really concerned about it. Last year many Finns lost someone they loved to violence. The school murders in Kauhajoki last September and several other acts of violence in various parts of the country have shocked us all.
Unfortunately, the school murders and other violence that has come in for public attention are but the tip of the iceberg. Every year more than one hundred people are killed in our country. Homicide is mainly violence between men, but also dozens of women lose their lives every year to family-related violence. Rapes and other forms of violence are even more common. We cannot and must not close our eyes to this. There must be a change.
There are many excuses leading to violence. In the end, violence is the act of an individual for which he/she bears the responsibility and we must not lose sight of this.
We can also make a joint contribution. The general welfare policy prevents exclusion. Adequate mental health services or preventive social work could have helped in many situations. Bullying at school must be stopped in time. The severity of violent behavior is also affected by the large number of firearms and heavy drinking.
There is no miraculous means of eliminating violence, but there many effective ways of reducing it. I am pleased to see that the Government and Parliament have undertaken measures for reducing the harmful effects of alcohol and restricting the availability of handguns. I hope that, as far as both of these matters are concerned, progress will be made resolutely and quickly. I am also encouraging a further reduction in violent behaviour. Violence must play no part in our lifestyle.
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This year will be the two hundredth since Finland achieved autonomy and its own central administration. Finland’s state connection with Sweden of more than six hundred years was a broken. Finland became a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire. In the Diet of Porvoo, Alexander I stated that Finland would be promoted into being a nation among nations. Together with a long period of peace these events created the conditions for building our society and, in the end, independence for our country.
The Finnish War and Treaty of Hamina, the Diet of Porvoo and establishing the Senate of Finland were part of the revolution throughout the whole of Europe. These events will be remembered this year and I am delighted to learn of the hundreds of local celebrations that will be taking place to mark the year.
I believe the anniversary year will increase our awareness of the history of our own country and our efforts to build a democratic society. At the same time, we can, as Finns, continue to cooperate with our neighbours in northern Europe.
With these words, I open a national year of commemoration celebrating the year 1809.
In the global scale, Finland is still a good country to live in. We face challenging times, but together and with cooperation we will come through. An integrated society both economically and socially has been our strength in the past and our future must be built on it.
On behalf of my husband and myself, I would like to thank all of you for your contacts and support during the past year. I wish all of you a Happy New Year 2009.