Speech by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, 23 January 2019

Secretary-General, Madame President, Distinguished Members of the Parliamentary Assembly, Ladies and Gentlemen,

2019 is an important year for the Council of Europe. Because of its history, but also for what is at stake for its future.

Looking back, we celebrate the first 70 years of this organization, a cornerstone of the rules-based international order on our continent. The founding idea of that order, established after the horrors of the Second World War, was clear: never again.

Never again must Europe fall into a state of war. War always comes with a cost of terrible human suffering. It often leads to serious violations of human rights, and at its worst even to crimes against humanity.

Human rights, democracy and the rule of law – the values the Council of Europe stands for – can only thrive in a state of peace. Maintaining the absence of war must be our highest priority. At the end of the day, peace is the most important contribution we can make to human rights. Everything else comes after that.

In 1949, this principle was put at the very beginning of the statute of the Council of Europe: “the pursuit of peace based upon justice and international co-operation is vital for the preservation of human society and civilization”.


Throughout the past seven decades, peace and the rules-based order have been remarkably enduring in Europe. The picture has never been perfect, but for a very long time the overall trend continued to be for the better. The Council of Europe and its convention system has played a key role in this development. It has successfully upheld the core values that define us as Europeans.

What worries me, however, is that today we increasingly talk about the success of these values only in the past tense. When looking at the present, let alone the future, we tend to speak with a lot less certainty.

In fact, many of the current divisions in Europe seem to be exactly about our own core values. Instead of exporting them as we used to, we now have to concentrate on defending them at home.

On top of our internal difficulties, we are also living in a rapidly changing global environment. And we can all see that the direction of change is not only positive. The entire rules-based international order is under growing pressure. We are witnessing a negative turn in the level of commitment to international law. Jointly agreed standards and norms are being challenged.


The fate of the rules-based order is not an abstract question. Nor is it only an issue of power politics and relations between states. The standards and provisions the order consists of, and the multilateral institutions that guard them, have profound implications on our daily lives. If they are weakened, ordinary people – individuals, all of us – will suffer.

This means that the Council of Europe is as relevant as ever. Its values have made us what we are: stable and prosperous societies. We need to make sure that future generations are also able to benefit from these accomplishments.

At its essence, the Council of Europe is a forum for peaceful and constructive dialogue. It is the opposite of the rule of the most powerful. On the contrary, the focus of the Council of Europe is on the rights of individuals.

Its Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights allow people to seek justice, when they feel they have not received it nationally. And people really do use this opportunity. There are now over 57 000 applications pending before the Court.

To put those figures in perspective, we should not forget how large a population enjoys this protection today. When Finland joined the Council of Europe 30 years ago, we became its 23rd member. Since then the number of member states has doubled. We are now 47 states, 840 million people. The Council, the convention system and the Court are there for every one of them. This is a major achievement, but also a big responsibility.


I know that the Council of Europe is currently going through a reform process. Acute budgetary issues and administrative reforms need to be addressed, of course. But even more important is to use this opportunity to discuss the future vision and focus of the organization.

My hope is that the Council of Europe remains the backbone for all its members. The reform process should build on the unique strengths of the organization. They are, in particular, the European Court of Human Rights, the Commissioner for Human Rights and the monitoring mechanisms. The commitment to legally binding treaties by member states must not weaken.

Yet if we want to succeed in safeguarding those invaluable fundamentals of the Council of Europe, we cannot close our eyes from the changes in the world we live in. The signatories of the statute in 1949 could not have imagined many of the phenomena surrounding us, ones that we now take for granted. Additional surprises will surely follow.

In order to remain relevant, like any organization, the Council of Europe needs to be agile and able to address new issues as they arise. Living in time sounds commonplace as an objective, but it is not an easy task.

A need for dynamism in the work of the Council of Europe may come from completely new sources. New technologies like artificial intelligence, or climate change with all its repercussions, can provide us with unforeseen impacts – affecting human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

But surprises can also come from issues that are not in themselves new, simply new in their volume or nature. In the past few years, migration has been one of the most divisive issues in Europe, within countries as well as between them. I believe the main responsibility in responding to this particular challenge lies with the European Union.

Unless the EU is able to agree on common rules on migration, we run the risk of a race to the bottom: member states competing with each other on being the least attractive destination. That would be bad news for the core values of the Council of Europe, too.

In the coming years, we may have many difficult discussions ahead of us. The Council of Europe can bring added value to all of these debates, on political, legal and ethical levels alike. Or values, in plural, to be precise. The Council of Europe bears a responsibility for making sure that its principles continue to shape the future of Europe, as they have for the past 70 years.

I believe the Foreign Minister of Finland will have discussed the priorities of the current Finnish Presidency of the Ministerial Committee with you yesterday. Please allow me to say a few words about one of our key themes: gender equality and women’s rights.

Gender equality has been a central element in Finland’s success story, in our own rise from poverty to prosperity. This would not have been possible without equal opportunities for all. What has worked out well for Finland, applies to the world at large. We simply cannot afford to undermine the rights of half of the population. In addition to gender equality simply being the right thing to pursue, it also has an important economic impact, contributing to more sustainable development.

One crucial area of gender equality is the prevention of violence against women. In this field, the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe is a groundbreaking document in its ambition and scope. It sets clear targets for us all to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls. In Finland, we have taken a number of concrete steps since ratifying the document, but much still needs to be done.

Decreasing violence against women in Finland is one of my commitments as a HeForShe Impact Champion of UN Women. The issue of the persistent high level of violence against women and girls, not only in Finland but globally, is a source of deep disquiet and concern for me. In order to build more equal and sustainable societies, this violence has to stop.


The Council of Europe is currently in worrisome political difficulties. We face the acute risk of losing one member. Let me be clear: there are no doubts about the origin of this situation. Finland was among the first countries to publicly condemn the annexation of Crimea. Nonetheless, Russia’s departure from the Council of Europe would be a loss for all sides. And ultimately, it would be yet another blow for the entire rules-based international order.

I trust that the Council of Europe will solve this current crisis, as it has solved all previous ones. Finland will actively support efforts, together with other member states and stakeholders, to find a way forward. This problem cannot be solved without the Parliamentary Assembly. Hence, I call for a close cooperation between the institutions – the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly – to work for a common and sustainable solution.


Distinguished Members of the Parliamentary Assembly,

You are the best experts of your own forum. In the dialogue that follows, I would be especially interested in hearing your concrete ideas on a possible way forward.