Dear Heads of Mission and colleagues around the world,
This year, many meetings – and this one is no exception – have started with the question: “Can you hear me?” For my part, I can assure you that as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, I have heard the messages sent by you from your various diplomatic posts very well. I hope that you have heard the Minister as well.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the work of the embassies has been indispensable: it has been vital for the monitoring of the rapid progress of the crisis, for making preparations, gaining understanding and helping Finns around the world. In the midst of this crisis, we have taken good care of our citizens abroad. Nordic and EU level coordination in repatriation flights is one example of a successful collaborative effort in response to the crisis.
I would like to express my sincere thanks to the staff of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, both in Finland and abroad, for their valuable input in responding to the coronavirus crisis.
Many of you have continued to work hard despite personal issues: family members in risk groups, schools that have been closed, companies that have switched to remote work.
We are now experiencing a prolonged Covid-19 crisis. Vaccines are under development but they will not be available tomorrow. There is no certainty if they will be available next year, either – or how long the vaccine will work once it is taken into use. We are also dealing with an exceptionally cunning virus.
We cannot let our guard down for one minute in the battle against coronavirus. At the same time, we must keep the ball rolling. We must take care of education, healthcare, economy, security; all of the valuable aspects of our society.
Finland is an export-led open economy. Our markets are global. We cannot close our borders and wait for coronavirus to subside. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs is working to ensure that our companies and products thrive around the world and in new markets. This work is now more important than ever.
In a prolonged crisis, we must also be able to provide answers to citizens’ everyday problems: Will my spouse be allowed to travel to Finland? Will my company receive the international workforce it needs? Will I be able to bring my adopted child home? Can I cross a national border for work? How and when can I get a visa during the pandemic?
We need an exceptional amount of advice, answers and guidance. We are a service organisation, and our task is to help citizens and companies in these everyday matters. The quality of service must be high and people-oriented, even during these difficult times. New situations sometimes call for new solutions.
The Covid-19 crisis again reminds us that the world is our village. It is not enough to prevent the spread of the virus close to home; beating the pandemic calls for a concentrated effort all over the world.
We need international cooperation. The pandemic has rapidly increased humanitarian needs, and it reminds developed societies of their vulnerability. We also experienced numerous challenges in our own security of supply last spring.
Preparedness for various disasters and catastrophes is of utmost importance. Last spring also taught us how quickly the requests for help will start flooding in, even to us. We must be prepared to help also in those areas where the pandemic is adding to the burden in an already difficult situation. I refer, for example, to civilians and refugee camps that are surrounded by conflicts.
The pandemic will deepen the gap between the poorest and the richest countries of the world. Fragile states and the world’s poorest countries are the least prepared for this kind of a situation.
This year, our staff has faced exceptionally heavy challenges. We must see to the health and safety of ourselves and our loved ones while we are faced with several new and new kinds of work tasks.
In the midst of the crisis – almost without noticing – we have seen a huge digital leap in the Finnish society, including the Government and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. We have become webinar experts, and we are gradually starting to master Zooms, Meets and Teams. This also applies to EU ministerial meetings, where finally everyone is starting to learn that you should keep your microphone off unless it is your turn to speak.
Since March, we have also used remote connections with ministerial colleagues in different countries, and the connections have generally worked well. According to the latest figures, we have arranged more than 100 remote meetings or telephone calls with ministerial colleagues since March.
Low-threshold communication with our close neighbours, Sweden and Estonia, has been particularly active during the crisis. Foreign ministerial counterparts in the United States and Russia have also been on the other end of the line, and we have had bilateral discussions about topical international issues ranging from crisis areas to arms control matters. The need for diplomacy becomes more pressing during a crisis.
It is a good idea to mentally prepare ourselves for the possibility that remote work will continue in the autumn and spring and that some of the new forms of work are here to stay.
Dear ambassadors, dear colleagues, in autumn 2002, President Mauno Koivisto gave an interview about his book “Venäjän idea” (The idea of Russia). The interviewer had reserved a quick question for the end of the interview: “What in your opinion is the idea of Finland?” Koivisto answered with one word in Russian that can be translated as survival.
There are at least two different viewpoints to survival: what we do ourselves and what happens around us. The big question is how much we can influence what takes place in the world and around us. Foreign policy and diplomacy are part of this influence.
Tension between the superpowers has increased, and it is especially evident in the US–China relations. People often talk about the return of geopolitics. Competitive fields include economy, technological advancement, weapon systems as well as leadership in international organisations, such as the UN.
We should ask ourselves if geopolitics is a sufficient description of the current events around us. This is not just a question of power policy and geography but also of competition between various systems: a rules-based system grounded on free trade versus protectionism that closes borders; a multi-party system and democracy versus authoritarian models of governance; an increasing role and significance of civil society versus keeping public opinion in check.
Finland has a long history in the world of values and ideologies. In his memoirs, Carl Enckell, long-term former Finnish foreign minister and the last Minister-State Secretary in St Petersburg, described our advanced democratic system, cultural life and strong and independent legal order as the foundation of Finland’s independence. This is true even today. In our foreign policy, we also strive to strengthen international developments that help to secure the continuity of these pillars of society.
The Cold War was as much a battle of ideology as it was of spheres of influence. The Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) changed the script of this monologue of the deaf. The first and second basket concerned geopolitics and economy. Here, the Eastern Bloc considered itself a winner because borders and spheres of power were recognised and economic relationships were opened, which made western currency and western technology more attainable. The third basket can be considered a victory of the Western Bloc when it backed the Eastern Bloc’s opposition in addressing issues like human rights and freedom of the press. Helsinki Groups became known in several countries as agents of change. The final result was the collapse of the entire Cold War setting of that time. This means that the soft issues in basket three were at the core of the change.
For a moment, it might have seemed that free market economy, a multi-party system, free and fair elections, free media, civil society and human rights would gradually become universal and the only predominant values. The Responsibility to Protect principle – R2P – became the geopolitical and military dimension of this trend that enabled intervention in the sovereignty of states in case of genocide.
But as we know, the end of the Cold War did not result in the victory of such universal values.
We can still learn at least one thing from the recent past: change is possible and we can influence the content of the change.
The most favourable world for the survival and success of Finland is a world that respects and acknowledges the significance of human rights, maintains the capability of international organisations to resolve global problems and helps to prevent the outbreak of military conflicts. In that sense, we can think that our wellbeing and safety and the promotion of our values are interconnected.
EU High Representative Josep Borrell has called for “a third way” for Europe in the competition between the superpowers. The core of the idea is that Europe must first secure its own interests. It is easy to agree, although formulating these common interests calls for a continuous effort from the EU. In addition to interests, I think that a competition of values and ideologies can be seen here as well.
It is in Finland’s interest to strive for a more active, coherent and powerful EU. This objective demands an increasingly bold approach from the Member States and the High Representative. For our part, we support the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy and are ready to promote a wider introduction of qualified majority voting.
It is good to see that the new High Representative Borrell has also been active in finding a solution to the Balkan issues and in promoting dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. This is an issue where Finland might have something to offer.
In recent years, transatlantic cooperation between Europe and the United States has been tried in many ways. The common historical values remain alive but common objectives seem to have been pushed into the background. We Europeans should also assume responsibility for this. It is good to bear in mind that the Atlantic Ocean has two shores: Europe cannot sit and wait for the Unites States to go back in time; instead, we should present objectives that can be endorsed on both sides of the ocean.
Finland cannot influence all crises and global developments. Our task is to find a correct balance between the tools at our disposal and the goals, the world that we aim to see.
Acting on behalf of strengthening the common global agenda and lowering of tensions could be a suitable task for Finland. This agenda includes challenges bringing all states together: fighting and adapting to climate change; securing biodiversity; global health security; prevention of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and strengthening of nuclear weapons control.
As tensions build in Europe, the risk of miscalculations, accidents and even confrontations increases. Unfortunately, this has happened as recently as in the past weeks in Belarus and the Eastern Mediterranean. The EU foreign ministers held an informal conference on Friday 14 August, and the European Council met to discuss these events on Wednesday 19 August.
Belarus was unable to organise an open and free election, nor did it allow the OSCE to monitor the election as during the previous presidential elections. Demonstrators were abused, the country has political prisoners. The solution lies in the hands of Belarusians themselves. In my discussions with the Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei, I have expressed our support for organising a new, free and fair election, for releasing political prisoners and for allowing OSCE’s current and future Chairs, Albania and Sweden, to visit the country. We have also supported the inclusion of people who have been involved in acts of violence against protesters or who are guilty of ballot-rigging on a sanctions list.
We often think that we have already reached a permanent solution on border issues in Europe. However, the tense security situation in the Eastern Mediterranean is precisely a question of drawing borders in the sea between two NATO countries, Greece and Turkey. The more there are military equipment at sea, the higher the risk of accidents and military miscalculations. There are no winners in a situation like this. As an EU Member State, we express our support for Greece and request that both parties return to the table to lower the tension. I have forwarded this message also to Turkey's Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu. The EU and Germany, the current EU Presidency, have strived to play a bridging role in this issue and deserve all of our support. Even though Turkey has strayed from the EU's value base in recent years, it will remain an important partner of the EU also in future.
The crisis of the international treaty system is also reflected in arms control, which is increasingly influenced by the competition between the United States, China and Russia. Deep distrust is shaking the existing treaty system and hampering the effort to strengthen and renew it.
There has been no shortage of bad news this year. The expiry of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is only six months away but its future remains open. Expiry of the agreement would remove the last restrictions on the superpower’s nuclear weapon arsenal, reduce predictability and increase instability, especially in Europe. The decision of the United States to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, administered by the OSCE, will reduce the trust and transparency that are also important for Finland’s security.
The positive side is that, despite the tensions, the strategic dialogue between the United States and Russia has been re-initiated. It is hard to overestimate the importance of a direct communication channel between the two largest nuclear states.
The date of the NPT Review Conference is uncertain at the moment but the preparations continue. Finland is actively taking part in initiatives that strive to boost nuclear disarmament as part of the NPT review process, with a focus on reducing risks arising from nuclear weapons and on confidence-building measures.
Finland is promoting the Government Programme’s objective to regulate autonomous weapons systems in negotiations that are taking place in Geneva. The aim is to establish a common set of rules that also the biggest arms manufacturing countries adhere to, namely the United States, Russia and China.
Mediation is a topic of discussion nowadays but only a few understand that mediation has also become a very competitive field with several different actors of varying quality. In addition to conflicts between countries, internal tensions and conflicts demand more attention. It has become a tradition for Finland to arrange National Dialogues Conferences to compare the solution models and experiences of national dialogues of various countries.
We have conflict resolution expertise among public officials, civil society organisations, as well as individual operators. Finland has also highlighted the utilisation of technologies and the importance of women in peace processes. Sometimes the required help is also highly technical – this summer we have again used our network of water diplomacy and expertise in international connections.
During the past decade and several government terms, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs has strengthened its support for mediation through national experts and international organisations. The scope and resources of operations have increased. As a result, we will strengthen our effort by pooling the mediation expertise of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in a new unit under the Political Department.
This new unit has been named the Centre for Mediation. The Centre aims to strengthen Finland’s expertise and capacity in mediation matters, to coordinate the activities of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in a more systematic manner as well as to coordinate collaboration with other actors. Arranging round table discussions for peace mediators has demonstrated how much expertise and interest we already have in this field in Finland.
Finland has done good work in the normative operations of the UN, the EU and international organisations and in creating networks of women mediators, for example. Now, it is important to integrate mediation expertise and know-how into activities of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Support for the development of the rule of law and democracy are also important elements of peace processes.
It may come as a surprise to many how much background work, preparations and expertise in various fields is needed to support peace processes. It is long-term work, which is sometimes very invisible. Background work is also required for preparing the parties of the conflict for meeting each other. It is important that Finland is involved in all of this.
The Government Programme defines the foreign and security policy lines and the value base that is founded on a human rights-based approach. The key objective of our foreign and security policy is “to systematically promote gender equality and the full materialisation of girls’ and women’s rights”, as the Government Programme states.
We should stop and think what needs to be done to achieve this goal.
The recently approved Government Action Plan for Gender Equality outlines that the aim of the Government is to ambitiously improve equality and to make Finland the leading country in equality. It means that the principle of equality and non-discrimination is a part of everything we do, both in Finland and in international arenas, and also a part of the Ministry’s daily work and practices.
This also allows us to strengthen the principle of removing discrimination based on sex, as set out in the EU Treaties. Finland is determined to promote the full implementation of the Istanbul Convention in all EU operations to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. It is of utmost importance that all Member States commit to the Convention. I have most recently discussed these issues with the Foreign Ministers of Latvia and Poland.
The United Nations Human Rights Council is the most important body for human rights, and Finland wants to contribute to its work and assume responsibility. That is why we are running for membership of the UN Human Rights Council for 2022–2024. This is a top candidacy, as referred to in the Government Programme, and it calls for the commitment of all of our leaders, the network of our missions abroad and public officials.
Our aim is to bring up themes that are important for us and where we have something to give. These include, for example, equality, girls’ and women’s rights, education, the impacts of technology and digitalisation on human rights, climate change as well as the rights of people with disability and indigenous peoples.
With regard to these, we hope that you, dear ambassadors, will be active and proactive in your own host countries and countries where you are authorised to act on behalf of Finland, especially in 2021. The election will take place in New York in October 2021. If Finland becomes a member of the Human Rights Council – as we firmly believe – your reports will be particularly relevant, especially in relation to countries that are prominently featured on the Council’s agenda because of their human rights situation.
During the summer, the Government has also launched preparations for the human rights report that is the key guidance document for Finland’s international human rights policy. The report also serves as a kind of a manual in our campaign for the membership of the Human Rights Council and later on as a member of the Council. The report is not a topical review of human rights, but the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements have successfully promoted discussion about discriminatory power structures. These aspects will certainly be included in the report.
The coronavirus pandemic has made many of us to stop and think about the relationship between the environment, climate change and health. On the other hand, the ongoing crisis has taught us that it is not necessary to physically travel to all meetings held abroad. The Annual Meeting of Heads of Missions can also take various forms.
We must tackle the Covid-19 crisis in ways that respect the environment. We are now taking out a large amount debt for future investments, and these investments must respect the environment. The most expensive debt that we could leave behind is destruction of climate and the environment.
Due to the Covid-19 situation, the Glasgow COP26 Climate Change Conference has been postponed by a year to November 2021. Next year, there will be many landmarks on the way towards Glasgow, and the key objectives of Finland’s climate diplomacy are circular economy and the Coalition of Finance Ministers for Climate Action we chair together with Chile. The right to a healthy environment is everyone’s human right, and the climate theme is also related to our campaign for the Human Rights Council.
Since the last Meeting of Heads of Missions, our climate-related foreign policy work is now supported by an action plan for climate-related foreign policy of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the climate network and Ambassador for Climate Change. Let us fully make use of these tools.
If the idea of Finland is to survive, today it means working actively to prevent climate change and to mitigate its adverse effects.
Finland is also a key global actor in polar matters. In addition to Finland, only four other countries – Sweden, Norway, the United States and Russia – are involved in the decision-making concerning issues related to both the Arctic and the Antarctic regions. International interest in both polar regions is on the rise. The 25th anniversary of the Arctic Council will be celebrated next spring, and Russia will soon assume the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council. As a result of the work during Finland’s Chairmanship, EU institutions initiated an extensive public consultation process in July to update the EU’s Arctic policy. Finland’s Arctic policy strategy is also under preparation in line with the Government Programme.
Despite the Covid-19 situation, the preparation of the Africa strategy has progressed rapidly through a collaborative effort of the Ministries. We have extensive and versatile Africa expertise throughout the central government, and it has been great to see how the Ministries have committed to this work.
The strategy has generated a great deal of interest among the civil society, business world, universities and our international partners. The leading objective of the strategy is to deepen the political and economic relationships between Finland and African countries and to find common interests, whether related to trade and economy, climate policy, education or peace and security. It is important for us to engage in dialogue with our African partners during the preparation of the strategy, not forgetting diaspora.
The Covid-19 spring has taught us that even the host countries that are considered very safe can suddenly become dangerous. I was thinking about that this summer when I went to open our embassy in Baghdad, where the coronavirus situation is not the only danger. The Beirut explosion damaged our facilities but luckily the Ministry's staff is safe. All of this reminds us that the work of diplomats may also entail many dangers.
I have always respected the extensive field experience we have in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, including experience from the so-called places of hardship. This kind of experience also carries weight in career development.
Finally, I would like to ask you to be our eyes and ears around the world and to boldly suggest new player positions for Finland when you come across them in your work. It is not possible to implement all new openings and ideas at once but we are interested and look at each of them with an open mind.
I would like to thank you again for the work you have done for Finland and people in Finland during this year. I would also like to wish you and the entire staff of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs strength for this autumn.