Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Erkki Tuomioja at the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 18 June 2012.
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Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is an honour for me to address the Human Rights Council today.
Everywhere in the world we have seen an increasing number of people voicing their hopes and demands for human rights, social justice and economic and political reforms. These women and men make us see the true meaning of the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights. They are also sending us a strong message of the importance of inclusive societies with real possibilities of participation.
In this world of plenty, extreme poverty is still the biggest single human rights challenge. Poverty is closely connected with the denial of such fundamentals of human life and dignity as food, safe drinking water and sanitation, basic health services and education. In many parts of the world the economic growth has contributed to reducing poverty at the national level but at the same time there are many people who are left behind.
Unfortunately political, economic and social inequality has been growing both within and between nations.
The universality and interdependence of all human rights as well as the interdependence of human rights, security and development are widely recognised. I would like to emphasize the importance of taking this into account at a practical level as well. Growing inequality and exclusion form a major obstacle for development globally and contribute to dangerous polarisation in societies.
Poverty, inequality and exclusion are very much interconnected and often a result of discriminatory policies. Certain groups, such as children, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and different minorities are particularly vulnerable to marginalisation.
For Finland, acting against discrimination is a priority. Decisive legislative and practical measures against discrimination are needed especially regarding those who face wide-ranging and flagrant discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity both by authorities, the society in general and their families.
Today, I would like to highlight a specific group. They are not a minority but they often find themselves subjected to discriminatory and exclusive practices everywhere in the world.
Over the past decades great advances have been made in terms of commitments to women´s rights, nationally and globally. Still, these advances often fail to bear fruit on the ground. Women and girls worldwide suffer from hunger, violence and discrimination on a daily basis. All too often women are denied justice and their access to resources and influence in politics, public services and the economic sector are still highly limited.
Humankind is facing a number of challenges such as population growth, youth unemployment, global migration, food security and climate change. We need multilateral cooperation and efforts to tackle these and other challenges. This work requires a human rights based approach. We also need measures to strengthen democracy, rule of law and the implementation of women’s rights and full empowerment, if we want to succeed.
I therefore warmly welcome that this Council session will put a special emphasis on women’s rights.
Both women and men must have equal opportunities to take part in political and social decision-making and leadership at all levels. Our societies can progress in a more positive and democratic direction when the competence, knowledge and experience of both women and men are allowed to influence decision-making processes.
Women’s full participation in economic life is essential in achieving internationally agreed development goals and in improving the general quality of life in a global context. The 2012 World Development Report states that gender equality is smart economics: it can enhance economic efficiency and improve other development outcomes as well as make institutions more representative.
Finland provides a good example of how gender equality, the welfare society and economic success are connected. Finland’s transformation from a poor country to a modern, high income country has to a great extent been linked with improvements in the status of women and gender equality.
It is widely acknowledged that gender equality, women’s economic empowerment and participation are vital to poverty reduction and sustainable development. Studies show, for example, that women play an instrumental role in safeguarding scarce natural resources.
With regard to problems resulting from climate change, women often bear the heaviest burden in the struggle to cope with them. At the same time, however, women are also extremely well-placed to influence the responses to the climate change. Finland considers it to be of utmost importance that climate change decision-making is inclusive for both women and men, and the knowledge and views of both are tapped. Without this approach, we will fail. This also applies to other environmental challenges.
Women are needed as agents of change at all levels. In just a few days we will gather in Brazil at the Rio+20 Conference to seek global measures to sustainable development. Women’s perspectives and influence are indispensable both at this important forum and in the follow-up to it.
Women’s empowerment and equal participation benefit the society as a whole, men included. Achieving it in practice requires from us removing the obstacles; removing the artificial gender-related impediments to personal development in fields like education, health and social services, access to the labour market or opportunities for entrepreneurship.
The Finnish experience shows that enabling women to earn their own living is one of the most effective ways of empowerment. This requires broad implementation of, in particular, economic, social and cultural rights, and acting decisively against open and hidden discrimination.
We are convinced that education is an essential instrument in providing equal opportunities in all aspects of life. Recognising sexual and reproductive health and rights as human rights, is equally important. Having the knowledge and right to make decisions concerning her own body, sexuality, and reproductive health increases the possibilities of women and girls to receive an education, to know their rights and to access to decent work outside their homes. This is essential for their empowerment.
Another crucial issue is women’s equal right to own and inherit land and property. This is pivotal, as the right of ownership is a prerequisite for many other rights and in ensuring sustainable development. Finland is concerned that this issue hasn’t received the attention it should have.
Women’s limited access to justice is another growing concern for Finland. That is why in September, in the context of the UN High Level Rule of Law Meeting, Finland and UN Women are organizing a High-Level Event on Access to Justice for Women. The event will focus on legal reforms to enable women's access to justice, including traditional and informal justice systems, as well as on gender-sensitive transitional justice and reparations mechanisms.
Talking about women’s and girls’ rights we should not forget men and boys. They have a crucial role to play in women’s empowerment. Sensitization work on gender roles and mobilizing boys and men in the work for gender equality is therefore essential.
Gender equality and full realisation of women’s rights require strengthening of economic, social and cultural rights. Finland welcomes the adoption of an Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, that establishes an international complaints mechanism for individuals whose economic, social or cultural rights have allegedly been violated.
Finland participated actively in the negotiations on the Optional Protocol, adopted by the UN General assembly in 2008. We are currently preparing for its ratification and I would like to invite you all to join us in this effort to make the individual complaints procedure reality.
When it comes to the equal participation by women in political decision-making, this cannot be taken for granted. It is not enough to formally enshrine it in the constitution and electoral law. Making it reality for all women requires particular attention and, in some cases, targeted measures and mechanisms.
This is especially important in post-conflict situations and times of political transition when the basic structures of society are being redefined. Finland is a strong promoter of the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, which emphasises women’s unhindered and equal participation in political decision-making in these situations.
Finland’s brand new updated 1325 Action Plan contains practical goals for increasing the participation of women in conflict prevention and crisis management and for promoting the position of women in conflicts and reconstruction. Special attention is given to persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples as well as to women belonging to sexual minorities.
It is important to keep in mind that women are not a homogeneous group. Some women are more vulnerable to discrimination, human rights violations and marginalization. For instance, women with disabilities, Roma women and migrant women often suffer from multiple forms of discrimination. Therefore, effective mechanisms are required to ensure their human rights.
In this context, I would like to briefly address also the situation of women human rights defenders who are increasingly targeted for their activities. One reason for this is that these women often are perceived as challenging accepted socio-cultural traditions or perceptions and stereotypes about femininity, sexual orientation or family.
The risks that women human rights defenders belonging to vulnerable groups face are even higher, especially if they work on politically sensitive issues such as the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities, land and environmental issues, or sexual and reproductive health rights.
I would like to urge all State parties to take the necessary measures to ensure the protection of all human rights defenders from any violence, threats, retaliation, adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of a legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
Civil society in general is an important partner for the Finnish Government. I would like to express my appreciation for the work of the NGOs and human rights defenders who, among other things, give their valuable contribution to legislative reforms that help us to advance human rights in Finland and elsewhere.
The non-governmental youth organizations, in particular, have a vital role to play in promoting gender equality. Girls and young women should be encouraged to participate in NGO activities and it is important to ensure that public funding for NGOs is allocated on an equal basis, so that it responds to the needs of both girls and boys.
There is still a lot to do but we share a common goal: to ensure that the call for equality and full realisation of all human rights of both women and men, girls and boys, is heard. This would provide a brighter future for everyone.