A low point for human rights

Human rights should be present in all our work, says President Tarja Halonen. Democracy, the drafting and execution of legislation as well as judicial power all have to do with comprehending the whole while mastering the details. All of it should be based on respect for human rights.

On 12 September, President Tarja Halonen spoke at the University of Helsinki in a seminar which focused on the human rights status in Finnish law during the past quarter of a century.

Applying human rights agreements is like renovating an old house while living in it – as soon as one thing is fixed, something else demands your attention. At the same time, the requirements keep going up, Halonen said.

Human rights lawyers often tire of how slowly problems are fixed. Finland ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 1989. Time is relative, so while the 25 years that have passed since then are a short period of time in the grand scheme of things, human rights development has changed a great deal during that time.

The dissertation that changed the constitution

Professor Martin Scheinin’s doctoral dissertation discussing human rights in Finnish law, Ihmisoikeudet Suomen oikeudessa, was examined on 28 September 1991 at the University of Helsinki, soon after Finland’s ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights. Now that 25 years have passed since the examination of the dissertation, the Faculty of Law wanted to survey which of the signs of change that were apparent in the early 1990s turned out to be important and persistent, and what is the overall situation of human rights in the Finnish legal system in 2016.

In its time, the dissertation had a profound impact on the reform of the Finnish Constitution that was to follow. Luckily the work got started during the optimistic atmosphere of the 1990s, before the general mood turned fearful after the September 11th attacks in New York City and the Pentagon in 2001.

Fundamental human rights are out of fashion

Fundamental and human rights should be considered at the earliest stages of all legislative preparation, stated Professor Elina Pirjatanniemi. However, those who bring up human rights are often criticised for rendering the work of legislators more difficult.

Another common target for criticism is the goal of a unanimous agreement when deciding on whether legislation is constitutional, stated Annika Lapintie (Left Alliance), chairperson of the Finnish Constitutional Law Committee. Often human rights experts are thought to hamper the development of a rational society.

“We are in a very challenging situation in that fundamental and human rights are out of fashion,” Lapintie stated.

She finds the consequences and direction of the current discourse on human rights troubling. Elina Pirjatanniemi also estimates that the faith and hope previously placed on fundamental and human rights are deteriorating.

Public discourse on human rights serves as a kind of deterrent: the more human rights are publicly discussed, the harder the government and its officials will work to ensure everything goes according to international agreements when drafting legislation.

According to Pirjatanniemi, the core goal of human rights work is to monitor those in power and to highlight issues that would otherwise remain hidden. The intention is to create a world that is as universally humane and fair as possible. Fundamental and human rights must form the foundation upon which legislation is built, but they are also norms with which it must comply.

From international courts to national courts

According to Attorney Markku Fredman, we are on the brink of nationalising human rights issues. He believes that during the current decade, the protection of human rights will be left almost exclusively to national courts. The role of international courts has become marginal. The problem that arises is that there are differences in levels of expertise and general mentality.

In Finland, the Constitutional Law Committee under the Parliament evaluates whether draft legislation is constitutional and whether it complies with the international human rights conventions Finland has ratified. According to Annika Lapintie, it is rare that this compliance with fundamental and human rights is evaluated at the drafting stage.

The Constitutional Law Committee often consults experts on human and fundamental rights, but there have been claims that Finland only has a handful of such experts. In reality, statistics show that approximately one hundred individual experts visit the Committee every year. According to Lapintie, members of the Committee appreciate their special role and are not tied up with their political status as representatives of the government or the opposition.