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President Sauli Niinistö opened the 2020 parliamentary session on Tuesday with a speech that reflected the rapidly changing society.

President Sauli Niinistö at the opening of parliament at the Parliament Building in Helsinki on February 5, 2020. Picture: Hanne Salonen/Eduskunta

We publish President Niinistö’s speech in full:

“During the year that just has begun, Parliament will receive the Report on Finnish Foreign and Security Policy, to be followed by the Report on Defence Policy next year. These documents are being prepared at a time when the world around us is changing fast.

But one thing remains unaffected by the changes. The core principle of our foreign, security and defense policy is and will be to secure and strengthen Finland’s position. It is something that we must accomplish, whether the conditions are favorable or not.

Parliament plays a key part in these efforts. It is not limited to the formal responsibilities of certain committees or parliamentary monitoring groups. Ultimately, it is Parliament that determines Finland’s policy by its response to the reports.

Looking after Finland’s security requires continuous monitoring of world events and political changes. It is also imperative in the work of the Members of Parliament.

Hence, I encourage you all to follow external developments very closely. For my part, I am willing to continue to discuss these topics with you in different formats.

There are signs of antisemitism and racism being on the rise, unfortunately also in Finland. We must be resolute in opposing them. They do not deserve any foothold in our society.

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President Niinistö and the speaker of the parliament, Matti Vanhanen. Picture: Kimo Brandt / Compic / Eduskunta

During the past few weeks, the world has been commemorating the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp 75 years ago. I, as many other heads of state and government, attended holocaust remembrance events both in Poland and Israel. Showing respect for the memory of the victims—and survivors—of this mass destruction of unimaginable proportions is important for its own sake.

But recalling this historic tragedy also gives food for thought in the present day. Human nature has not become immune to hate over a few generations. There are signs of antisemitism and racism being on the rise, unfortunately also in Finland. We must be resolute in opposing them. They do not deserve any foothold in our society.

Ultimately, racism means denying another person’s worth because of his or her descent. In its targets, it evokes a myriad of emotions, from shame to hatred.

We talk a lot about hate speech. Where does it come from? It has very similar roots: denying another person’s worth because of his opinions or actions. Hate speech, too, generates a myriad of emotions in its targets, from shame to hatred.

Heavy labeling of other people should not be done lightly, from one direction or the other. As individuals, we must all be able to enjoy similar protection, also against labeling. Irrespective of whether we represent some majority or some minority. If baseless name-calling becomes commonplace, the effect is dissipated. As a result, also the phenomenon we wish to oppose may become commonplace and begin to seem normal.

We need to consider what kind of a development makes people to acquiesce in, or at least turn a blind eye to, activities that they just a moment ago could not even have imagined. The path appears to stem from confrontation, leading to gradually intensifying hatred and ultimately to a disappearance of humanity. As a result, an otherwise ordinary person may turn into someone who practices cruelty, first in words, then in deeds. We discussed the need for this type of pondering, Mr. Speaker, possibly by Parliament and at least in the Kultaranta Talks in the summer.

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There is no lack of causes for disputes in international politics. However, it was precisely at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem two weeks ago that I thought I detected a glimmer of hope. A rather mixed congregation was able to find a common language. It was crystallized in the statement by more than 40 heads of state: never again! A common language is sorely needed to avert the risks that threaten our common future.

At least four such threats come readily to mind. Nuclear weapons, terrorism, pandemics and climate change. All four continue to be highly topical also this year.

Parliamentary coffee session. President Niinistö sitting next to the prime minister, Sanna Marin (left). Picture: Kimmo Brandt / Compic / Eduskunta

Nuclear arms limitations dating back to the cold war period are collapsing one by one. What still remains is the New START Agreement between the United States and Russia, but the time to extend it is also running out quickly. Similarly, the painstakingly negotiated agreement on Iran’s nuclear weapons program is in its death throes.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that came into force fifty years ago, which Finland was among the first to ratify, still remains the single most important instrument in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It is in our interest to uphold this Treaty when it is reviewed this spring. Additionally, we are well-advised to promote our partners’ initiatives that seek to bring new parties and new weapons systems under common limitations and control.

Despite the successes achieved in fighting terrorism, its threat has by no means disappeared. The ISIS is cornered, but not defeated. The crisis spots in the Middle East, Africa and Asia easily provide new breeding ground for ISIS and other extremist movements. At the same time as we, as part of coalitions, engage in efforts to eradicate terrorism far away from our borders, we also need to look after the security of our own citizens. Our terrorism legislation must not lag behind that of other Nordic countries.

Recent news about the proliferation of the coronavirus have underlined the importance of health security. While we hope that this virus will not realize our worst fears, the risk of a pandemic cannot be ruled out. And before long, we may inevitably be faced with some epidemic which will be impossible to stop completely in our networked world.

To mitigate these developments, we need to continue improving both global cooperation and our national preparedness, learning from past mistakes and shortcomings. The particular strength of the Finnish system, recognized in international assessments, is a low threshold for cross-government cooperation and exchange of information. In this, we have a lot to offer to the world.

I woke up to the threat of climate change more than a decade ago. We know more and more about the dangers but are still doing far too little, and far too slowly, to avert them. In international climate negotiations, the Glasgow conference next autumn needs to achieve more than the Madrid meeting last year. At the national level, it is time that Finland’s ambitious objectives that have attracted a lot of positive attention are reflected in deeds. I hope that we, as decision-makers, start by setting an example. To date, the Office of the President of the Republic has more than halved its carbon footprint since 2016.

These risk scenarios are scary, but human ingenuity and expertise are enough to overcome them. Solutions call for international cooperation, and I believe that capacity for such cooperation is improving.

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I will now turn a new page, perhaps even in my own thinking. Early this week I received an interesting supplementary with the daily newspaper: Trust in tomorrow—20 pages of good news! Reading it made me once again question whether everything was better in the past, after all.

Many positive trends are, indeed, emerging. There is every reason to trust in tomorrow. What is especially delightful is the news about youth. Globally, the position of girls is improving. At home, youth is adopting a healthier lifestyle. Bullying, too, seems to be declining.

I am also reminded of international studies, many of which rank Finland at the top. We have a fine democracy—let’s keep it going on.”