President Sauli Niinistö preparing to deliver his annual New Year’s speech in the Presidential Palace in Helsinki on Tuesday, 31 December 2019. (Mikko Stig – Lehtikuva)

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PRESIDENT Sauli Niinistö has expressed his concern about how people treat one another in Finland.

Niinistö on Tuesday began his New Year’s speech by reminding that issues – no matter how important – must not be allowed to create animosity between those on the opposing sides of the argument.

“When an issue, no matter how important, breeds hate towards those who think differently, we are heading for trouble,” he reminded.

The nature of public debate has changed quickly also in Finland, according to Niinistö. Finns, he said, are less and less willing to seek common ground with those holding different views but more and more willing to fortify existing divisions and deliberately misunderstand one another.

“When knowledge is meaningful only when it serves one’s own agenda, half-truths and even lies gain ground,” he warned. “This is a development we need to end.”

Niinistö said Finland has succeeded mainly because of the culture of mutual understanding.

“Mutual understanding does not mean unanimity,” he emphasised. “There has always been room in this country for different opinions. Issues can be contested, and they should be. But disdaining and belittling others does not help to find solutions to those contested issues. We can do better.”

Although mutual respect is at the heart of a healthy society, kindness alone cannot dispel the evil in the world; it must be defended resolutely by means such as terrorism legislation, underscored Niinistö.

He stated that far too many employees in the service sector – the backbone of our social fabric – are exposed daily to harassment, threats, pressure and violence, making their work not only professionally challenging but also mentally taxing and thereby compromising the functioning of the whole society.

“If those who provide care, education and security become exhausted, the functioning of our whole society is endangered,” he explained.

Niinistö also voiced his support for the section of the criminal code on hate speech and ethnic agitation, which criminalises offences against personal reputation and incitement to ethnic and has been recently called into question by the Finns Party.

“A person committing a crime against another person is liable to prosecution. This has no connection to freedom of speech, let alone to limiting it,” he said.

Finland, he added, has rightly drawn attention and taken action to protect the rights of minorities, ensuring that every individual is afforded equal protection under law. “And we are all individuals,” he reminded.

Niinistö also reiterated that ambitious objectives alone are not enough to tackle the climate emergency. One step in that direction is the adoption of the so-called Helsinki Principles, a set of six principles agreed on by dozens of finance ministers less than a year ago to promote climate action through fiscal policy and public financing.

The onus to act, however, is not only on businesses and nation states, he reminded: “Change starts with the big players: states and business conglomerates. But we too – soon eight billion people, each with different consumption patterns – are another major player.”

The speech can be read in its entirety here.

Aleksi Teivainen – HT

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