THE FINNISH GOVERNMENT sets forth 23 measures in the long-awaited statement on promoting equality and non-discrimination it approved and submitted to parliament on Thursday.
Among the measures agreed on by the four ruling parties are criminalising holocaust denial, promoting the entry of immigrant women to the workforce and launching a development programme to promote equality and non-discrimination across the education system.
Prime Minister Petteri Orpo (NCP) stated at a news conference that the government will allocate sufficient funding for the measures, within the ballpark of 1–1.5 million euros, at its budget session in the autumn.
“Every cabinet member rejects racism and commits in his or her work to take active action against racism both in Finland and internationally,” he said.
The statement defines racism as defining individuals or population groups as inferior based on, for instance, their ethnic origin, colour of skin, nationality, culture, mother tongue or religion. Racism, it adds, can manifest as discriminatory norms or practices in society and as discriminatory behaviour between individuals and groups.
“Prejudice between individuals and groups and fear of the unfamiliar can serve as a breeding ground for racism. Racism create inequality and not only damages its targets, but all of society,” it reads.
The statement is important not only for weeding out racism and discrimination, but also for keeping together the ruling coalition. It was drafted over the past several weeks in response to revelations about the past racist messages and statements of senior members of the Finns Party, especially Minister of Finance Riikka Purra and Minister of Economic Affairs Wille Rydman.
Anna-Maja Henriksson, the chairperson of the Swedish People’s Party, on Thursday described the statement as “a clear demonstration” that the government does not tolerate any kind of racism and is able to function. People participating in politics, she reminded, have a special responsibility for the tone of public discourse.
Purra, who is the chairperson of the Finns Party, said the racism debate of the past months took place under “somewhat dark clouds,” possibly creating the impression that there are enormous problems in Finland.
“Our immigrant population is on average happy and content with life,” she stated.
Statement draws some praise, more criticism
The government statement lacks concrete measures, stated both Sofia Virta, the chairperson of the Green League, and Jussi Saramo, the chairperson of the Left Alliance Parliamentary Group.
“The statement fails to prohibit organised racism under the criminal code and criminalise racist hate speech. The language on anonymous recruitment should have similarly been more concrete. Prohibiting holocaust denial is a great measure, but it also draws attention to the lack of other similarly concrete measures,” Virta said in a press release.
Saramo, in turn, estimated in a press release that the statement does not dispel the racist and xenophobic undertone of the government programme, pointing to measures such as separating social security for immigrants and eroding the health care right of undocumented immigrants that “increase structural discrimination and inequality”.
Both the Green League and Left Alliance have announced their intention to submit a motion of no confidence against Purra and Rydman.
The Centre Party will not support the motions of no confidence because the government statement includes practical measures to weed out racism, chairperson Annika Saarikko stated on Thursday.
“It also represents the continuation of the work undertaken by previous governments, including the most recent one. It is also positive that the statement clearly defines racism,” she stated to Helsingin Sanomat. “After these promises, you’ll of course have to make good on [the promise that every cabinet member is committed to combating racism].”
Martta October, the director of advocacy at the Finnish League for Human Rights, said to the newspaper that ultimately the statement adds little to the government programme: while it refers to national obligations to promote equality and non-discrimination, as well as the recommendations of international watchdogs, it stops short of forwarding the concrete measures needed for implementation.
“The measures are based to quite a large extent on existing entries in the government programme,” she viewed.
The Finnish League for Human Rights was hoping the government would take action to criminalise hate speech and adopt more detailed definitions for hate crimes, online shaming and ethnic profiling.
October identified as positives the prohibition of holocaust denial, the development programme in education and the annual government review of decisions and recommendations issued by international human rights watchdogs. The review, though, would be more effective if it was involved also the parliament.
“That way the process would be public and also opposition parties would have the opportunity to voice their views,” she said to Helsingin Sanomat.
The lack of concrete measures in the statement on issues such as organised racism and hate speech is a concern also for Aicha Manai, the CEO of Startup Refugees. She argued to Helsingin Sanomat that the provision that the government and its members commit to work actively against racism raises questions.
“What about these ministers, representatives, people in positions of power who’ve made racist writings – how will they distance themselves from racism?” she asked.
The government statement also prompted a response from trade unions.
The Industrial Union, Service Union United (PAM), Trade Union of Education (OAJ), Trade Union Pro and Trade Union for the Public and Welfare Sectors (JHL) on Thursday indicated in a joint communique that the government statement does not eliminate the problems caused by the numerous amendments proposed to the immigration policy amid widespread labour shortages.
The unions reminded that the government is looking to separate social security for immigrants and permanent residents within the bounds of the constitution in what it claims is a means to promote social integration.
“[This] is an alarming example of policy decisions that divides human dignity,” they remarked.
The Finnish parliament will start its autumn session next week, with the debate on the statement on equality and non-discrimination scheduled tentatively for Wednesday. The parliament can vote on confidence in any individual cabinet member or the entire government in conjunction with the debate.
The confidence votes are expected to be held on Friday, 8 September, according to Helsingin Sanomat.
Aleksi Teivainen – HT