Finland navigates the UN with focused agenda and high profile representation

President Niinistö leads a delegation to New York where the focus is on human rights, gender equality, peacekeeping and education innovation.

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President Niinistö gives an address to the UN General Assembly on 20th September 2017 / Credit: Katri Makkonen, Office of the President

The 73rd United Nations General Assembly begins in New York this week, and President  Sauli Niinistö is leading a Finnish delegation which also includes embattled Foreign Minister Timo Soini (Blue) and Minister for Development Anne-Mari Virolainen (NCP).

Niinistö’s packed schedule and visibility helps keep Finland’s profile as high as possible, in a crowded week when literally every country on the planet is jockeying for attention.

The set piece highlight is Niinistö’s speech to the UN on Tuesday; but he will also attend a reception hosted by US President Donald Trump, give another speech at a gender equality event; attend a peacekeeping forum hosted by the UN Secretary General; go to a climate change event with French President – and recent Helsinki visitor – Emmanuel Macron; and travel to Washington to speak at a think tank.

“I think that President Niinistö’s participation is very important for us. I very much appreciate him, his skills and incredible global network” says Minister Virolainen.

“His presence in New York shows Finland’s appreciation of the UN and our support for the Secretary General and his important reform agenda for the world organization” she adds.

Appointed earlier this year to the role of Minister for Foreign Trade and Development, this is Virolainen’s first General Assembly visit to the UN.

“I am very excited to participate in my first UN General Assembly as minister. To uphold and strengthen the international multilateral system is crucial, and I definitively want to do my part, as the UN is at the core of the international rules-based order” she tells News Now Finland.

“During my visit I will mainly focus, through my speeches and numerous bilateral meetings, on sustainable development, climate change and the rights of women and girls, including sexual and reproductive health and rights” she explains.

President of China Xi Kinping & Mrs Peng Liyuan to Finland meet President Niinistö and Jenni Haukio, April 2017 / Credit: Juhani Kandell, Office of the President

‘Multilaterialsm is essential’

A look at any news headline in 2018 reveals a world which seems increasingly more fractured into the interests of big, powerful countries; with the interests of smaller nations less visible.

There’s new military cooperation between China and Russia. The USA’s ongoing trade war with China and sanctions against Russia and Iran. There’s Russia’s interference with elections in America and the EU, and involvement in chemical attacks in UK, as well as its military partnership with the Syrian regime.

The world today can look more polarized, with less leadership at the United Nations.

“This is true” says Richard Gowan, a Senior Fellow at UN University.

“But I think that countries like Finland can act as go-betweens among the big powers, which need to work harder diplomatically to help ease tensions as a result” he says.

“I think President Niinistö deserves credit for working to keep Russian-American links open, even if Trump performed poorly at the Helsinki summit, for example.  Similarly, big power politics are currently creating nasty divisions in the Security Council, but the UN is still a vehicle for the US to sort out deals on issues like North Korea with other big powers” he explains.

Indeed, President Niinistö has hosted four out five of the permanent members of the UN Security Council – known as the P5 – in the last 18 months for high level talks. Apart from Presidents Trump, Vladimir Putin and Macron, he also hosted Chinese Xi Jinping for a State Visit in April 2017. Only the UK is missing from the list.

Ahead of the General Assembly, the European Union also emphasised the need for countries to work together more, rather than try to go it alone on the international stage.

“Global institutions are under pressure in these chaotic times” says a new EU video “multilateralism is essential for peace and human development”.

“At a time when a lot of countries are edging away from the UN, and the US is really battering the institution, it’s good to see Finland standing up for the organization” says Richard Gowan.

President Niinistö (R) meets then-Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn at the UN General Assembly, 19th September 2018 / Credit: Office of the President

Finland picks its themes and global goals

To stand out from the crowd at the United Nations, the trick according to Minister Virolainen is to be constantly building your country’s international identity and working towards your nation’s global goals.

“The Finnish foreign policy is based on a long-term vision. At the UN you need to be consistent and build your ‘UN profile’ for many years in order to be a credible actor. A small country cannot choose too many priorities, and in my opinion, we haven’t. Finland’s UN priorities are based on issues that we consider pivotal for the world’s peace and development through our own historical experience” she says.

Among the issues that Finland has made a priority are the rights of women and girls, gender equality, peacekeeping and mediation, water rights and Arctic cooperation.

“Finland, like other Nordic countries, has a strong and evidence-proven credibility to speak about gender equality. That’s why Finland is also one of the biggest donors of UN Women and continues to do so. However, consistent policies cannot help if you don’t maintain and build partnerships with a wide range of countries, especially from a developing world. Different issues require different coalitions and alliances. This is the UN at its best” says Virolainen.

While many of Finland’s international priorities are familiar, at the UN level Finland has also brought more cutting edge issues to the table.

“The Finnish mission, like a lot of the Nordic missions in New York, punches above its weight. Finland has been pushing for the UN to do more on new challenges like cyber security and Artificial Intelligence, which is a hugely important agenda” says UN expert Richard Gowan, who coincidentally was born in Helsinki.

Minister Virolainen also says that in addition to technology, Finnish education innovations could offer solutions for other countries.

“We should more strongly than before aim at utilizing Finnish innovations and technology for promoting sustainable development, in cooperation with the UN” she says.

‘Overrated’ annual event?

While many countries, including Finland, put a lot of effort into their annual General Assembly efforts, UN expert Richard Gowan has a controversial take on the event.

“The General Assembly is overrated. Thousands of people mill around and trade platitudes.  It is an enormous drain on the time and energy of hard working UN diplomats” he tells News Now Finland.

“Some real diplomatic work gets done behind the scenes, as politicians can have quiet conversations away from the limelight. Other that, it would be better to do it all by Skype”