Analysis: President Niinistö’s UN Speech

President covered a range of foreign and security policy topics in his speech, and of course mentioned Finland's 100th anniversary of independence.

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President Sauli Niinistö giving his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on 20th September 2017 / Credit; UNTV

North Korea, Russia, mediation, the environment, gender equality – and more.

Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö covered a laundry list of topics during his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York today.

North Korea

Niinistö, who is running for re-election to a second term in office next year, had strong words for North Korea, calling the situation there “grave […] of urgent concern”. The President said North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme is “a threat to global peace and it must be stopped”. He urged UN members to to work together on finding a solution.

“It was a rather clean speech, and highlighted the importance of peace mediation” says Mika Aaltola, Programme Director at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs FIIA.

“The language concerning North Korea was clear cut. There are no pre-conditions for North Korea to enter the negotiating table on nuclear weapons”.

President Niinistö said the international community had not succeeded in maintaining peace and stability – and cited the numbers of violent conflict deaths and the 68 million refugees in the world to make his points.

“The conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Ukraine are all examples of untold human suffering. But they are not the only ones” said Niinistö.

Environment

Climate change, the Arctic region, and the challenges “that bind together north and south” featured heavily in the President’s speech, perhaps not surprising given Finland’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council over the next two years.

“Like a lot of other speakers at the UN, Niinistö places particular emphasis on climate change as part of a general pushback against Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris deal” says Richard Gowan, UN expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

“Trump did not even mention climate change in his address.  It is important that other leaders repeat and reinforce the importance of Paris” says Gowan.

Niinistö noted how climate change affects security and results in forced migration. He said the “rapid implementation of the Paris agreement is even more urgent than a year ago” and told nations to speed up their efforts. “The window to act is closing” said the Finnish President.

With a particular emphasis on the Arctic, where Niinistö said warming was happening twice as fast as the rest of the world, he said there must be a reduction in emissions and impacts of black carbon and methane in the Arctic. “If we lose the Arctic, we will lose the whole world” he said.

Mediation

President Niinistö welcomed recent talks between the US and Russia, and said he hoped the two countries would resume arms control talks in Europe.

UN expert Richard Gowan thinks Finland could play an important role in building bridges between the US and Russia, where relations are at a low point after a series of US investigations into possible Russian meddling in the 2016 Presidential election; and tit-for-tat expulsions at diplomatic missions.

“As I argued in a paper for the Finnish Foreign Ministry in 2015, Finland is especially well placed to act as a quiet fixer between Russia and the US at the UN” says Gowan.

“There are currently some hopes that Russia and the Western members of the Security Council can agree on a UN force in Ukraine to stabilize the situation there. Putin has talked about this and EU and US diplomats like the idea in principle. Niinistö is right to keep his reference to Russia limited, but Finland could work more on this behind the scenes”.

President Niinistö has met President Putin several times this year, most recently for talks in Savonlinna in August. Prime Minister will meet his Russian counterpart Dimitri Medvedev tomorrow.

FIIA’s Mika Aaltola agrees that Finland occupies a strategic spot between Russia and America, but says Niinistö needs America to stay engaged with the international community as a counterbalance in this region, to Russia.

“That’s the context for Niinistö’s speech, the importance of the US remaining attached to multilateralism” Aaltola.

“It’s a kinda of balancing act. The US is extremely imporant to Finland for stability. And a US that is trying to take a distance from the multilateral order is something that then needs to be handled. Niinistö’s words and tone said, in a way, that the US also has to participate”.

Suomi 100 Celebration

And of course President Niinistö mentioned Finland’s 100 years of independence celebrations during 2017. But he left it right at the end of his speech.

This was a classic Finnish move, says Richard Gowan.

“It is very, very Finnish that the president only mentions his nation’s one hundredth birthday at the end of the speech.  Most other leaders would bore on about this at great length.  But Finnish modesty is much more stylish”.