Finland sharply criticised over racism, trans rights and immigrant issues

New Council of Europe report highlights some major legal and society problems with human rights, and gives the government two years to fix them.

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Flags outside Finlandia Hall for the Council of Europe Ministerial meeting, 17th May 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

A new Council of Europe report on the state of human rights in Finland concludes the Nordic nation falls short on a range of issues – and they’re giving the government a two year deadline to fix the worst of the problems.

The report calls on Finland to do more to tackle growing racism and intolerant hate speech; to better coordinate integration activities for immigrants; and to overhaul the law that requires transgender people to be sterilised before they can have their new gender legally recognised.

“We were a little surprised that a Nordic country was less liberal than we might have hoped” says Michael Farrell, one of the Council of Europe Rapporteurs who visited Finland and compiled the new report published on Tuesday.

File picture showing detail on police uniform / Credit: News Now Finland

Dealing with hate speech

The CoE Rapporteurs – from Serbia and Ireland – highlighted in particular the escalating racist and intolerant hate speech in public discourse and on the internet in Finland.

The main targets of the racism, they say, are asylum-seekers; Muslims; people of African descent; the LGBTQ community; and Finland’s Roma and Jewish communities.

“In our experience hate speech is followed very quickly by hate crime” says Farrell, a lawyer and former member of Ireland’s National Human Rights and Equality Commission.

“There wasn’t the level of combating hate speech that we would like to see. The legislation is ineffective and complex, with a low level of convictions” he tells News Now Finland.

The report also expresses concern that the government didn’t have clear statistics into the amount of hate speech, or a coherent way to collate such information which “is absolutely essential” says Farrell.

“Civil society groups we met with say there is significant under-reporting of hate speech because people didn’t think there was a willingness of the state to combat it. That is a major problem” he adds.

Asylum reception Centre in Helsinki / Credit: News Now Finland

Integrating immigrants to society and ethnic profiling

The new Council of Europe report into the human rights situation in Finland also highlighted a range of problems faced by immigrants.

Although the Rapporteurs acknowledge that 2015 saw a huge influx of asylum seekers that the country simply wasn’t prepared for, and commend Finland for coping well at that time, the integration process is problematic.

“We felt that there was a problem with integration. High levels of unemployment of immigrant communities, concerns about children dropping out of schools. It’s a real problem we’ve seen in other countries too” explains Irish Rapporteur Michael Farrell.

“If an immigrant community is not integrated into society they become ghettoized, and disillusioned, and angry. And if they feel they’re not fairly treated by police you have the potential for trouble in the future” he says.

The Council of Europe highlights a new anti-profiling law recently added to the statutes, but says that the system is not working and that people with minority ethnic backgrounds are much more likely to be stopped and questioned.

“The point we were making was if you have a group which has very high levels of unemployment, low levels of educational achievement, who feel that they are being regularly checked by the police at a much higher rate than the [white, Finnish] community, those people feel very alienated and that is a potential problem” says the CoE’s expert Michael Farrell.

The bright spot for the Rapporteurs was found in Helsinki, where they praised the city’s policies on training for immigrants in languages and other skills to help them find jobs.

“We found that very encouraging and the attitude of Helsinki authorities was very positive that immigrants could be an asset, and not a danger to society” adds Farrell.

File picture of person holding paper with transgender symbol on it / Credit: iStock

Trans laws also receive criticism

The final main area of Finnish human rights which comes in for criticism in the new Council of Europe report concerning legal provisions for transgender people.

Finland requires trans people to be sterilized before their new gender identity can be legally recognised.

Farrell notes that although he’s from a socially conservative country, Ireland reformed its transgender laws in 2015 to scrap the need for medical certification or sterilization.

“It’s an issue where there is clear international law on this, and there’s still a handful of European countries that do require sterilization, and Finland is among them.”

“We found it very surprising that a Scandinavian country would still have a provision like this” he says.

Although the Rapporteurs visited Finland to compile their evidence in September 2018, the final report published on Tuesday does take into account events up to the start of April 2019.

However, it doesn’t take into account any proposals or new measures put in place by the current government which took office in June. The government has said it will work to reform and update Finland’s trans laws although some campaigners don’t think their plans go far enough.

File picture of Finnish Parliament / Credit: News Now Finland

Finland must take action

In light of their latest report, the Council of Europe says Finland has a two year deadline to fix some of the most serious shortcomings in the country’s human rights infrastructure.

Reforming the trans laws is at the top of the list, to remove the requirement that persons seeking recognition in a gender other than that in which they were originally registered should be infertile or undergo sterilisation as a pre-condition to legal recognition.

The CoE also says that Finland’s National Non-Discrimination and Equality Tribunal – which currently only deals with discrimination issues related to gender – should have its remit expanded so that it deals with all types of discrimination. The Tribunal should also be able to award compensation.

“If they don’t have the power to grant compensation, it’s a big disincentive to people to take complaints to them. Why would they bother if they don’t get compensation?” asks Council of Europe Rapporteur Michael Farrell.

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