COVID-19 state of emergency at the heart of Finland’s dialogue with Human Rights Committee
Repatriation of Islamic State-Affiliated Women and Children from Syria also Broached by Committee Experts
The Human Rights Committee today concluded its consideration of the seventh periodic report of Finland on measures taken to implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
During a dialogue held entirely online, Committee Experts raised concerns about Finland’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the related state of emergency. They enquired about the impact of COVID-19 on the protection of civil and political rights, and asked whether some groups were more affected than others. Noting that Finland’s report had referred to limited movement, Committee Experts requested information about safeguards and remedies available to rights holders during the pandemic. Recalling States Parties’ obligation to immediately notify the Secretary-General of the United Nations of emergency measures derogating the Covenant, they asked if Finland would notify a declaration now, since it had declared a state of emergency on 1 March.
Experts pointed out that Islamic State-affiliated women and children were still being held in difficult conditions at the al-Hol refugee camp in Syria. Would they be returned to Finland and go through a legal process there? On the situation of the Sámi people, Experts when Finland would conclude its revision of the Act on the Sámi Parliament, and how the rights of the Sámi to their traditional livelihoods would be upheld. Committee Experts commended Finland for granting Finnish nationality to children born in Finland who would otherwise be stateless.
Krista Oinonen, Director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, said that thanks to the online format, more representatives from different ministries than usual could be part of the Finnish delegation. On 1 March, the Government had declared a state of emergency for the second time during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government planned to impose wider restrictions to the freedom to engage in commercial activity in the restaurant industry than would be possible under ordinary legislation. The restrictions would be strictly provisional, and the Government planned to take supportive measures to alleviate their economic consequences. Parliament was in full control of the planned legislative measures. As regards people with disabilities and people with a foreign background, Finland was about to launch a study on the realization of their rights during the pandemic, aiming to explore their experiences and, based on the findings, find ways to better prepare for future emergencies.
Turning to Islamic State-affiliated women and children, she said repatriation decisions would be made by the designated competent authority, which would also ensure repatriated individuals didn’t pose any threat to people living in Finland. It had been decided to repatriate children along with their mothers; all Finnish citizens had the right to return to Finland. The security risks involved with quick repatriations of children were perceived as more manageable than leaving them in the camps. The Government intended to continue its work in that regard.
On the truth and reconciliation process as it related to Sámi people, preparations had started in 2017 at the Sámi Parliament’s initiative, with the goal of learning from history. The delegation said additional detailed information, such as data, would be submitted within 72 hours after the conclusion of the dialogue.
In conclusion, Ms. Oinonen, said the virtual dialogue had worked just as well as the previous, in-person dialogue in 2013, and added that the Committee’s coordination of its list of issues with that of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had led to a comprehensive assessment of the human rights situation in Finland. The Government would continue its work toward the objectives of its human rights based programme, the COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding, and would continue to promote equality, inclusion, sustainable development, and the rule of law. It would keep Finland the safest country in the world.
Photini Pazartzis, Committee Chairperson, concluded by noting the positive feedback both on the online format and the coordination with the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Affairs. She thanked the delegation, the Committee Experts, and the interpreters for their work.
The delegation of Finland consisted of representatives of Finland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Ministry of Transport and Communications, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, as well as the Permanent Mission of Finland to the United Nations Office at Geneva. Two independent observers of the Delegation were Counsels to the Constitutional Law Committee of the Parliament of Finland.
The Committee will issue the concluding observations on the report of Finland at the end of its one hundred and thirty-first session, on 26 March. Those, and other documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage.
All public meetings of the Human Rights Committee are webcast live at http://webtv.un.org/ while the meeting summaries in English and French can be accessed at the United Nations Office at Geneva’s News and Media page.
The Committee will next meet in public at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, 9 March to review the fourth periodic report of Kenya (CCPR/C/KEN/4).
The Committee had before it the seventh report of Finland (CCPR/C/FIN/7).
PHOTINI PAZARTZIS, Committee Chairperson, welcoming all, noted that this review was the first held online by the Human Rights Committee. This review was taking place in close coordination with the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which had held a dialogue with Finland last week. She thanked Finland for having agreed to come before the Committee.
Presentation of the Report
KRISTA OINONEN, Director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, said that, thanks to the online format, more representatives from different ministries than usual could be part of the Finnish delegation. Finland's Government aimed to achieve a country which was socially, economically and ecologically sustainable. The Government was currently preparing a third National Action Plan on Fundamental and Human Rights, which focused on developing indicators that would be used to monitor the realization of fundamental and human rights.
After the COVID-19 pandemic had hit Finland last year, the Government on 16 March had introduced an Emergency Powers Act. It later lifted emergency conditions, on 15 June, after epidemiological conditions improved. During the pandemic, ordinary legislation had been amended, and there was no need to resort to emergency powers when the situation could be dealt with under ordinary legislation. Any restrictions to fundamental human rights were limited to necessary and proportional actions. Information on COVID-19 had been available in many languages, including sign language and Braille. Finland had managed to keep the epidemiological situation in a reasonably good state.
On 1 March, the Government had declared a state of emergency for the second time during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government planned to impose wider restrictions to the freedom to engage in commercial activity in the restaurant industry than would be possible under ordinary legislation. The restrictions would be strictly provisional and the Government planned to take supportive measures to alleviate their economic consequences. Parliament was in full control of the planned legislative measures.
Turning projects that were important for the implementation of the Covenant, she said measures to counteract human trafficking were a top project of the Government. Finland had a new action plan to combat violence against women with prevention as a cross-cutting theme. The plan aimed to mitigate honor-related violence and digital violence, inter alia. Finland's Non-Discrimination Act would be partially reformed, and the Government was also determined to combat racism and discrimination. When it came to gender equality, Finland was “very ambitious”, and one of its objectives was to advance pay transparency.
Regarding the rights of children, Ms. Oinonen explained that asylum seekers under 15 years of age may not be detained. Problems related to family reunification would be examined. In December last year, a legislative proposal had been submitted to Parliament to reinforce the legal protection of asylum seekers by enabling the use of a legal counsel at asylum interviews. Hourly rates for the counsels would be introduced and appeal periods would be extended. The legislation on family reunification was being examined for promoting the best interests of the child. The aim was to end the application of the requirement for sufficient financial resources to minor sponsors who had been granted a residence permit based on international protection. Other issues related to family reunification would also be examined, and the need for other possible legislative amendments would be considered.
Noting that the exceptional pandemic situation had increased digital work, she said digitalization also involved risks of weakened equality and social exclusion. The way in which data was processed must be human-centered and respect the rights of individuals. In Finland, citizens could trust that their human rights would be safeguarded as the data economy developed further.
Questions by the Committee Experts
Committee Experts asked about the interaction of human rights organs with other governmental agencies, specifically who evaluated whether concluding observations and views of the Committee had been sufficiently addressed by relevant stakeholders. Could the delegation provide concrete examples of domestic courts applying the Covenant directly, particularly any instances where domestic legal provisions that were in conflict with the Covenant had been set aside. Regarding two recent views concerning Finland, the delegation was asked to provide information about their implementation and measures the State party intended to take to overcome obstacles thereto.
Regarding the COVID-19 situation, the delegation was asked about the impact of COVID-19 in general on the protection of civil and political rights, and whether some groups were more affected than others. The report of the State Party had referred to limited movement, but the Committee Experts wanted to know what safeguards and remedies were available to rights holders during the pandemic. Recalling States Parties’ obligation to immediately notify the Secretary-General of the United Nations of emergency measures derogating the Covenant, they asked if Finland would notify a declaration now, since it had declared a state of emergency on 1 March.
Several national action plans on human rights had been referred to, all of them related to Finland’s international obligations. Had the State Party assessed the effectiveness of such action plans, which might overlap and make it confusing for victims to know who to approach? Were there plans to improve data collection? Committee Members also asked about Finland's reservations to the Covenant and, regarding article 14 (7) on the principle of ne bis in idem, Finland was asked to provide information on the continued necessity for this reservation. Experts asked why human rights impact assessments had not worked effectively in specific issues or regarding particular categories of people, such as Sami people's rights.
On non-discrimination, Committee Members asked the delegation to provide information on the outcome of a study on the impact of the Anti-Discrimination Act on the legal protection of victims of discrimination, the prevention of discrimination, and the promotion of non-discrimination. Finland was asked whether there were specific proposals to broaden the powers of the Anti-Discrimination Ombudsman. Could the delegation provide additional details on its Action Plan to Prevent Hate Speech and Racism, as well as numerical data on the application of the code on combating illegal online hate speech?
Replies by the delegation
The delegation said the Covenant was well-integrated in Finnish national legislation. Whenever an international instrument was ratified, Finland thoroughly ensured that domestic laws were in line with arising obligations. Lower courts had referred to the Covenant in their case law, and the Committee and its concluding observations had been cited in legislative proposals submitted to Parliament. Whenever Finland received new concluding observations, the public was informed about them through a press release, and they were also translated into Finnish and Swedish and minority languages like Northern Sámi . Concluding observations were submitted to Parliament’s Constitutional Law Committee. Regarding individual communications, the Government provided information to the Committee on measures taken to implement its views, and would keep it informed by reporting in May, as requested.
Turning to national action plans on human rights, delegates said both plans had been assessed by independent evaluators. Evaluations had found the first national action plan should focus on specific themes in the future. The second evaluation had focused on subjects like equality, and, according to the evaluation, the plan should have long-term goals aimed at improving the human rights situation. The third Action Plan would focus on indicators. A governmental expertise network had started working in December on impact assessments, and a cross-ministerial team on human rights impact would give support to law drafters in need of guidance.
Regarding Finland's reservations to Article 14, delegates said that according to Finnish law, it was possible to be tried and punished again, but only after the Supreme Court had reversed a final judgment, which was an extraordinary channel of appeal, the conditions for the use of which were very strict and laid down in the code of judicial procedure. Finland maintained that its reservation to Article 14 remained relevant. When the Covenant was ratified, victims' rights weren't on the agenda. But they were now, and there was a concern that if new facts appeared that could lead to a significantly different result, it might appear unjust, from the point of view of a victim, not to be able to reopen the case. Finland's reservation was consistent with the European Convention of Human Rights, which permitted reopening a case when new facts emerged, or if a defect in proceedings was detected. Regarding legislative efforts to criminalize hate crimes committed on the basis of race or other reasons, Finland was of the opinion that hate speech was already criminalized. There was a Government proposal to be debated in Parliament whereby, when the motivation for any crime were gender, this would be a basis for increased punishment.
Regarding data about women and minority groups' participation in society, while Finland did not have disaggregated data, recently published research results showed that the share of women among elected candidates was larger than that of men. And yet, work remained to be done, as many candidates felt unsupported by their parties in comparison to candidates representing the majority population. Differences in participation had been pointed out as a weakness, and this was taken very seriously.
About COVID-related emergency powers, delegates said that restrictions were based on ordinary legislation and not emergency powers, and that for now new restrictions would only deal with activities of restaurants. If there was a need for wider restrictions, Finland would assess whether a notification would be made. A section of the Emergency Powers Act stipulated that decisions made under those laws could be subject to appeal before courts. For example, there had been a judgment from an administrative court which dealt with the right to visit close relatives in care homes. The Court's decision —which was still subject to appeal— had been that the right to visit close relatives should be taken into account. Regarding an evaluation of the Non-Discrimination Act, remaining challenges included the enforcement of the law, which was still not well-enough known. Discrimination on different grounds was reported through different legal channels. This resulted in differences in legal protection and different remedies. Changes in legislation were coming, and civil society would be given a chance to affect that process. In response to a question about compensation, delegates said the National Non-Discrimination Tribunal of Finland did not have a mandate to provide compensation, but a victim could claim compensation before a district court. Amounts were not large, and fewer than a dozen cases in recent years had resulted in three instances in which compensation was granted.
Regarding the human rights impact assessment, the Ministry of the Interior had opened a new position of human rights expert to train colleagues on human rights questions. The goal was to improve the human rights assessment of bills, and already a positive impact was being seen. Regarding data on hate crimes, the numbers had remained stable over the last reporting period. On the Helsinki police department’s work to fight online hate speech, the group had only worked for one year, with a special budget. After that, online hate speech was addressed nationwide rather than by a specialized team. The number of cases investigated had remained approximately the same. Finland had conducted surveys about the effects of COVID-19 on different age groups of the Roma population. As regards people with disabilities and people with a foreign background, Finland was about to launch a study on the realization of their rights during the pandemic, aiming to explore their experiences and, based on the findings, find ways to better prepare for future emergencies.
Committee Members noted that concrete examples of references in domestic courts were welcome. They asked what happened following an impact assessment that found draft legislation to be in conflict with international obligations. Committee members also asked about measures taken to ensure that dark-skinned and Black people were protected and not subject to discrimination.
Answers by the Delegation
KRISTA OINONEN, Director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, said Finland had an inclusive and transparent approach to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Regarding Goal 16, the government had a cross-administrative programme aiming to promote openness and consultation and to strengthen the capacity of civil society, among other aims. Finland ranked very well when it came to democracy, human rights, and freedom of press. It was the most free country in the world, along with Norway and Sweden, and Finnish elections were the most free and most reliable in the world.
Replying to the Committee Experts’ questions about human rights assessments in lawmaking and how to prevent the adoption of unconstitutional laws, the delegation said Finland had a regular process ensuring just that, and, as last resort, the Speaker of Parliament must ensure Parliament does not adopt unconstitutional acts. On Black and dark-skinned people in Finland, members of the delegation specified that Finland’s non-discrimination act prohibited discrimination based on skin color. Employers were obliged to combat discrimination and actively promote non-discrimination. The legal framework was adequate, but the implementation needed to be improved.
Questions by Committee Experts
Committee Experts asked for further details about Finland’s reservation to Article 14. Finland’s criminal code left the impression that an option existed for a higher court to review final judgments in criminal cases and that it could nullify both convictions and acquittals. Did that mean that an absolution could remain under the shadow of a potential overturn?
Committee Experts noted that according to information received from Finland's report, transsexualism remained categorized as a “mental disorder”. Procedures for changing one's gender identity remained very lengthy. Would Finland withdraw transsexualism from the list of mental disorders, and what were the measures envisaged to end the practice of forced sterilization of transsexual or transgender people? Regarding the situation of intersex people, information received by the Committee was unanimous: unnecessary and nonconsensual medical treatments were still a serious problem. These interventions responded more to a social than a medical need.
Turning to the right to life and the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Articles 6, 7 and 14 of the Covenant), Committee Experts asked about police use of the Taser weapon and other non-lethal arms. Which measures were in place to limit the use of such weapons, and could the delegation give more details on public confidence in the police, including on the perspective of minorities? Regarding the liberty and security of persons and treatment of persons deprived of their liberty (Articles 9 and 10) could the delegation explain how the COVID-19 pandemic had affected Finland's 48-hour limit before detainees needed to be presented before a judge? What progress had been made in reforms of preventive detention?
On counterterrorism measures (Articles 2, 9, 12 and 14), Committee Experts asked how many cases of terrorist-related activities had been tried by Finnish courts during the reporting period, and for what crimes specifically.
Turning to Finish foreign terrorist fighters and women and children affiliated with Islamic State, they said that, according to Finnish security services, around 80 adults and “dozens” of minors were known to have joined Islamic State, but the actual numbers might be even higher. Many Islamic State-affiliated women and children were still being held in difficult conditions at the al-Hol camp in Syria. Would they be returned to Finland and go through a legal process there? Relatedly, did Finland have a rehabilitation program for extremists or foreign terrorist fighters? As regard oversight mechanisms of Finnish intelligence services, how did they ensure compliance with human rights law?
Recalling that violence against women had been addressed at Finland's last review, Experts enquired about measures taken and progress achieved in that regard. Had shelters for victims been accessible during the pandemic, and was access ensured for all groups? Would the Government abolish charging a fee for restraining orders? Experts also asked how the Criminal Code reform was going to tackle underreporting as well as low rates of prosecution and conviction for rape. The Finnish delegation was also asked to elaborate on measures taken against forced marriage.
Turning to the right to autonomy for persons with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities in the context of involuntary placements and treatment in psychiatric institutions, Committee Experts asked Finland's delegation why new legislation strengthening the right to self-determination of those vulnerable people was delayed. Could the delegation outline safeguards available to them and comment on their effective access to legal remedies?
On the question of remand prisoners, Experts asked the delegation to provide information on concrete measures taken to reduce the number of persons detained in police detention facilities under the current legislation. Regarding juveniles in that situation, Experts requested information on the reasons why Finland had not set up an exclusive section for juvenile prisoners in existing institutions for adult prisoners.
Replies by the delegation
KRISTA OINONEN, Director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, said Finland’s policy on children and their family members in north-east Syria were based on Finland’s human rights obligations, notably the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Government had adopted a resolution last December stating it was the Government’s resolve to repatriate the children from the camps. Repatriation decisions would be made by the designated competent authority, which would also ensure repatriated individuals didn’t pose any threat to people living in Finland. It had been decided to repatriate children along with their mothers; all Finnish citizens had the right to return to Finland. The security risks involved with quick repatriations of children were perceived as more manageable than leaving them in the camps. The Government intended to continue its work in that regard.
Finland had a general non-discrimination legislation that was broad and covered all areas of life. Ethnic profiling was also explicitly prohibited in the Aliens Act. According to research data, people nevertheless reported having been stopped by the police based on their origin. People who thought they had been victims of discrimination could make an administrative complaint, or contact an ombudsman. They could also take the situation to the Non-Discrimination and Equality Tribunal free of charge. This tribunal did not require assistance from a lawyer. To enhance trust, the Police University College had had a diversity project considering tools to encourage people from minority groups to pursue police studies.
On intersex children, healthcare professionals claimed that no interventions were made to “correct the sex” of children and that non-medical interventions were not performed. However, there was a clear disagreement about which procedures were medically grounded, which procedures were necessary for the health of the child, and which procedures were cosmetic. Further discussions were needed on this matter. Finland was putting together a working group to evaluate how to stop cosmetic non-medical genital surgery for small intersex children. This working group would be multidisciplinary and include representatives of non-governmental organizations such as associations of parents of intersex children.
Regarding the right to self-determination of persons in social and health care, Finland was just starting to set up a working group that would review draft legislation. The aim was to strengthen the integrity of persons in social and health care, and Finland would look at the recommendations and case law from international human rights monitoring bodies.
Funding had been increased for services for victims of violence against women and victims of sexual violence. While COVID-19 had had an impact —notably causing increased demand for online and chat services— all the shelters remained open during the pandemic. Shelters were accessible to all women and men, but not all communities were aware of those services. Parliament had added additional resources, requesting that the money be allocated to increase physical accessibility of the services. The action plan on violence against women included measures such as awareness-raising on social media.
Reports of rape had increased significantly, giving hope that more sexual offenses would come to the knowledge of the authorities and be prosecuted. On the issue of prisoners under the age of 18, including remand prisoners, the past year had shown that childcare facilities were not suitable, having been built for other purposes. In existing prisons, Finland would have separate sections for remand prisoners that were minors. Stressing that it was a work in progress, delegates stressed the importance of avoiding solitary confinement.
Questions by Committee Experts
Committee members asked for data on the numbers of people released from police custody within 48 hours. Experts also asked for Finland’s position on the Optional Protocol to the Oviedo Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine.
Regarding the right to self-determination, Experts asked whether Finnish authorities were aware of widespread COVID-19 infection in housing units of persons with disabilities. They requested data on deaths in such institutions. On counterterrorism, Experts asked if any citizen of Finland had lost their citizenship in cases dealt with by Finnish authorities. They also asked whether it was correct to understand that prosecutors did not have control over the police’s work.
Answers by the Delegation
The delegations said Finland had communicated concerns about persons with disabilities to the Council of Europe. Negotiations on the Optional Protocol to the Oviedo Convention were still ongoing. There had been one death related to COVID-19 in a social care home for persons with disabilities. Visits to those facilities had been restricted, as a way of protecting the right to life of inhabitants.
No Finnish citizens had lost their citizenship because of terrorist activities, the delegation said. As for the Finnish prosecution agency, the Committee’s interpretation was correct: in certain cases, the prosecutor could intervene or take up investigations even if the police had decided there was no need for further action, but the prosecutor didn’t exercise authority over the police. Those were two different administrative branches.
Questions by the Committee Experts
Experts asked for details concerning the treatment of aliens, including refugees and asylum seekers. Were the latter given information in their own languages, and how were vulnerable ones identified? How did the police ascertain that removing a person from Finland would not violate the principle of non-refoulement? Experts also asked how many removals of asylum seekers had taken place in the reporting period, especially that of children, and what steps were being taken to avoid detention of children.
Turning to questions related to freedom of conscience and religious belief, Experts asked about the length of military and service and the imprisonment of conscientious objectors. As for the right to privacy, experts requested information about civilian and military intelligence and communications surveillance. How many criminal investigations were currently pending on terrorist offences, and which offences were considered to be a threat to national security? On blasphemy laws, the delegation was asked whether Finland’s provision on the breach of sanctity of religion could adversely affect the exercise of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, or curb the right to freedom of expression and opinion.
On the situation of the Sámi people, Experts asked if the State Party would pursue the reconciliation process with the Sámi through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They asked Finland when the International Labour Organization Convention No. 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries Convention would finally be ratified, when it would conclude its revision of the Act on the Sámi Parliament, and how the rights of the Sámi to their traditional livelihoods would be upheld. They further asked what training Finland intended to provide to government and local officials on the need to respect Sámi rights as those of an Indigenous people.
Committee Experts commended Finland for granting Finnish nationality to children born in Finland who would otherwise be stateless.
Replies by the delegation
KRISTA OINONEN, Director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, said it was Finland’s position that the Optional Protocol to the Oviedo Convention must be in conformity with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as well as other human rights norms and standards.
The Finnish delegation, in response to other questions, underscored that the right to seek asylum could not be restricted at any time. As for questions about amendments made to the Aliens Act, youth under 15 could never be detained; detention was always used as a last resort, and it was very rare that asylum seekers that were minors were detained. In response to questions about the police and the removal of foreigners from the country, to avoid situations of refoulement, the police coordinated with courts to find out if there was any interim measures that were pending or about to be implemented. The police also cooperated with some asylum attorneys.
The Finnish Nationality Act had been amended two years ago to enable Finland to withdraw a person’s Finnish citizenship if he or she committed a crime such as treason, espionage, or serious terrorist acts. According to the amendment, withdrawal of Finnish citizenship required that a person be sentenced to 5 years of imprisonment, and that that decision be final. The amendment had entered into force in 2019 and could not be applied retroactively. It had not yet been applied. Finnish citizenship could not be withdrawn if such withdrawal would make a person stateless.
On the truth and reconciliation process as it related to Sámi people, preparations had started in 2017 at the Sámi Parliament’s initiative.
The delegation said additional detailed information, such as data, would be submitted within 72 hours after the conclusion of the dialogue.
KRISTA OINONEN, Director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, concluded by saying that the virtual dialogue had worked just as well as the previous, in-person dialogue in 2013. The Committee’s coordination of its list of issues with that of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had led to a comprehensive assessment of the human rights situation in Finland. The Government would continue its work toward the objectives of its human rights based programme, the COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding, and would continue to promote equality, inclusion, sustainable development, and the rule of law. It would continue to work to keep Finland the safest country in the world.
PHOTINI PAZARTZIS, Committee Chairperson, noted the positive feedback both on the online format and the coordination with the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Affairs. She thanked the delegation, the Committee Experts, and the interpreters for their work.