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The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman's observations on promoting equality and combatting racism

To the working group appointed to prepare a government statement to Parliament on promoting equality and non-discrimination in Finnish society.

The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman's observations on promoting equality and combatting racism.

1. Foreword

Section 22 of the Constitution of Finland provides for the public authorities' obligation to guarantee the observance of basic and human rights, which naturally also covers the work of the government. The principle of equal treatment and prohibition of discrimination are fundamental rights on which further provisions are laid down in the Non-Discrimination Act. Racism is a significant social problem in Finland and the effective realisation of fundamental rights requires the government to take action to combat racism and promote equality. During the government formation talks, we delivered a memorandum on racism, research into this phenomenon, and its impact on mental health and internal security to the negotiators. However, racism or any action to combat it are not mentioned in the government programme.

There is no need – now or ever – for an anti-racism programme restricted to mere slogans. Systematic action by the state administration and authorities is needed to, for example, weed out racist and discriminatory harassment from schools, eliminate ethnic discrimination in recruitment, and address ethnic profiling by security guards and the law enforcement authorities. The identification of structural racism is an important component of implementing these measures.

The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman is concerned about the current situation, in which racism and hate speech are threatening to become normalised in politics. The extremely acrimonious and generalised manner of talking about immigrants is a source of concern and even fear, especially in this part of Finland's population. It may also constitute harassment prohibited under the Non-Discrimination Act or meet the statutory definition of a discrimination offence.  Strong leadership is now called for from government ministers, members of Parliament and all party organisations, so that critical discussion of, for example, measures taken to promote integration, is possible without referring to people or groups of people in defamatory or degrading terms.

Discrimination and racism, intentional or otherwise, must be combatted. Deliberate discrimination, racism and hate speech are cruel insults to human dignity. The government must act against racism and for equality with integrity and determination. Measures laid out in an anti-racism action plan can ensure in practice that decision-makers or authorities are not guilty of racism or discrimination in their activities.

2. The Equal Finland Action Plan

The Equal Finland Action Plan 2021–2023 is the first Finnish action plan to combat racism and promote good relations between population groups. It was especially valuable due to its broad-based preparation and measures cutting across administrative branches, achieving the engagement of the whole state administration and key stakeholders, such as municipalities, to its implementation. The next action plan should be equally comprehensive in both the geographic and administrative senses, so that the entire public sector will be committed to combatting racism and promoting equality in a goal-oriented manner. The public sector must lead the way in combatting racism.

We underline the following as the most essential objectives of the Equal Finland Action Plan:

  • Identifying and dismantling discriminatory structures in society
  • Addressing hate speech through systematic action and cooperation
  • Developing research and data collection related to racism

Anti-racism work is a natural part of the promotion of equality required by the Non-Discrimination Act. Important elements of this work include assessing one's own actions and environment, determination, and the development of competence and processes in its implementation.

For example, intervening in racist harassment in schools requires clear-cut operating models disseminated throughout the school community, as well as designated persons with the competence and authority for preventive action and interventions. Creating an anti-racism training module for everyone working in the education and early childhood education and care sectors would be a concrete way of ensuring appropriate competence in the growth environment of children and young people.

We must strive to ensure that every child and young person can feel seen and valued as their unique selves every day as well as grow and develop safely with their peers. Racist speech by adults, including those in positions of authority, undermines this work.

3. Conclusion

The success of governmental anti-racism measures requires broad-based partnerships with society, including in the municipal sector, well-being services counties and civil society and with labour market organisations. The "I Am Antiracist" campaign implemented by the Ministry of Justice and Non-Discrimination Ombudsman in late 2021 and early 2022 with approximately 180 partners was a good example of this. In the preparation of the government statement, it is important to consult those affected by racism in their daily lives as well as those working to promote antiracism.

A strong governmental commitment to promoting equality and non-discrimination also requires a thorough examination of all measures laid down in the government programme and the assessment of their impact in terms of discrimination risk and the fundamental rights of various population groups.

For example, the government programme includes measures restricting the provision of necessary health care services to paperless individuals and changes to the promotion of integration which, if implemented, will degrade the position of extremely vulnerable people even further and expose them to a higher risk of abuse or violence. Amendments of this nature, which decrease everyone's safety while potentially leading to even inhumane situations at the individual level, should be reassessed from a fundamental rights perspective.

Action to combat racism and discrimination is not a matter of willingness but of obligation. Continued work to combat racism and discrimination can only take our society in one direction: a better, more equal and secure one. Working against racism and discrimination does not impair or diminish the rights of anyone, but lays a foundation for greater respect for those of everyone. The Ombudsman expects the government to commit to effective action to promote equality.

Kristina Stenman,
Non-Discrimination Ombudsman