Interview: Tarja Halonen, 11th President of Finland

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Tarja Halonen was the 11th President of Finland, serving from 2000 to March of 2012. She now serves as co-chair of the UN higher-level Panel on Global Sustainability, and is also known for her advocacy on gender and equality issues. In 2008 and 2009, she was voted by Forbes’ magazine within the top 100 most powerful women in the world. She spoke to Anna Friedler on sustainability, the EU and the pursuit of equality.

 Halonen will be attending the much anticipated Earth Summit conference on sustainable development, which will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in just a few weeks time. I was keen to know what she hopes to see ‘Rio+20’ decide on. “I hope that the conference, although of course it’s a so-called environmental summit, could see this new paradigm that decisions can take into account environmental issues, but also this modern trinity, which means economics and social dimensions too. I don’t hope that they will make new sustainable development goals, but I hope that Rio will say that we need sustainable development goals after 2015 [the end date of the Millennium Development Goals] and they will encourage the UN and its member governments to do this as soon as possible.”

 On the topic of whether the most notorious of the climate summits, Kyoto, has failed, Halonen is pragmatic. “It seems quite gloomy now, but I think that the Copenhagen summit succeeded getting a unanimous opinion that there is climate change and you might say that it’s silly to say that there’s one good result, but before this none of the big important summits had succeeded in doing that. But now the situation is bad in such a way that in the Kyoto protocol, not all the countries have signed up, and now even some of those like Canada who have been on board, have said that they don’t want to continue if the others don’t come. That’s why I said that we should find a way to encourage those who are progressive and find ways to make it not worth being outside. So I hope that they can find such ways – I think that Cancún and Durban [the 2010 and 2011 climate summits] have made some steps forward after Copenhagen, but I’m pretty concerned or cautious to say anything about the future on that. But that’s what we have to do and we have to see also the need of protecting biodiversity in a larger sense.”

 But doesn’t the fact that world contains enough food to feed its global population, though not enough money to buy it, point to problems with the economy, not the biology, in terms of sustainability? “The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has said, concerning agriculture and food in the world, that we don’t need any genetic engineering, with [the] things we have we could have food enough for everyone, it’s a question of the process, how we deliver it. And then of course it’s also a question of money – and it’s a business, a very hard business like how politics is a hard business. But I think that in different ways we could also make the system concerning food better, which means that countries could go back to food production more themselves – that might mean also some limitations on so-called free trade and I know also that the Doha Round [World Trade Organisation negotiations over lowering trade boundaries, particularly with the developing world] has taken quite a long time, but given what we see in other countries and what we have in other parts of the world already, I don’t believe people will tolerate the kinds of deregulations that we have for a long time. So yes I agree its a question of money and economics, I hope that the way forward is that sustainable development will win more and more economists, so that it will become the mainstream and not only the so-called ‘human thinking’ of some economists.”

 The UN sustainability panel of which Halonen is acting co-chair, produced a lengthy report detailing goals for a more equal society, that can function and develop within stable ecosystems. However, its recommendations on emissions trading remain controversial – does Tarja think there is potential for environmental harm, or exploitation of more vulnerable countries? “I think that in the long run will see that in energy politics there is not one key for all the answers, and that’s why I think that when we discuss international agreements we should see both sides. And we should give more information and education, so people will understand their situations, so in that way we could improve the situation of the countries which are not progressive. But the fact is of course that those countries will take a very big responsibility which are now saying ‘no’ for the short term and that’s why I hope that in Rio now it will be discussed once again.”

 Also mentioned in the report was the need for corporate responsibility, and on this Halonen is enthusiastic about the potential for stricter international law. “As a European I of course see the possibilities from both ends and I would be very happy if the EU would be the pioneer on this issue – I don’t think that we will worsen our situation if we are the pioneers for this. I’m very happy that some of the EU countries have made already the steps forwards for us.”

Although we are not as successful economically as what we could hope now, especially when we are thinking about the finance crisis, I still think that the European model has been one of the opportunities, one of the options for other countries, in that we have obeyed certain rules and we have still been quite successful. It is worth studying examples, in that the European Convention on Human Rights has succeeded quite well in Europe and it has not stopped the successful processes.”

So does Halonen still support the euro? “We are very serous in Finland in the sense that when we are promised a certain criteria, we think it should be done [this way]. And basically, when we joined the EU years ago, we thought that every single European country would join – especially we with our 5 million as a population, we are very dependant on international trade – in order to make one strong actor in the global markets. I think that so far we have benefited more from Europe than being outside of Europe. We are very concerned about the Greeks of course, because the idea was that all those who are willing and able could be on the path of Europe. I don’t mention the UK or Sweden in that sense, they have taken another way round but globally, I think this is very logical. We should also be much more open and strict concerning how we follow these rules but its not only in economics – in the economic sector it’s much easier to see and has faster consequences, but I think saying that, there is the same concern in other sectors of European cooperation. It’s better that we don’t try to take too many steps forward if we don’t really seriously think that we will follow what we have agreed, because I think this will be very important. Of course the very rapid enlargement after the collapse of Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War was I think politically very logical – both the candidate countries at that time and the old countries like Greece for instance and some others, were not strong enough to continue doing the reforms in society which were needed. But I think that this is a very hard lesson for the EU and European countries, but the only way is try to go further and try to handle it soon. I do hope so that we can keep still Greece inside.”

 And Tarja is keen to stress the importance of ‘safety nets’ as part of sustainable development, and believes that had more been in place, the severity of the recession could have been lessened: “I think that social safety nets are very necessary, because for instance we all agree that in societies that are rapidly developing technically, they are also developing the need for lifelong learning. And people are not ready to give up their old jobs if you cannot guarantee that they’ll get a new job and they can get an education for that. That’s why you need also to be very positive about learning. And you should keep the joy of learning – it’s one of the basic things for the human being since a baby through all your life; but social safety nets make it possible for the people who have been dropping out of education or the job market or whatever. Even with senior citizens, if you are not investing in their education, you are not giving them a safety net. So it’s not only whether it’s human or inhuman concerning they themselves, but it will also be reflected in the new generations because of what they want to see, they don’t want such a fate for themselves. In that way doing the best possible for the next generation is environmental issues, education and all that, but it’s in the same way that the present young generation should see that they are responsible for that.”

 In the end though, is there any way to unravel the root causes of social inequality as a whole, in societies? “Its’ very difficult to get priorities. What I would say is that the first priority is a democratic system, where your rights are guaranteed. So democracy, human rights and all this is the basis, but we have to also see the importance of the social justice. If I end with the words of my late father: he said always to me when I was young, ‘my dear, try to remember, it’s not just the freedom or the bread – its freedom and the bread’.”

The interview was provided courtesy of the Oxford Union

PHOTO/ United Nations Photo