HS interview: President Halonen urges Finns to dare defend victims of racism
By Pekka Mykkänen
President Tarja Halonen wants Finnish party leaders, civil servants, and ordinary citizens to seriously tackle the racism that she sees “bubbling up” in Finland.
Halonen says that she was “slightly surprised” at the results of the poll published by Helsingin Sanomat on Saturday, according to which two-thirds of Finns felt that there is much, or a fair amount of racism in Finland. One in seven recognised or admitted to the existence of racism within themselves.
She felt that it was positive that citizens seem to have woken up to seeing racism as a problem.
“Of course it is unfortunate that there is racism in Finland, but it is good that people recognise it and are no longer blind to what happens at home.”
The survey revealed that supporters of the True Finns party, which won big in the previous parliamentary elections, were twice as likely to recognise racism in themselves as the nation on average.
“People who recognise racism in themselves have ended up voting for the True Finns. The True Finns have been seen as their way of reacting to some problems which they consider to be truly serious. I have said that the questions and problems can be the right ones to some degree, but the answers are wrong”, Halonen says.
According to the President, the current atmosphere requires everyday moral courage and defence of those who become victims of racism.
“What is decisive is our own everyday behaviour and everyday courage. It is often the first support that people who are targets of racism can get. However, I do not mean that it would be necessary to intervene in every argument, because it could be very dangerous. But there should not be a sounding-board from the public suggesting that racism is right.”
Tarja Halonen says in her interview with Helsingin Sanomat that she is concerned about the inflamed relations between the native inhabitants of the city of Lieksa in North Karelia and the Somali community there of about 200 people.
“On the question of whether or not racism is a problem here I would say that this situation is bubbling, and now and then a few bursts rise to the surface, which call for a quick response. But it is also important to see where the pressure comes from and to try to influence it.”
Halonen is worried that a culture that encourages plain speaking has led to a coarsening of the use of language. “There has been an acceptance of hate behaviour that would not have been considered appropriate before.”
She feels that it is worth considering whether or not guidebooks should be distributed advising people not to laugh at racist jokes.
“The methods are not simple. They take time and require a broad common culture of action. For instance those taking part in online discussions could actively bring out the view that racist positions are not acceptable, that they do not lead to anything good, and they are not the right answers.”
Halonen said that she feared in advance that attitudes toward the Roma would take a negative turn as a result of the widespread negative publicity received by Roma beggars.
The fear proved to be well founded.
In the Helsingin Sanomat poll, 37 per cent of the people took a negative view of the Roma.
“This has happened here in Finland and in other parts of Europe. The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that actions with which the status of the Roma in their countries of origin could have been quickly and significantly improved have signally failed.”
The President chews over the Roma question for a long time with a feeling of frustration. She admits that she herself failed when she tried to influence the presidents of Romania and Bulgaria - the leaders of the countries of origin of the Roma.
“The answers that we are able to give here in the countries where they come to are all more or less bad. But it is not enough to deny the problem - we need to find at least reasonably good solutions.”
Early next year before the end of her term as president, Halonen plans to raise the issue when a group of European presidents gather together in Finland.
“We need to take a humane attitude toward individuals, but that does not mean that we should accept professional begging.”
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 13.11.2011
Previously in HS International Edition:
Poll: Majority of Finns see Finland as racist country (14.11.2011)
Prime Minister, President, and True Finns politicians react to results of HS poll (14.11.2011)
PEKKA MYKKÄNEN / Helsingin Sanomat