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Speech by Minister of Justice Anna-Maja Henriksson at the seminar on demilitarisation and neutralisation of Åland 20.10.2021

Ministry of Justice
Publication date 20.10.2021 16.16

Mr President, Distinguished Ambassadors, Members of the Parliament of Åland, Distinguished Guests,

It is a great pleasure for me to attend this seminar, which is one of the many events celebrating the centenary of the autonomy of Åland.

This anniversary year of Åland’s autonomy is being celebrated in the Åland Islands, in Finland and internationally. The year marks exactly one hundred years since the League of Nations issued its decision on the question of Åland’s status. Finland and Sweden ratified the decision on Åland’s affiliation to Finland and on the autonomy of Åland on 27 June 1921. The decision marked an important step for the future of both Åland and Finland. What is more, today marks the centenary of the signing of the Convention Relating to the Non-Fortification and Neutralisation of the Åland Islands, or the Åland Convention as it is called.

The combination of demilitarisation, neutralisation and autonomy is unique. This combination brings opportunities and highlights the importance of cooperation and communication. 

The autonomy of Åland came into being in the aftermath of the First World War. It is easy to imagine people’s concerns and worry at that time, not knowing how international relations would develop, and certainly not knowing how the young Republic of Finland would cope in the international community. 

Nor is it difficult to understand the attitude of the young Republic of Finland towards the Åland Islands. Under Swedish rule, Åland had already belonged administratively to the eastern part of the Swedish state, and Åland had also been part of Finland when Finland was an autonomous part of the Russian Empire. In addition, despite its demilitarised status, Åland was still a region of military strategic interest. We can easily imagine that the fact that the Åland Islands belonged to Finland was a matter of prestige for the young republic.

In the peace talks in Paris after the Crimean War, Sweden had already demanded sovereignty over the Åland Islands. In 1917, the situation changed — because the opponent was no longer the Russian Empire but the new Republic of Finland. However, the question of Åland’s status developed into a conflict between Sweden and Finland for some time. But, as we know, this conflict was resolved by the Åland Agreement in the Council of the League of Nations between Sweden and Finland. 

In 1919, the Finnish Government submitted to Parliament a proposal for an act on the autonomy of Åland. It includes an often-quoted statement that “the residents of the Åland Islands would be guaranteed the opportunity to organise their own lives as freely as possible for a province that does not constitute a country of its own”. In the Åland Agreement, Finland resolved to ensure and guarantee the preservation of the Swedish language, culture and local customs of the residents of Åland, and to include in the Act on Autonomy certain guarantees concerning the language of education, the right to redeem land surrendered to non-residents, the right to vote in municipal elections and elections to the Parliament of Åland, the appointment of the Governor, and the right to use a certain part of the taxes collected in the province for its own needs.

However, this solution was received with disappointment in the Åland Islands and there existed some tension in the relations between Åland and Finland until the Second World War. After the war, a new Autonomy Act was passed in 1951, Åland’s legislative powers were increased and a flag was adopted as a significant symbol. Presidents of the Republic Paasikivi and Kekkonen welcomed the development of self-government and, given the strong position of these presidents, relations improved favourably.

Since then, a lot has happened. The last time I served as Minister of Justice, first in the Government of Prime Minister Katainen and then in the Government of Prime Minister Stubb, I set up the Halonen Committee, which was tasked with reforming the Act on the Autonomy of Åland. However, the Committee did not conclude the work back then. Now, however, in the Government of Prime Minister Marin, as Minister of Justice and the Minister responsible for matters concerning the Åland Islands, I can say that the overall reform of the Autonomy Act is finally underway. We are doing our best to make it happen this time. We still have some negotiations ahead of us, but I am hopeful and I hope that we will get a result.

Distinguished guests,

During the centenary year of the autonomy of Åland, events have been planned that highlight in international connections the success of Åland’s self-government that serve as an example of how such autonomy works in practice.

The Autonomy Act is unique in that both the Parliament of Finland and the Parliament of Åland must approve its amendments. We have spent many working hours on this reform. While it has not always been easy to find compromises, all parties have had the will to keep going. In reforms such as this, we recognise how important it is to work together, to respect each other and, the most essential element, to deepen trust in each other. For me, it is important to maintain a good relationship between the Åland Islands and the State of Finland. In this work, we must have continuous dialogue in many areas.

When the current Autonomy Act was enacted, Finland and Åland were not members of the European Union. The reform of fundamental rights and the amended Constitution also entered into force after the entry into force of the Autonomy Act in 1993. So much has happened in our society since then, and the legal and political framework has changed a lot. Indeed, it is time that we have an up-to-date Autonomy Act — that is, a modern act adapted to the current circumstances and using the terminology currently in use. Another aim is to clarify the relationship between the Autonomy Act and the Constitution.

The key objective of the current reform of the Autonomy Act is to create a more dynamic system of autonomy for the Åland Islands. Over time and if necessary, this will enable a smoother transfer of legislative powers in certain areas of competence from the Parliament of Finland to the Parliament of Åland. 

The proposal for an amended Autonomy Act contains a number of provisions aimed at developing and streamlining cooperation between the State of Finland and the authorities of Åland. We have seen that there is a need for this.

This year, one hundred years after the agreement concerning the Åland Islands was reached, it still remains a unique solution in the world and serves as a good example of how situations of this kind can be resolved. 

The example of Åland was taken into use in conflict resolution efforts in the late 1980s. At this time, at the end of the Cold War, questions concerning minorities, nations, borders and identities were appearing on the world stage.

The solution reached in the Åland Islands has been used as an example by different groups in various formal and informal processes for promoting peace around the world. In these contexts, Åland’s example has been used to illustrate different principles or as a model for institutions and rules. Additionally, the Åland Islands have served as a physical meeting place for conflict resolution efforts. 

What is more, Åland is a prime example of how autonomy can be extended over time. Not all problems have to be solved at once; self-government can be expanded at the appropriate time. We recognise, however, that no single solution can ever be universally applied to other problems, which is why we prefer to speak of Åland as an example rather than as a model. 

In a changing world, it is essential to reflect on the impacts on special regimes such as the demilitarisation and neutralisation of the Åland Islands. Questions arise due to new global trends and threats. It is important to find balance between the durable and the adaptable, and therefore note the roots and stability of the demilitarisation and the neutralisation of the Åland Islands.  

The preconditions for the autonomy of Åland have been favourable and remain so to this day. Finland is a democratic state governed by the rule of law, and controversy over Åland’s affiliation has never included any violence. Such circumstances do not exist in many of today’s conflict areas. That being said, it was never self-evident that Åland would become a success story. Åland’s example shows that a solution with which all the parties were initially dissatisfied can be successful in the long term.

Thank you for your attention.

I would also like to extend my warmest congratulations to the Åland Islands and wish everyone a wonderful 100 years anniversary! Thank you! Tack så mycket!

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