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Tuesday, August 14, 2018, 

Interview - Head of the OSCE Mission to Skopje Nina Suomalainen

Interview - Head of the OSCE Mission to Skopje Nina Suomalainen

Skopje, 14 April 2018 (MIA) - Ambassador Nina Suomalainen from Finland assumed the post of the Head of the OSCE Mission to Skopje in September 2015, and after completing a three-year tenure she is to take the office of Executive Director of the Geneva-based NGO Justice Rapid Response.

In the interview with MIA Suomalainen tackles several topics, namely the reform of the judicial system, migrant crisis, language law, terrorism, arms control, police work, gender equality and finally her future professional engagement.

Your term of office started at the height of the political crisis in Macedonia, more specifically in September 2015. On 15 September the Council of Public Prosecutors, as nominated by the Parliament, elected Katica Janeva for a Special Public Prosecutor to prosecute crimes surrounding or arising from the illegal wiretaps. What is your assessment of the work of the Special Public Prosecution? Investigations are underway. Will Macedonia finally be able to establish a functional rule of law and independent judiciary?

- The OSCE supports the processes of developing an independent, impartial judiciary with professional staff which is free from undue influence. Systematic change is needed, and I see that a robust and systemic reform process has begun. I believe that increasing trust in the judiciary and further professionalizing the judicial system should be priorities, so that citizens can be confident that their rights are respected and upheld by the courts.

On the work of the Special Prosecutor’s Office, I would like to point out that since its establishment it had filed 20 indictments, which were all confirmed, and trials are now ongoing. I consider this a success.

ОБСЕ

Our Mission supports the work of the Special Prosecution by providing technical assistance. In addition, our Mission’s trial monitoring team has so far attended over 130 hearings in more than 20 cases. We monitor those cases on procedural grounds with a view to assess if the fair trial rights of the parties are observed by the court. It is our hope that all cases will be brought to a conclusion in order to ensure accountability for the crimes revealed on the wiretaps.

Any achievement you are particularly proud of, while heading the OSCE Mission to Skopje?

- If I have to single out only one achievement, it would definitely be the Mission’s response to the migrant crisis and the quick and effective support we provided to the border police. We deployed mobile teams to the borders and took steps to help the authorities to strengthen border management. We also promoted regional co-operation to detect organized criminal groups trafficking in human beings among the migrants. This swift reply by the Mission made me really proud.

The OSCE Mission primarily deals with following the implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement, the last item of which is considered to be the Law on Languages. What is your position on the Law, which has been commended by certain structures, but also criticized for having provided exclusivity to one minority ethnic group? 

- The OSCE in general advocates for the rights of all groups in a given country to be respected. In this respect, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the State should work for all citizens, no matter their background. Language is an important factor in a multi-ethnic state allowing all citizens to be a part of the society.

 ÐžÐ‘СЕ

In multi-ethnic countries language issues are handled in a variety of ways. In my country, Finland, for example, we have two national languages, Finnish and Swedish. Swedish speakers currently make up less than 6% of the population. We used to be part of Sweden until 1809, but for historical reasons and for Nordic co-operation principles, we have wanted to maintain Swedish as an official language. It’s up to every country and its people to determine the way forward, also on language issues. There is no single model enforced by international law, but I can assure you that our Mission will continue to support efforts that aim to build a truly cohesive, multi-ethnic society.

You come from Finland. What is the state of affairs with regards to minority rights in your home country?   

- My home country, Finland, ensures the protection of the rights of its national minorities. Although no country has a perfect record on minority rights, Finland works hard to promote good ethnic relations, among its population and address potential issues, including improving the rights of Samí people and the education of Roma children. We do not register people based on their ethnicity, but rather people have the right to distinguish themselves and register on the basis of their mother tongue or country of birth.

In general, how has our country benefited from the work of your Mission?

- I think that in the past 25 years, the OSCE Mission to Skopje has significantly contributed to the country’s stability, democratization efforts, and reform processes. It was established on 7 November 1992, as the Spillover Monitor Mission, tasked to monitor developments along the country’s borders in order to preserve its territorial integrity at a moment of crisis in the region. 

Today, we work to advance inter-ethnic relations, implement reforms in areas such as elections, media, democratic policing, local governance and the judiciary, and support the further implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement. It would have been impossible to achieve these results without the committed work of the Mission’s staff and great partnerships with the authorities and civil society.

Human rights, something that our country needs to strengthen, equal treatment for all in cooperation with the State Commission for Protection from Discrimination and the Ombudsperson certainly form part of your Mission. The Ombudsperson, Idzet Memeti, has recently said that the process of strengthening the institution of the Ombudsperson is only on paper, that finances for this aim had been allocated, but the commitments remained only within the law. What is your comment on the situation of the human rights in Macedonia and the realistic role of the Ombudsperson in that regard?

A variety of international reports have indicated an unfortunate decline in the level of protection of human rights in the country over a period of years. However, the government has indicated that it wants to change that. Our Mission is helping to strengthen the country’s human rights institutions. Over the past years, we have closely co-operated with the Ombudsperson and the Commission for Protection from Discrimination and have witnessed the growth and development of both institutions. There is, however, still work to be done to ensure their full financial independence and address staffing issues.

ОБСЕ

In my view, the Ombudsperson should be supported to fulfill its role as the “advocate of and for the people” which can point out shortcomings in legislation and in judiciary processes and support people in asserting their rights. We have positively noted the Ombudsperson’s presence in the Council on Implementation of Reforms in the Judiciary, where he can reflect the perspective of citizens. In addition, we believe that the ongoing process of revising the Law on Prevention and Protection against Discrimination, as well as the recently adopted amendments to the Ombudsperson’s Law, are positive steps to advance the human rights situation in the country.

What activities have you implemented toward fight against terrorism as one of the goals of your Mission? The Government has adopted a National Strategy for Countering Terrorism and Prevention of Violent Extremism. Did you help in the development of this document and why the use of two different terms?

- Our Mission has implemented a number of activities in this field. We know that no country can respond to the global danger of violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism. And while law enforcement is a key player in the fight against terrorism, violent extremism can only be prevented with a whole-of-society approach.

With this in mind, we organized, together with the UK Embassy and the National Committee on Counter-terrorism and Countering Violent Extremism, roundtable discussions in Skopje and Tetovo that offered to involved government officials an opportunity to hear the views of civic, religious and community leaders and experts. Many of the views expressed during these meetings were incorporated in the National Strategies and action plans on Countering Violent Extremism and Countering Terrorism.

What are your activities towards arms control in the country? The Mission supports initiatives for illegal possession of weapons through police training and raising awareness among the citizens on how to prevent gun violence. What activities do you undertake in this regard?

- Our Mission is currently implementing a large-scale project, funded by the EU and Germany, to help the border police build secure storage facilities for their weapons in 15 locations and introduce inventory-control software and procedures to keep track of border police armouries. The aim of this project is to reduce the risk of proliferation of weapons and of ammunition and to increase the security of existing stockpiles of small arms and light weapons.

 ÐžÐ‘СЕ

In my view, this project also has important counter-terrorism element. One of the key results we expect is to reduce transnational threats and fight successfully against organized criminal activity by preventing the proliferation of weapons.

One of your goals is a citizen-centred police. Police laws currently undergo amendments. One of these amendments is the introduction of an external oversight over the work of the police. It is essentially an introduction of a concept of citizen oversight which will work under the umbrella of the Ombudsperson. What are the activities of the Mission in this regard, how can the police outreach to citizens, transform the perception of the police from a repressive force to a structure in service of the citizens?

- Our Mission was one of the key actors that introduced the community policing model in the country. This is a community-oriented method of policing in line with democratic principles and international human rights. Soon after the 2001 conflict, we have been working closely with the Interior Ministry and municipalities to assist in the implementation of the community policing concept. Today, we continue to assist the Interior Ministry in developing a Community Engagement and Communications Strategy, which aims at increasing the outreach of the police to citizens and promoting civilian oversight of police activities.

ОБСЕ

The promotion and practical implementation of the principles of democratic policing remain the Mission's priorities. We will continue to support the ongoing reforms of the police service and provide assistance for the professionalization of the police. We work closely with the Police Academy. The aim is to have a police service that is responsive to the security and safety needs of all citizens.

What is your assessment on the situation with regard to gender equality in the country where it still seems as though the managerial and leadership positions are intended for the males.

- There is no doubt that equal representation of women and men in leadership positions remains a challenge all over the world, including here, and that much more needs to be done to strengthen the employment of women, especially in managerial and leadership positions. Nevertheless, I would like to note that in Parliament there has been some progress, and the current composition includes the highest number of women ever - 47. Another positive step was the recent ratification of the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

In my view, as a woman leader, the country has many ambitious and skilled women. Their potential needs to be fully used. It is also up to women themselves to push to get the positions they are fully competent for. The higher one goes in one’s career, the greater the competition for posts, so we women need to be ready to develop our skills, show what we are capable of, and be determined to achieve our goals.

The Law on Media is currently being amended. What is your assessment on the state of affairs in the media in the country? Is there any progress? How do you assess this ten-month period in this regard, after the change of the government in the country?

- My impression is that the media freedom environment has slowly started to improve. This improvement was reflected in the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission report on the municipal elections, which indicated, among other things, that the media provided balanced coverage of the contestants.

However, many critical issues still exist. The Public Service broadcaster, MRT, faces challenges, including staffing issues, for example in the newsrooms of the smaller non-majority communities. Another important issue that needs to be addressed is impunity for crimes against journalists. Fully aware of the need to improve the safety of journalists, our Mission has joined forces with the Association of Journalists and the Interior Ministry. We will work together to improve the safety of journalists and put an end to impunity for crimes against journalists. I think this is a very encouraging step.

 ÐžÐ‘СЕ

As for the Law on Audio and Audio-visual Media Services that is currently being discussed in the Parliament, I would like to note that two previous drafts were reviewed by an international expert engaged by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

In the past months, both the Ministry of Information Society and Administration and the Parliament have organized a number of public debates on the draft law that brought together representatives of media organizations and associations, the public broadcaster, the regulatory body and the international community. We expect that the amendments to the law which will be adopted by the Parliament will be in line with the recommendations offered in the OSCE reviews. Thereafter, proper implementation will be of the utmost importance.

Your assessment, what is the way forward for the Mission in Macedonia?

- We will keep on moving forward and we will continue to open new doors, while consolidating the strategic partnerships we already have in place with our counterparts.  For the next few years, I believe the Mission will concentrate on its core mandated priorities, including early warning and support for the implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement, as well as on supporting the ongoing reform process, in line with OSCE commitments.

It goes without saying that the overall political climate and the pace of change in the various strands of the reform process are factors that have an impact on the Mission’s capacity to best support the country’s institutions. Being able to adapt our resources and expertise to the needs of our institutional partners remains a key factor for us.

In this regard, we will focus both on supporting efforts to amend laws and change procedures, but equally on the sometimes even more difficult process of implementing those new laws and procedures. Let me mention two examples. Soon we will finalize reports on the observations of our trial monitors, which - I believe - will provide a good basis for considering how to further improve the judicial process.

Similarly, we have recently concluded a large study of opinion by the public and police officers on policing issues in the country that raises several areas where improvements are necessary. Even after my departure, I know that the Mission will continue to work with the authorities to draw the appropriate lessons from these studies and to implement changes to improve the situation.

What is your next career step?

- I will assume the post of Executive Director of the Geneva-based NGO Justice Rapid Response, an organization that helps the international community deliver on its commitment to ending impunity for atrocities and grave human rights violations by delivering swift, impartial and well-conducted investigations of those crimes.

ОБСЕ

I am looking forward to turning a new page in my life and dealing with the challenges ahead. However, I am also sad to have to say goodbye to my colleagues, my friends and my adopted home for the past three years.

Can you tell us who will be your successor?

What I can tell you for sure is that my successor will be a competent and experienced professional. The process for my successor’s recruitment is currently ongoing and includes a number of candidates who have been nominated by their respective countries for the position of Head of Mission.

I hope that all partners and institutions will extend my successor the same excellent level of co-operation that I have enjoyed throughout my tenure here. I wish her or him the best of success for this gratifying and never-boring job.

Until the appointment of a successor, Jeff Goldstein will be the Acting Head of the OSCE Mission to Skopje. Before joining the Mission in September 2016, Jeff worked for two non-governmental organizations, Freedom House and the Open Society Foundations, as well as for the United States’ Department of State, with postings in Warsaw, Seoul, Moscow, Tallinn and Washington. 

What were the things you enjoyed during your stay in the country?

I have really enjoyed the nature here. More often than not, the fast pace of life and the nature of our work obliges us to spend a lot of time inside the office and increases the level of work-related stress. Being able to escape to nature after work together with my dogs, has had a calming effect on me. 

ОБСЕ

During the past three years, I have also committed to rescuing and protecting abused, neglected, or abandoned animals, helping them find loving homes. A number of lovely dogs from Skopje have already found their new homes in Finland. There are many people over here who do a lot to help animals. I wish them the best of luck as they are doing a great job.

Ana Cvetkovska

Photo: Ivana Batev

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