Elmgren, Ainur: From Civil Rights to Human Rights – Individual Rights vs. the Sovereign State in Finland from the 1930s to the 1940s.

Hannah Arendt famously described citizenship as “the right to have rights”. Her observations were based on the horrifically successful Nazi plan to deprive the German Jews of their citizenship and thereby exclude them from legal protection (Arendt 1979). Finland had faced the problem of stateless refugees on its soil since the Russian revolutions in 1917. Official solutions were legalist and protective of the state and public order. The stateless had less rights than citizens, yet the balance between rights and duties was not symmetrical (e.g. stateless men could be conscripted according to the 30 June 1932 Conscription Act, 46 § 2). In addition, the language of rights was not coherent; in public discourse, the concepts of “civil rights” and “civil liberties” were often used interchangeably.When Finland began to receive refugees from Nazi-controlled Europe in 1938-1939, the “rights” of these people were limited to humanitarian necessities, especially if they had lost their citizenship (or claimed to have lost it; cf. accusation toward Jewish refugees in Castrén 1942, p. 84, footnote 103). The refugees’ impact on society was discussed as a security risk and an economic burden on the state. According to jurist Erik Castrén (1904 - 1984), recognition of “so-called” human rights was based on the notion of natural law and therefore not applicable to international law (1942). Even legal positivists were not impervious to changes in world politics – in articles published after the Second World War, Castrén accepted the increased importance of human rights in international law. He went on to become a member of the UN International Law Commission and posthumous patron of the Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights at the University of Helsinki. Already in the 1930s, political activists in Finland attempted to gain support to the concept of human rights in the struggle against abuse of state power. This vocal minority was treated as a potentially fertile ground for illegal Communist infiltration by the authorities, although the sympathies of many a member were on the side of Britain and France. Ihmisoikeuksien Liitto, founded in 1935 (League of Human Rights, inspired by the eponymous French organization), was especially targeted by public prosecutors and the secret police (Wahlberg 2012). In the speeches and writings of these activists, e.g. journalist Erkki Vala and professor of anatomy Väinö Lassila, the defence of civil rights was gradually extended to include non-citizens in the name of human rights. To what extent was this “cascading logic” of rights (cf. Hunt 2008) simply a tool of the anti-fascist struggle, wilfully ignorant of the situation in the Soviet Union? Did these activists in any way influence the post-war development toward a “human rights hegemony”?