21 Apr

Humanitarian law helps us to react on crimes against humanity

Is it legally allowed to bomb enemy headquarters, if innocent civilians are known to move in the area? Can the opponent use methods of torture to acquire potentially life-saving information from enemies in captivity? In order to determine answers to questions like these, commanders of military operations often rely on the support of legal advisors, who help interpreting the rules of war. At the Finnish Red Cross’ humanitarian law competition, university students got a touch of real life decision-making, as their knowledge was put to the test.

With the international humanitarian law conventions in one hand and law books in the other, 14 students from all over Finland gathered in Helsinki for the Gunnar Rosén International Humanitarian Law Competition. This meant four intensive days of role-plays, workshops and lectures that culminated in a moot court, a simulated war trial session where the most successful participants took the roles of prosecutor and defence.

The session was judged by a panel of renowned international experts, Christie Edwards-Orkin, Director for International Humanitarian Law at the American Red Cross, Julie Tenenbaum, Regional Legal Adviser of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Erkki Kourula, judge of the International Criminal Court and Kari Takamaa, legal advisor of the Finnish National Defence University.

In real life, court representatives investigate their case and build arguments for months, but other than that, the experience was as close to an actual session as it comes. In preparation for the moot court, the participants trained by implementing their theoretical knowledge on several practical cases. Like legal advisors in the field, they had to take in a lot of background information and closely study conventions in order to give grounds for practical decisions to military commanders, media representatives and government leaders.

Daniela Karlsson, Christian Saja and Emil Vartiainen, students of Law and International Law at Åbo Akademi, had traveled from Turku to take part in the competition and felt that they had learned a lot already during the first days.

– As someone who has mostly studied Finnish law, this has been a great way of gaining an international perspective and in-depth understanding of a new field. I also like the fact that this is a totally new way of learning, compared to writing essays at the university library, Daniela Karlsson says.

A long tradition around the world

The legal rules of war protect those who do not participate in armed conflicts. It emphasizes the protection of uninvolved civilians, but also wounded and imprisoned soldiers as well as those who have dropped their guns. International humanitarian law also defines permissible methods of warfare in order to advance peace building and limit the usage of techniques that cause unnecessary suffering.

– Advancing and informing about international humanitarian law is one of the core missions of the Red Cross and one of the reasons behind the creation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. That is why it is our responsibility to spread knowledge. Knowing about the rules of conflict also improves people’s media literacy and helps making sense of conflicts, says competition coordinator Elina Almila.

“Competitions are a fun way of bringing the law out of text books and into real life.”

The Gunnar Rosén International Humanitarian Law Competition was the first of its kind in Finland, but the Red Cross has a long tradition of arranging similar competitions in other countries, as evaluations show that this is a good way of activating a younger crowd.

– Competitions are a fun way of bringing the law out of text books and into real life. When preparing for cases by doing research, forming their own arguments and receiving direct feedback, participants are likely to learn effectively, Almila says.

A need to discuss about international conflicts

The smallest team of the competition was made up of law students Jasmiina Jokinen and Terhi Raikas from University of Helsinki. Raikas tells that she originally became interested in international humanitarian law due to long drawn out conflict in Syria.

– I have Syrian relatives, so the crisis has touched me on a very personal level. The massive migration that the conflict has led to proves that we need to discuss these issues, not only where the war happens, but here, since it also concerns us, Raikas says.

Despite the fact that headlines about the terrible things people subject each other to in wars sometimes makes one wonder if any rules are being followed at all. Jasmiina Jokinen points out that international humanitarian law gives an important framework for judging what is acceptable.

– It is true that war crimes happen and war is pursued in ways totally behind reason, despite humanitarian law. However, without any rules, things could be far worse and we wouldn’t have any tools to react on crimes against humanity, Jokinen says.

The Finnish Red Cross arranges introductory courses in international humanitarian law several times a year. Click here to view dates and to read more about the work with international humanitarian law (in Finnish).

Text and photo: Mikaela Remes

29 Oct

How to learn Finnish – three stories behind the language barrier

Finnish language skills are often emphasized as a key factor to adapt in Finland’s society as a foreigner. Jana, Juan and Dani share their struggle and success with the language and give tips to those still learning Finnish. They also send greetings to Finns: please be more open and supportive towards persons learning the language – it is neither simple nor impossible.


Dani has learnt Finnish while dancing and volunteering. He believes that immigrants need more interaction with Finns.

“Volunteer work is a key for integration”

Dani, 29, Middle East

“Finnish language has a very special pronunciation and sounds, such as y, ö and ä. In the beginning I had to concentrate on saying those very carefully and repeat many times the most complicated words to learn them well. Still sometimes I mix up with some Finnish words, especially if the only difference between two words is just one vocal or consonant.

I have friends who have been here over 8 years, but still they don’t speak Finnish. I think that the basic problem among immigrants, especially those from African and Middle East countries, is that they spend time together talking in their own language. Often the best way to learn is to end up in the situation where you don’t have a choice but to speak local language.

When I came to Finland, I stayed first in Kemi, in the very North of Finland. After a year there I moved to Tampere to study mechanics. Studying taught me so much more than any of those language courses before.

Still the most important language teacher to me has been social dancing and volunteering. I dance couple dances, and from dance schools and events I have got many Finnish friends. I believe that one social hobby is much better than trying to find somebody to talk with in the nightclubs and bars, as many foreigners do.

I have volunteered for example for construction projects in some rural areas, and for the Finnish Red Cross Hunger day fundraising and friendship service taking elderly people out for walks. I have enjoyed those moments, and I believe that those kind of activities are the key for integration.

I would hope that, in general, Finland would allow and arrange more possibilities of experiences and interactions among natives and immigrants. I know people who have big difficulties to choice what to do in their free time. Often they are lonely and do not have much information about activities.”

Dani’s tip for you: I would recommend to listen Finnish music and go to the nearest language cafes. Almost every city has one. In the language café not only you can have conversations with Finnish people, but you can also learn about culture and hear stories about how it is to live in Finland.



Jana is grateful for her boyfriend and Selkosanomat, a easy-to-read newspaper, for supporting her to improve her Finnish.

“You have to overcome your own barriers”

Jana, 26, Czech Republic

“I have met many people that have expectations that they can learn a language fast. But learning a language well requires time and determination.

I came to Finland four years ago, when I moved in with my Finnish boyfriend. I realized soon that if I wanted to become part of the Finnish society and befriend Finns, I would need to learn their language.

My boyfriend was very helpful and supportive repeating words and talking slowly to me, but of course he was not a professional teacher. In the beginning I had to be a self-learner. I kept a notebook and wrote down every Finnish word I heard. I did online courses, as Supisuomea by Yle, watched learning videos and went through all the study material I got in my hands. Luckily there are many free opportunities nowadays.

For me, as for many other people, the most difficult phase in learning a language is to start speaking it. You have to overcome your own barriers, especially the fear of making mistakes. After staying three months in Finland I found a language café, which was a meeting point for Finnish language learners in the local library. As a beginner I only knew how to present myself in Finnish, but just listening to others helped me. It was also nice to notice that I was not the only one struggling with the language.

I want to stay in Finland and I would like to build my life, career and family here with my boyfriend. This is why I have also worked hard to write well Finnish. I have studied Finnish even harder after I got into the University of Helsinki to study international politics.

Perhaps the most valuable experience for my language skills has been my experience at the Finnish Centre for Ease to Read, Selkokeskus. It produces easy to understand material in Finnish meant for people with special needs, as immigrants. Their newspaper, Selkosanomat, is still part of my weekly reading routines and I have also written articles for it, for example an interview of Teemu Selänne.

As I am finishing my studies now, I support The Finnish Red Cross’ Finnish language group for immigrant women in East-Helsinki and I am looking for a job where I could take advantage of my Finnish skills. As hard as it is getting a professional job here, I feel that it is not yet my time to give up.

Finnish makes me feel humble as there is still much to learn. So far, all the work I have done has been worth it. I feel that I am now closer to Finns.”

Jana’s tip for you: Start using language early and don’t wait till saving up money for a course. Use your imagination and remember free resources!


Juan wrote in the paper “sports” in Finnish when he had to decide one thing that has affected his language skills the most.


“Do not listen too much to experiences of others, yours is unique”

Juan, 35, Ecuador

“I come from culture, where we are very dedicated in spoken communication and speaking skills are even considered more important than writing skills. In my village we have every week meetings where we talk hours.

Coming to Finland five years ago was not easy because in the beginning I was not able to understand anything. I was not even able to go to the market alone.

I met other ´latinos´ and they claimed that it is very easy to learn Finnish. But for me it took time, and I felt disappointed as I trusted too much what others said to me.

A key to learning a language is to get involved with local people. Yes, my wife is Finnish, but between me and her it is more natural to speak Spanish – the language we have used since we met the first time.

Because I like sports, immediately after coming to Finland I searched for a volleyball team to play with. I found one team consisting only of Finnish players. It was perfect, except one thing. Nobody talked with me. I was astonished: is this country this prejudiced? Yet I went there every week. After playing ten months in silence I ended up sending an email to the group leader asking why they do not speak with me. He explained that they did not know how much I understand nor what they should say to me. Afterwards I was invited to a party where it changed and they started to talk with me. Nowadays they are like my family.

Of course I also attended some courses, as basic language courses and an integration course for immigrants. Besides sports, studying in a technical school has improved the most my Finnish skills because there I really have needed to apply my skills and vocabulary.

Learning Finnish is essential in order to live here. It is neither impossible, nor easy. I have seen people that speak several languages, but even after many years in Finland they cannot speak Finnish. The best way to learn a language is to be social with locals and do it in a way you like. Do not listen too much to experiences of others, because everybody´s learning experience is unique.”

Juan’s tip for you: Get involved with the Finnish people, be proactive and do what you love.

Text and photos: Mirkka Helkkula