Confiscation of Nazi flag during independence march provokes debate in Finland

Expression

During a far-right rally on 6th December 2018, Finland's Independence day, police confiscated three swastika flags, arresting some protestors in the process. Police also indicated that an investigation into the display of Neo-Nazi swastika flags in Helsinki was to be opened.

The incident provoked a wide range of reactions and much public debate, including calls to prohibit the public display of extremist symbols. Prime Minister Sipilä wrote on Twitter that:

“Nazi flags are not part of Finland. They do not represent the values of Finnish society in any way”.

The law on extremist symbols in Finland is unclear and, according to police, interpretation is problematic, especially in fast-moving situations. The police have thus called for more clarity around the law. In contrast to countries like Sweden and Germany, which ban the public display of the symbol, the display of the swastika is not forbidden in Finland. Police may however confiscate such symbols on signage if they are used for ethnic agitation, for example.

"If the laws were clear on what is legal and what is not, it would make it easier. Those who engage in unlawful activity would also be conscious of their offense," Chief Superintendent Juha Hakola from Helsinki Police said on Yle’s Aamu-TV. 

Police believed that demonstrators carried the swastika flags in a bid to provoke a public reaction, which in turn could have posed a risk to public safety.

"Even though the swastika has not been officially banned, it sends a very strong racist and intolerant message". Hakola added: “It’s a little bit of a problem. Here in Finland it’s not like in Germany. Of course this is against our morals, but it’s not directly in our law that it’s not allowed to carry a swastika”.

In contrast, Finland's Interior Minister Kai Mykkänen opposes a ban on swastikas, although he did applaud police for performing its duties well during the 6th December rally. 

"It is not necessarily helpful to start regulating signs and symbols. It's more important that the police have a way to intervene if needed...We would have to carefully consider which symbols would then be separated from the protected rights of freedom of speech and expression."

Finance Minister Petteri Orpo and Martin Scheinin, a professor of international law and human rights at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, both shared their points of view about the event on Twitter. Petteri Orpo wrote: "Finland's veterans did not fight so that Nazi flags could fly over the country. Finland fought for independence so that its citizens could live in a safe and peaceful country where human dignity prevails."

Martin Scheinin tweeted: “I’m generally opposed to one-point criminalisations, because what should be punishable is a criminal mind rather than the ways it manifests itself. That’s why I’d rather use the already criminalised ethnic agitation than add a new section on displaying swastika.”