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Estonian President Ilves speaks out on the Ukrainian crisis, the Freedom Online Coalition, and peace and security in Europe

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Although we first met Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves when he was still working for Radio Free Europe years ago and before he became the President of the Republic of Estonia, this highly informed expert on peace and security in Europe is never at a loss for words.

Instantly recognizable by the distinctive bow-ties that he always wears, the Columbia University graduate worked first as a researcher, then a foreign policy analyst, and afterwards, was named the head of the Estonian Desk at Radio Free Europe.

During his annual September visit to United Nations Headquarters in New York for the opening of the general debate of the 69th United Nations General Assembly, Estonian President Ilves delivered three powerful speeches at the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, the UN Climate Summit, and the General Debate of the 69th United Nations General Assembly. Since the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania only became members of the United Nations on September 17, 1991 following 50 years of Soviet occupation, what President Ilves had to say over two decades later has particular significance to freedom-loving countries like the Baltics which are now members of the EU and NATO, as well as all Member States belonging to the United Nations.

During his address in the recently renovated UN General Assembly Hall on September 24, here’s what Estonian President Ilves stated during the 69th general debate : “A quarter of a century ago in the ‘annus mirabilis ’l989, Europe and the democratic world celebrated a historical sea change. The Berlin wall fell. The Cold War which had divided the world into hostile camps for half a century, ended. This year we should celebrate an anniversary of the triumph of freedom and democracy.”

“But this year,” he remarked, “also turned out to be a year when the international order as we’ve known it since the Cold War has been violated and put in doubt. Cynical geopolitics in international relations has once again come to the fore. The international agreements upon which the stability of the post Second World War security architecture relied, have been compromised. Let me remind you of what we have collectively agreed upon: Estonian President Ilves went on to explain that the Charter of the United Nations from 1945 declares: ‘All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”

He included in his speech before the UN General Assembly, that in the Helsinki Accords from 1975 all trans-Atlantic countries agreed not to use force to change borders or challenge the political independence of any state. States agreed to regard one another’s frontiers invioable, to refrain from making each other’s territory the object of military occupation. No such occupation or acquisition would be recognized as legal.

In addition, as the Estonian President put it, “in the 1990 CSCE Charter of Paris for a New Europe all signatories, from Vancouver to Vladivostok, agreed to “fully recognize the freedom of States to choose their own security arrangements. By annexing Crimea and invading Eastern Ukraine”, said Estonian President Ilves, “one of the signatories has violated all of these agreements. Thus, we are in a completely new and unforeseen security environment. We must enforce the fundamental agreements on which our peace and security rely.”

As the Estonian President stated, “the Ukrainian crisis is not solely a conflict between two countries. It is not even solely an European issue. If instead of agreements and laws, raw force will apply in international relations; if changing state borders by force will become an accepted norm, then the stability of the whole world will be threatened. As President Obama said, ‘this is a vision of the world in which might makes right… we believe that right makes might.’ So do we.”

Such developments must be firmly condemned. The international community cannot leave Crimea as it is now. We cannot accept frozen conflicts created for geopolitical ends. Referenda that are in agreement with international law cannot be arranged in two weeks, in the presence of foreign armed forces. Results of such referenda cannot be considered valid. Independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity must remain the fundamental rights of states and nations. That includes their right to direct their own future and to choose their allies – as stated In the CSCE Paris Charter.

Such free choices by sovereign nations cannot be accepted as an excuse for aggression. However, it was exactly Ukraine’s wish to choose its allies that was used as a justification for aggression. Its mere desire to enhance trade and political relations with the EU, which is not a security arrangement, led to the country’s dismemberment.

Estonian President Ives then asked the question: What can we do to the validity of international agreements? As the Estonian President explained: “There were warning signs about current events in Ukraine. Alarm bells rang already six years ago in Georgia, but no one heard the wakeup call. We must take conflict prevention more seriously. We must support states in their choice of democracy, rule of law, and human rights and decisions that follow from that.

These recent developments force us to seriously reconsider the role of the United Nations. How can one of the fundamental goals of the UN, global peace and security be promoted when basic international agreements are ignored, state borders are changed, and territories are annexed through force?

To the Estonian President, free speech remains a crucial right. Some states have made efforts to stop the free flow of information on the Internet and to divide cyber space along state borders. This must be avoided. The internet must remain a universal platform for uninhibited exchange of information.

Estonia is a proud member of the Freedom Online Coalition, a community of 23 nations committed to promoting free speech online and the multi-stakeholder model of a free and open Internet. It is a global initiative that brings together governments, NGOs, entrepreneurs, and think tanks.

Last April, the Freedom Online Coalition gathered in our capital and issued the Tallinn Agenda, a statement expressing our strongly shared conviction that all people are entitled to the same rights and freedoms online, as well as offline.

“This is not a lifestyle question”, the President said. “The Internet is a driver of economic growth and a key tool for development. Since the 1990s it has blossomed into a global network of nearly three billion users. Most of the next billion internet users will come from developing countries. The UN post 2015 Development Agenda should recognize the importance of new technologies and e-services as a major contribution to the security and prosperity of the world.”

As we grow more dependent on digital services in our daily lives, we become more vulnerable to cyber attacks. Cyber security is essential not just for protecting rights, but also for economic prosperity. Cyber attacks can paralyze crucial services or infrastructure, they can cause enormous economic damage. Limiting access to or censoring the contents of the Internet, however, is not the answer to cyber insecurity.

In his closing remarks, President Ilves said the following: “Since May 8,1945, we have believed that we had been freed of certain ideological demons for good. But now we see the return of the long discredited ideas from l938. The existence of co-ethics abroad has been used as a justification to annex territory. We’ve seen a return of ideologies of hatred and lies and propaganda.”

“We must be clear in condemning extreme nationalism, homophobia, xenophobia and religious extremism. We need to recall and reaffirm the values that the United Nations were created to protect. The United Nations, a unique global instrument of security and peace, must succeed where the League of Nations once failed.

“Let us not forget,” said the President, “75 years ago on August 23, a pact was signed between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR that divided Eastern Europe into their spheres of influence. A week later, on September l, Hitler attacked Poland. On September 17, Hitler’s then ally, the Soviet Union, also attacked Poland, and WWII had begun.

On August 31st this year, 20 years passed since occupation forces left Estonia. And yet just a few days later, on September 5th, an Estonian police officer was abducted by foreign security services on Estonian territory and taken by force to Moscow where he is still being held in the infamous prison, Lefortovo.

We cannot allow anyone ever again to divide countries into their “spheres of influence”. The community of nations is only secure when its smallest members can feel secure. We cannot accept threats and intimidation in 21st century international relations. We cannot have peace, security or prosperity, in Europe or in the world unless we find a way to re-enforce and revalidate the agreements that we all have signed,” said President Ilves.

Ann Charles
Ann Charles is UN Bureau Chief of "Baltic Review" based in New York City. She covers diplomatic activities at United Nations Headquarters in New York and the world body's work in human rights, education, culture, the environment, and tourism, among other global concerns.

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