The first steps of the Permanent Mission of Finland to the United Nations (1955-1972)

The year 1955 was remarkable for Finland due to the expansion of its international relations. Finland’s membership in the United Nations was approved by the 10th Session of the General Assembly in a package deal affecting several applicant countries. Although Finland was not able to take any real part in the UN’s work that year, its observer in the UN, Consul General Artturi Lehtinen, took Finland’s seat in the GA after membership approval came through. The session ended six days later, thus ending the Consulate General’s observer status, which had included following the sessions at the UN as well as attending meetings with the Secretary-General. As his final project, the Consulate General helped set up the new Permanent Mission of Finland organization.

The implementation of the UN Charter and the Statute of the International Court of Justice, as well as the establishment of the Permanent Mission were among Finland’s first tasks as a new UN Member State. These in turn necessitated forming a UN division at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Helsinki. 

The president of Finland appointed Georg A. Gripenberg as the first Permanent Representative of Finland to the United Nations on January 16, 1956. Transferred to the Mission from his post as ambassador in Stockholm, Sweden, Mr. Gripenberg began his duties in New York on April 17, 1956. As a man of the world he was considered the best candidate to establish contacts and start Mission operations. 

In the 1950s, Finland was virtually unknown internationally. The general consensus in the Western world was that Finland was a satellite of the Soviet Union. At the time, a common practice at the UN was to associate a country with its representative, and Gripenberg’s aristocratic bearing confirmed Finland’s separation from Soviet rule. Mr. Gripenberg, however, was burdened by his advanced age and tendency to shy away from multilateral contacts. As a diplomat he was a loner who strongly believed in his diplomatic right to make decisions relatively independent from the government he represented.

Mr. Gripenberg set up the operations of the Mission with the help of only two other staff members, Björn-Olof Alholm and a loyal assistant, Kerttu Surakka. Before leaving for his post, Mr. Alholm had requested additional help but was told, “Get there first and only start complaining then!” Alholm recalled that during their first meeting Gripenberg had emphasized, “and so, what comes to the business here, I hope that you’ll handle the cuisine de la diplomatien.” By that he meant that the First Secretary’s duties would include a lot more than merely the more practical side of business. 

As an old school diplomat, Gripenberg only handled the most essential matters, which were certainly enough to keep him busy. The Mission personnel began to feel their way around, and in the process learned new things every day. The work began quite hectically, as Finland was elected into the Economic and Social Council for a three-year term from 1957 to 1959. In addition, the early part of Mr. Gripenberg’s term was characterized by the conflicts in Suez and Hungary. Over the course of the first year the Mission’s personnel was increased to six, which still proved inadequate in relation to the amount of work at hand. 

During its first year of operation, the Permanent Mission of Finland to the United Nations was located within the premises of the Consulate General of Finland because renovation of its new offices had not yet been completed. Finally, in the beginning of 1957 the Mission was able to move into its own space, and the number of personnel grew to nine. The Mission staff only benefited from the new premises for a year before they moved again to an office at 200 East 42nd Street, for which a 15-year lease was signed. The ambassador’s residence at 29 Hereford Road in Bronxville was leased for five years on August 1, 1959. Its first resident was Ambassador Ralph Enckell who had been posted in New York as the Permanent Representative on January 10, 1959. After living in hotels for six months, he must have been happy to move to a real house.

During Enckell’s term from 1959 to 1965, a firm direction was given to Finland’s UN policy. Mr. Enckell developed guidelines for the delegates of Finland, which aimed at maintaining the credibility of Finland’s policy of neutrality across the board at the UN. During the first years of membership, a visible national profile was shunned. The main goal was to clarify and define Finland’s political image. The Finnish delegation often abstained from voting in the GA and avoided taking sides regarding the substance of the decisions. Utmost care was taken regarding issues on which the superpowers disagreed. On economic and social issues, as well as in questions regarding developing countries, Finland was an active member of the Western Group as early as the late 1950s. 

Max Jacobson succeeded Mr. Enckell in 1965. As one of his first duties, Mr. Jacobson chaired the Special Political Committee proving in the process that the example set by his careful predecessor could also be maintained in elected positions. He was aided by developments in international politics, which allowed him to take a somewhat firmer position. The worst years of the Cold War were behind and cooperation between the superpowers was increasing. Finland was elected to the Security Council from 1969 to 1970. In response, the Mission, located at 866 United Nations Plaza since June of 1967, was given two additional staff members, Mr. Ilkka Pastinen and Mr. Richard Muller.

1970 marked the 25th anniversary of the UN. The President of the Republic of Finland, Urho Kekkonen, concluded his state visit to the United States with a visit to the UN addressing the 25th Session of the General Assembly on October 23, 1970. He also met with Secretary-General U Thant.

The growth of Finland’s influence after 15 years of UN membership was well demonstrated. For instance, in 1970 Finland co-sponsored eleven of the fifteen resolutions adopted by the Security Council. Thanks to such activity, the Finns considered Mr. Jakobson a favorite in the campaign for the office of the Secretary-General.

As the run for the office of Secretary-General ended without the hoped-for results, Ambassador Jakobson moved to Stockholm, having been appointed the ambassador on August 1, 1972. Mr. Aarno Karhilo was appointed his successor in the Permanent Mission of Finland. Minister Counselor Wilhelm Breitenstein who replaced Mr. Jaakko Iloniemi accompanied him.

Writer: Antti Vuojolainen / UM / Tietopalvelu