Towards membership

The onset of World War II heralded the final demise of the League of Nations, as the organization had no means to prevent the imminent war. In August 1941, the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill, signed the Atlantic Charter, which outlined the post-war world order and a new plan to guarantee international peace and security. On January 1, 1942, 26 countries agreed to the principles of the Atlantic Charter by signing the Declaration of the United Nations.

In 1943, the Allied agreed in Moscow that forming a world organization was necessary. The idea was further developed in the fall of 1944 in Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., and in February 1945 during the Yalta Conference. The concept advanced to the signing of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco on June 26, 1945.

The Charter took effect after its ratification on October 24. It stated that the most important task of the organization was to uphold international peace and security. As the United Nations was an organization for the victors of the World War II, Finland was naturally not present in San Francisco. Only the final peace treaty signed in Paris in 1947 cleared the way for Finland to join the organization. The Paris Peace Treaty specifically stated that the Allied would support the membership of Finland. The government of Finland began preparing its application before the Treaty was even ratified and presented a proposal to parliament to “come to an agreement” regarding Finland’s membership to the United Nations. The parliament adopted the proposal and authorized the government to undertake “the necessary measures” to achieve such membership.

On September 19, 1947, four days after the ratification of the Paris Treaty, Foreign Minister of Finland Carl Enckell wired the membership application to UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie. However, Finland’s application was filed together with those of several other states. The applications languished for years in the Security Council as a result of the inability of the superpowers to reach an agreement regarding criteria for selection. The Cold War also divided UN members into two separate camps.

Despite not having been granted membership in the UN, Finland formed unofficial contacts with UN headquarters in New York. The Consul General of Finland in New York, Ville Niskanen, took the initiative. He met with UN Secretary-General Lie for the first time in April 1946, and requested that the Consulate General of Finland receive for their usage all official documentation of the United Nations and the rest of the UN system.

Niskanen’s request was granted and the Finns were allowed to pick up the documents from the UN Documentation Center. The Consulate General filed one set of documents in their archives and forwarded another set to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Helsinki.

Unofficial connections

During their first meeting Mr. Lie asked Mr. Niskanen if he had time to start observing the work of the UN. Niskanen bypassed official channels and responded without asking for instructions from the Foreign Ministry. “I surmised that there might be some time available. Lie then said that I could act as an unofficial representative of Finland,” Niskanen reported in a letter to the Foreign Ministry. These extraordinarily spontaneous actions of Niskanen prompted no reaction from Helsinki.

Niskanen later revisited the issue by suggesting that the Minister for Foreign Affairs send a private letter to the Secretary-General to finalize the observer question. In it Niskanen would be authorized to act as Finland’s observer in the United Nations. After having received no communication from Finland, Mr. Niskanen stopped meeting with Mr. Lie but followed the events at the UN via newspapers and documents obtained from the UN Documentation Center. However, having received no instructions, he did not begin to report on the work of the organization. 

Niskanen’s actions and requests had not gone unnoticed in the Foreign Ministry. The part of his letter in which he informed that, following Lie’s suggestion, he had begun unofficially observing the work of the UN had been heavily underlined with red ink. However, Niskanen’s request that a letter be sent to the Secretary-General was at first totally ignored by the Foreign Ministry, but finally the Consul General did receive instructions. When reading the letter one can detect a small stab at the unprompted actions of Mr. Niskanen: “Since you, by virtue of forwarding UN documents to the Ministry, are in contact with the UN officers and also, based on your letters, are ever so often in meetings with the Secretary-General and the officers, it would behoove you well to inform for instance the head of the political department here, in the form of a letter, on such matters that do not become evident in the UN bulletins.”

On July 5, 1947 Mr. Niskanen sent in his first UN report, which concerned the membership application of Hungary. He also sent a letter to the Ministry on the same day, again touch-ing on the subject of relations with the UN. Niskanen remarked that his status as the unoffi-cial observer of Finland was still unclear. In his opinion there was no risk involved in as-signing an observer. Quite the contrary. The observer would only be “a middleman through whom the Foreign Ministry would acquire its information about the UN, to whom they could send their requests and communications and to whom the United Nations could ad-dress the information intended for the government of Finland.” According to Niskanen, the arrangement required only “a proper accreditation in writing from the Foreign Minister to the Secretary-General Lie.”

According to Niskanen, the present situation was unclear and hindered relations between Finland and the UN. A high-level UN officer had even remarked to him about the matter, saying that the organization did have unofficial relations with many other non-member states. Niskanen renewed his plea once more, asking the Foreign Ministry to nominate an unofficial observer to the UN. According to him, establishing such relations “would not incur expenses and thus the temporarily formed state of affairs would also not commit the Ministry when organizing our eventual representation to the UN.”

Niskanen’s repeated pleas finally took effect in the Foreign Ministry. It appears that the cautious approach had prevailed considering that Finland’s international position was still somewhat precarious. A more important reason (than Niskanen’s letters) for the change of mind in Finland was the fact that membership application preparations had recently commenced. Therefore, the Ministry decided to grant Niskanen’s request - but only in part. For some reason he was not nominated as observer to the UN. On May 30,1947, that position was assigned to Olli Kaila, who was posted as an attaché in the New York Consulate General.

The Ministry’s justification was aimed at the future: “The intention was that when the membership of Finland to the United Nations has been approved and when the permanent representation of Finland has been arranged, Mr. Kaila will stay on as an officer of the latter. Thus, the Ministry has planned to have him primarily utilized in the Consulate General as an observer to the United Nations obtaining and forwarding to the Ministry material pertaining to the UN. Upon request and under the supervision of the Consul General, Mr. Kaila may also send the Ministry information regarding the operations of the organization.”

Mr. Niskanen wrote Secretary-General Lie in July 1947 informing him of the Ministry's instructions regarding Mr. Kaila and his assignment. At the same time he requested that Mr. Kaila be given all assistance possible, even though Finland was not yet a member of the United Nations. He further requested that all correspondence from the UN be addressed to the Consulate General and not the Embassy of Finland in Washington D.C. as was previously the case. The UN agreed to the request. It is noteworthy that the UN was never formally notified as to how Finland would conduct its relations with the organization. 

In the fall of 1947 the unofficial observers of Finland closely followed the advancement of Finland’s membership application and reported their observations to Helsinki. Mr. Niskanen and Mr. Kaila joined their efforts in order to establish relations with the UN Secretariat and “first and foremost with the Missions of the countries significant to the interests of Finland.” 

An eight-year-long wait

The approach of Finland to the UN was rather passive between 1947 and 1953. Since the membership application had already been submitted, it was not renewed. Finland patiently awaited an outcome. The instructions given to the Consulate General advised to avoid discussions that might imply that “Finland wants to expedite its accession into the UN.” The observer, therefore, was limited to following discussions and the agenda while reporting on general political matters that “might have an effect in the position and politics of Finland.”

There is a clear progression in the official position of Finland towards the UN, which is best illustrated in the diaries of the former President of Finland, Mr. J.K. Paasikivi. The elder statesman was very critical at first, fearing that Finland could, due to the conflicting interests of the superpowers, be drawn into awkward situations. However, in the early 1950s the president took a more positive attitude, and in February 1954 was ready to enroll Finland as a member to the UN: “Until now we have had no wish to be part of it. Now it seems to me that there will gradually come the time when it is in our interest to become a member to the UN. It would be a signal of the normalization of our position. Therefore, our approach should no longer be negative.”

The UN affairs did not overburden the Consulate General. In fact, it functioned primarily as a post office receiving official correspondence from the UN and forwarding it to the Foreign Ministry in Helsinki. The Consul General observed UN proceedings when something of interest to Finland was on the agenda. As to his official position at the UN, it remained unclear for quite some time. The Foreign Ministry ignored his requests to formalize his position. This situation, embarrassing to Niskanen, was first attributed to caution, and after the submission of the membership application, to the Ministry being under the impression that the interim arrangements would be short-lived.

Niskanen was posted to Belgrade as the ambassador on January 12, 1947, and Richard Seppälä succeeded him as the Consul General in New York. Initially, Seppälä also represented Finland without official credentials. Upon his arrival in New York, he met with the Secretary-General and the senior officials at the UN, after which the situation remained the same as during Niskanen’s time. Despite the lack of Finland’s official accreditation, year after year the Secretariat granted an observer pass to both Mr. Seppälä and to the officer in the Consulate General responsible for UN matters. Hence, Finland’s representation to the United Nations during the period 1946-1952 was in effect unofficial - no documentation on it exists.

In 1952 the situation finally changed. The Chief of Protocol at the UN stated that Helsinki must produce an official, written notification if Finland wanted to retain her observer status. Mr. Seppälä sent the form to Finland and on September 15, 1952 the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sakari Tuomioja, sent the authorization to Secretary-General Lie. The policy was maintained the following year when Seppälä’s successor, Artturi Lehtinen, arrived. 

The superpower relations improved considerably in 1955, and on December 14 Finland was accepted as a member to the United Nations in a package deal together with several other applicant states. The more than eight-year-long wait was over, and the formalities were dispensed of in a timely fashion. The Permanent Mission of Finland to the United Nations was established and the first Permanent Representative, Georg Achates Gripenberg, was appointed on January 16, 1956.

Finland’s path towards UN membership began with the initiative of Consul General Ville Niskanen, who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Thanks to him, the Finnish government has received all official UN documents since 1946. The personal contacts between Mr. Niskanen and Secretary-General Trygve Lie in other words forged the way for Finland to join the United Nations.

Writer: Jussi Pekkarinen