Validity Foundation - Mental Disability Advocacy Centre

Finland: NGOs seek legal recognition that locking people in institutions is not a lawful response to Covid-19 epidemic

By Ann Campbell 27th November 2020

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Photo: Mr. Petri Virolainen, Ambassador of Friendship, who brings happiness to residents in housing service units across Finland, has been stopped from visiting.

Validity, Law Firm Kumpuvuori Ltd. and ENIL (European Network on Independent Living) have filed a collective complaint to the European Committee of Social Rights arguing that the measures violate the rights to health, to social services, and to independence and inclusion in the community of persons with disabilities in Finland. The organisations call on the Finnish Government to release persons with disabilities detained in institutions and urgently provide them with appropriate and individually tailored services in the community.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities made clear almost 15 years ago that placing people with disabilities in institutions is a violation of their human rights. Segregated and isolated from the rest of the world, residents are denied their rights to independent living, to inclusion in the community and to shape the society in which we live. When the pandemic broke out in Europe, Finland, like many other countries, responded by further restricting the rights of residents, increasing their isolation and closing down the limited access that they did have to the outside world.

It quickly became apparent that, far from reducing the risk of disease transmission, this response has led to the development of hotbeds of contagion inside residential facilities for persons with disabilities, as well as institutions for older persons, asylum seekers and other groups. While countries around the world, including Finland, are unable to provide precise statistics on the incidence of infection and deaths in institutions, early figures from 21 countries indicated that persons in “care homes” accounted on average for 46% of Covid-19 deaths.

Finland is not even able to provide information on the number of people with disabilities in institutions in the country affected by visiting restrictions. Disability rights groups and Law Firm Kumpuvuori Ltd. asked Finnish authorities for this information in March 2020 and again since, but have not received any response. Yet the Finnish Government issued guidance that resulted in private and public institutions (“housing service units”) banning people with disabilities from leaving the services or receiving visits from family members and loved ones. In some cases, social and personal assistance was also stopped. These restrictions were in full force until at least the end of June 2020 and continue to be implemented in some institutions today. At the time of publication, Finland is preparing to announce new restrictive measures, including visiting restrictions.

Mr. Jukka Kumpuvuori, Executive Director of Law Firm Kumpuvuori Ltd. and ENIL Board member stated: “The Finnish Government did not hesitate to close the institutions totally on March 20th, instead of securing safe visits. Persons with disabilities in the institutions were not able to come out and were not able to receive visitors. The Government did not provide them with even the basic instructions to access courts. Combined with the lack of a deinstitutionalisation strategy in Finland, this has resulted in persons with disabilities having no choice but to remain isolated in institutions. ”

Mrs. Annina Heini, Planning Officer at the Threshold Association, a disability rights NGO in Finland, welcomes the complaint: “The pandemic hit the basic human rights of persons with disabilities living in social care housing units more than those of other people. Why is it that such large proportion of persons with disabilities in Finland still live in group homes? A network of community-based intensified service housing has been established to replace institutions. This type of housing has become a default option and there are tendencies of re-institutionalization. However, there would be alternatives. Personal assistance would better enable self-determination and coping in daily life of persons with disabilities. I hope that there will be further development of services that support independent living. I welcome that this aspect is included in the complaint.”

Mr. Pauli Rautiainen, Associate Professor of Public Law at Tampere University, Finland considers that the measures violate the human rights of persons with disabilities in Finland: “Even though the UN CRPD entered into force in 2016, the Finnish Government has not been able to come up with legislation that would secure self-determination of persons with disabilities, such as those in housing services. While preventing the transmission of Covid, the Government has shamelessly utilized its own negligence and locked up persons with disabilities into housing service units unlawfully, thus violating their human rights.”

Validity Co-Executive Director, Ann Campbell, said, “The UN, the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and the WHO have all urged States to prioritise discharging people from institutions rather than shutting them down further. This pandemic is an emergency primarily for persons with disabilities and there is no longer any excuse for failure to eradicate institutionalisation for good. Human rights law demands it, and the pandemic makes it an inescapable obligation.”

Finland has all the potential to be a leader on disability rights and deinstitutionalisation worldwide. We call on the Government to take the opportunity presented by this complaint to rectify the situation urgently and with the highest priority.

The full text of the complaint can be accessed here.