Matti Wuori, who has died after a severe illness at the age of 60, was an internationally renowned human rights lawyer and advocate, social activist, environmentalist, former member of the European parliament, and a leading ethical voice in key debates within his homeland of Finland. A critical intellectual outlook such as his is rare and much appreciated in Finland, which has a consensus culture. [:]
Born in a working-class area in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, Wuori was brought up by a mother who ran a kiosk after the premature death of his father. Wuori graduated from the University of Helsinki, and he participated in the cultural and political liberation movements of the late 1960s, that swept across the west. As a lawyer, he skilfully defended its radical representatives: he always remained loyal to his commitment to human and civil rights.
My earliest memory of him dates from the first action taken by Greenpeace in Finland in 1988. This was when he led efforts to seize an unlawful shipment of whalemeat, passing through the port of Helsinki on its way from Iceland to the sushi restaurants of Japan. From 1991 to 1993, Wuori acted as chairman of Greenpeace International, and he continued to hold national posts with the organisation after that appointment.
Active also in national and international associations for lawyers, he made his most distinguished contribution in this field as special adviser to the truth and reconciliation commission that was formed in the new South Africa, which followed the collapse of apartheid. Wuori considered freedom of expression to be the best indicator of the state of human rights in any country, and he became an important asset to newspapers and magazines in their struggle against excessive protection of privacy of public personalities.
In 1999 Wuori was elected to the European parliament as a non-aligned member on the list of the Green League of Finland; I was already serving there as a Green party member. The most significant aspect of his five years in the post was an annual report on the state of human rights in the world.
Wuori’s traditional gentleman’s appearance may have given a misleading impression to some that he was just a dandy without deeper commitment, smoking his thick Cuban cigars and drinking the very best malt whisky. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He was a firm supporter of civil society, and he became a house adviser and friend to many organisations, such as Amnesty International.
An enthusiastic writer of columns and articles, he remained an ardent and sometimes sarcastic critic of the Finnish political tradition. He considered that the country’s history had made it excessively state-centred, as when Finland joined the European Union in 1994. This was achieved through a vague consultation of the people rather than any kind of proper referendum.
His unique role in Finnish society was reflected by a cameo role in the film Man Without a Past, a comedy-drama by his friend Aki Kaurismäki that won the grand prix at the 2002 Cannes film festival. Wuori played himself, a ruthless advocate who defended his less fortunate client against the state machinery. As in real life, by manipulating a couple of legal clauses, he gets to set the accused free.
He leaves his partner and her daughter.