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Sweden and human rights

Sweden and human rights have a long history. In 1766, Sweden became the first country to introduce freedom of the press. Today, human rights are central to Swedish foreign policy.

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Internet access helps people exercise their human rights. Sweden works actively to reduce the global digital gap. This map shows 24 hours of average internet use around the world from June to October 2012. Wikipedia has the full story of how the data was collected. Source: Carna Botnet

Sweden and human rights

Sweden and human rights have a long history. In 1766, Sweden became the first country to introduce freedom of the press. Today, human rights are central to Swedish foreign policy.

Promoting peace and security

Sweden aspires to be a clear voice for human rights around the world – not just in words but also in actions. To the Swedish government, the respect of human rights is not just a foreign policy goal in itself, but also a means for global development, peace and security.

Human rights largely begin at home. As Sweden strives to walk its talk, it is important to ensure that the values promoted abroad are upheld at home. Therefore, Sweden’s promotional work on human rights centres mainly on areas where Sweden is at the forefront.

The advancing of women’s rights internationally, for example, is rooted in the national plan on gender equality – a field where Sweden has traditionally been strong.

Read more about Sweden and gender equality.

Children’s rights

Another tenet where Sweden has a strong standing at home and an active agenda abroad is the rights of children. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) explains the under-five mortality rate of a region as ‘a critical indicator of the well-being of children.’ In 2017, Sweden only had 2.8 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with the global average of 39.1, or 6.7 for OECD countries.

Sweden was one of the first nations to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, in 1990, and as of 1 January 2020 Sweden has incorporated the convention into Swedish law. Three years later, Sweden introduced the Ombudsman for Children (Barnombudsmannen), a government agency tasked with representing children regarding their rights and interests on the basis of the convention.

In 1979, Sweden became the first country in the world to prohibit corporal punishment of children.

Read more about children’s rights in Sweden.

Covid-19 and human rights

In times of humanitarian crisis, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s an increased risk of human rights violations. A global outbreak, but with very different impact depending on people’s socioeconomic context. The effect is often disproportionately negative for people in vulnerable situations.

As a longstanding defender of human rights and democracy, Sweden tends to take a proactive role in these cases – not only by offering humanitarian aid, but also by initiating collaborations with intergovernmental organisations and providing support to NGOs. Sweden alone cannot protect democracy in the world.

Focus on democracy

Striving to protect and promote democracy in the world, the Swedish government especially aims to:

  • promote and strengthen civil society, including human rights defenders
  • strengthen free and independent media and democratic voices (such as cultural workers), including on the internet, to combat disinformation
  • support democratic processes and election authorities
  • promote the growth of effective and independent institutions that are free from corruption
  • strengthen political systems with competing political parties
  • help to strengthen respect for the rule of law
  • promote and protect the enjoyment of human rights by all
  • strengthen women’s political participation
  • promote young people’s democratic engagement
  • promote equality through social integration
  • promote free and fair trade
  • promote corporate social responsibility and combat corruption.

Active NGOs

Human rights must be embraced at grass-roots level. In Sweden, plenty of NGOs as well as individual activists are involved in the advancement of human rights.

Among the Swedish organisations active both at home and abroad is Civil Rights Defenders, which works to empower human rights activists at risk. The organisation has been internationally recognised for its Natalia Project security system, which provides human rights defenders with a protection bracelet allowing them to send out distress signals in dangerous situations.

The Natalia Project is the world’s first assault alarm system for human rights defenders.

The Natalia Project is the world’s first assault alarm system for human rights defenders.

Kvinna till Kvinna (Woman to Woman) is a Swedish organisation supporting women in conflict areas by partnering with local women’s rights organisations. The organisation was initiated as a response to the reports of sexual violence against women during the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s and now works in five conflict regions around the world.

Church association Diakonia channels support to international development activities, partnering with some 400 local organisations in over 30 countries. Examples of successful projects supported by Diakonia include the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem’s project Armed with Cameras. The project, which equipped civilians with video cameras to document their daily lives in conflict zones, was awarded the prize for best documentary by the Israeli Documentary Filmmakers Forum in 2012.

Sweden’s human rights pedigree

Sweden’s political climate today is marked by the work of its internationally recognised human rights advocates over the last 80 years – both men and women.

Raoul Wallenberg, Swedish diplomat and businessman, is still globally celebrated for his successful efforts in rescuing thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. While serving as Sweden’s Special Envoy to Budapest in 1944, Wallenberg sheltered Jews in buildings designated as Swedish territory and gave them protective passports. In January 1945, Wallenberg was imprisoned by Soviet forces. Until this day, his fate remains unknown.

Wallenberg has received countless honours in the decades following his presumed death, including monuments, schools and street names carrying his name throughout the world. He is an honorary citizen of Australia, Canada, Hungary, Israel and the United States.

The Conference of the Committee on Disarmament held its 450th plenary meeting in the Palais des Nations, Geneva, under the chairmanship of Alva Myrdal, in 1970.

Photo: UN Photo

Alva Myrdal, who wrote the influential book Crisis in the population question (1934) with her husband Gunnar Myrdal, was a driving force behind the creation of the Swedish welfare state. During the 1930s, when Sweden suffered from both high unemployment rates and a population decline, the Myrdals set out to develop social reforms that would allow for individual freedom, especially for women, while also encouraging Swedes to have more children.

Their research was crucial in the design of welfare policy in Sweden and beyond as it introduced the idea of state benefits for families. The Myrdals argued that providing free medical care, child benefits, better housing, day care for children, etc. would have a positive economic impact in times of economic recession.

Alva Myrdal also served as chairman of UNESCO’s social science section during 1950–1955. In 1982, she received the Nobel Peace Prize in conjunction with Mexico’s Alfonso García Robles for their disarmament work through the UN.

UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld at Idlewild Airport upon his return to New York from the Republic of the Congo, 1960.

Photo: UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata

Dag Hammarskjöld, appointed Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1953, is also part of Sweden’s legacy to the international community. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously in 1961 for his commitment to peace and security and for shaping the Secretariat into an efficient UN body.

He also put the interests of smaller countries in relation to the major world powers on the UN agenda, and initiated peace-keeping missions and mediation as part of the Secretariat’s mandate.

Prime Minister Olof Palme, who was murdered in 1986, was a notoriously outspoken human rights advocate who lifted issues of equality, the right of national self-determination and the fight against racism to the fore of Swedish foreign policy. A staunch critic of imperialist political agendas and authoritarian regimes, Palme was an early critic of apartheid during the 1970s – far from obvious for a politician at the time.

Late Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, also a victim of murder, in 2003, is a more recent defender of international human rights. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has praised her as a ‘tireless champion for the promotion and protection of human rights’, celebrating her belief that ‘markets without borders must be balanced by values without borders.’

Internet access

Sweden works actively to reduce the digital gap in the world, i.e. to make sure that more people have internet access. Sweden’s stance is that access to the internet makes it possible for people to fully exercise their rights to freedom of expression and opinion. States have a responsibility to ensure that internet access is broadly available, and should not unreasonably restrict an individual’s internet access.

In recent years, Sweden has also increased efforts to ensure that human rights are respected online in the same way as they are offline. While the internet makes information more available and provides for a more open society, it is also a forum where human rights are potentially infringed.

By learning from domestic experiences such as internet bullying and online harassment, Sweden hopes to both reduce risks to its own citizens and at the same time be of help to the global community.

Last updated: 18 August 2020

Emily Diab

Emily Diab has a master’s in human rights law from Lund University and soon a PhD in migration law. She previously worked with women’s rights in the Middle East at Lebanese non-governmental organisation KAFA.