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.

UN Security Council 2017–2018

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 and security.

For the period of 2017–2018, Sweden will be a member of the UN Security Council, promoting international peace and security as well as the Swedish view on democracy, human rights, gender equality and development.

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. During her state visit in 2012, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton applauded Sweden for being ‘not just on the front lines, but leading’ in its commitment to gender equality.

Read more about gender equality in Sweden.

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 2015, Sweden only had three deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with the global average of 42.5, or 6.9 for OECD countries.

Sweden was one of the first nations to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, in 1990. 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.

Read more about children’s rights in Sweden.

Eight focus areas

In 2008, the Swedish government chose eight prioritised areas in its foreign policy work for human rights:

1. Democracy building. With millions of people still living in dictatorships, Sweden wants to strengthen public opinion in favour of democracy, support the work of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and establish better ties with democratic states.

2. Strengthen freedom of expression. Sweden believes freedom of expression is a moral necessity and a practical tool in the fight for human rights.

3. Abolish the death penalty. Sweden and the EU have long sought the abolition of the death penalty on the grounds that it is incompatible with human rights.

4. Combat torture. The Swedish government draws attention to such abuse wherever it occurs and supports organisations that help victims of torture.

5. Combat summary executions and arbitrary detention. For many years, Sweden has supported a UN resolution concerning summary, extrajudicial and arbitrary executions, and will continue to act to bring this issue to international attention.

6. Protect the rule of law. Sweden promotes the principles of the rule of law through organisations such as the UN, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and in talks with other countries.

7. Protect human rights and international humanitarian law. Sweden works actively with the goal that all states, large and small, should respect international law.

8. Fight discrimination. In many countries, large groups of people receive far from equal treatment. The Swedish government wants to direct special attention to the rights of women, children and people with disabilities.

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 group 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.’

Openness on the internet

As the country with the highest level of internet penetration within the EU, Sweden works actively to reduce the digital gap in the world.

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.

Besides Swedish initiations at the UN and other international organisations, the Stockholm Internet Forum is a global conference held since 2012 that aims to deepen the discussions on how freedom and openness on the internet can promote economic and social development worldwide. Freedom and openness, respect for human rights, innovation and global development are the key concepts for the Forum.

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 recent 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: 10 October 2016

Emily Diab

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.