GYC Village

blog posts from GYC's participants, alumni, & staff

The State of Human Rights in Sweden

credit: Carl-Johan Utsi/TT

credit: Carl-Johan Utsi/TT

By Jonatan Grinde (GYC Intern, Spring 2015)

When I found out more about GYC’s Human Rights in the USA program, which focuses on transitional justice and human rights issues in the U.S., I decided to take a closer look at the state of human rights in my own home country of Sweden.

Sweden usually gets ranked as a top country in indexes that measure nations’ compliance with human rights accords. For example, both the Political Terror Scale and the Country Indicators for Foreign Policy Index places Sweden amongst the top positions and Freedom House rates Swedish democracy as “Very Strong”. In spite of this, Sweden’s human rights record is far from spotless. Focusing on a country such as Sweden which is considered “modern” or “developed” and that traditionally holds a reputation as a defender and advocate of human rights in international politics very much frames one of GYC’s main objectives with their USA program, namely that all nations, regardless of their state of development, regime type or political stature need to respect and realize the international human rights framework. If the states that are considered most capable fail in upholding their commitment on human rights this sends out a message that has severe consequences. No country should be excepted from the universal value inherited in human rights and neither from the duty of defending them.

Last year the Swedish government received a lot of critique from the international human rights community after a discovery that showed how the police in the south of Sweden kept a register on Romani people residing in the country. Though the revelation can be attributed to the upholding and function of another human right, the freedom of opinion and expression, articles within the human rights framework are dependent on each other and cannot be compared in terms of importance or relevance and any indication of a government violating or compromising any one of these is an ominous sign. By establishing a register based on ethnic background, which did not contain any information regarding crime or suspicion of crime it did not only disregard human rights, the police also made themselves guilty of violating Swedish constitutional law, paradoxically the one guaranteeing freedom of expression.

A debate that has been more consistent and ongoing for many years in Sweden is the failure to ratify the ILO convention 169 regarding the rights of indigenous and tribal people. Sweden’s indigenous community, the Sami, can still be seen as relatively well-off when comparing their situation to other countries. However, like for many of the world’s native populations, the Sami has experienced severe discrimination against their identity and culture as well as constant restraining of their customs and traditional livelihoods. The cause for Sweden failing in this sense has much to do with mining and prospecting opportunities in the northern parts of the country, the same areas where many of the Sami live and where most of their income from forestry, reindeer husbandry and farming is derived. The government’s policy in this question is not only a huge threat against the Sami culture but also violates international human rights law and goes against Swedish law regarding the treatment of commons as well as land, hunting and fishing rights. It is important to note here that the Sami has never requested that the Swedish government turn over land to them, only that they are to be allowed self-administration over the land they currently possess.

Take a moment and consider the fact that these incidents have occurred in a country who’s government regularly speaks out against human rights violations and denounces other administrations for committing such acts. What kind of implications does this have for the human rights framework across the globe? I see this as containing an undermining effect on the universal value we consider to be inherited in human rights as well as on the international agreement to protect and uphold them. What separates Sweden from countries that are more often accused of human rights violations is a civil society which remains unrestrained and capable to speak out against the government. However, as history has shown us, civil acts of justice and authoritative criticism can disappear at an alarming pace even in the most democratic societies, often starting with compromising moral values and obligations towards minorities or individuals that deviates from social norms. This is something which is clearly highlighted by GYC’s New York program, namely that human rights advocates need to speak out against violations everywhere, especially in their own backyards.

Read Jonatan’s biography here.

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