Sweden raises the ambitions in the work for human rights

Human Rights Day is observed every year on 10 December. It presents an opportunity to highlight the Government’s distinct emphasis on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Developments over the past few decades have meant that more people than ever before enjoy their human rights, including access to education and health care, the right to work and to organise in trade unions, and to live with whomever they choose. Since the 1970s, many states have made the transition to democracy – at least as regards the introduction of multiparty systems and the conduct of regular elections. The majority of the world's states have acceded to the core human rights conventions. Sweden's foreign policy engagement has contributed to this development.

We are living in a world that is more uncertain than it has been for many years and in many places we can also see that progress is being undone.

In a growing number of countries, human rights and democracy are weakening. Authoritarian and repressive regimes are gaining more influence, both over their own citizens and in the world. A number of states, including Russia, Egypt and Turkey, have introduced legislation or taken measures that make it extremely difficult for independent actors and journalists to operate freely. A number of stable democracies have also shown disturbing populist tendencies and legislative trends that restrict freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

It is clear to us that the democratic space is shrinking.

A further factor in this downward trend is the ever-shrinking civil society space. Human rights defenders and journalists are subjected to threats and harassment, and laws are enacted to make activities highlighting human rights violations, corruption, abuse of power or electoral fraud excessively difficult or indeed impossible. At the seminar on hate and threats against women journalists that the Ministry for Foreign Affairs co-hosted with media institute FOJO, the Swedish Institute and UNESCO, it became very apparent just how vulnerable and exposed journalists – and particularly women journalists – are as a result of exercising their profession.

Perhaps the greatest challenge when it comes to human rights is that the universality of these rights is increasingly being called into question. Cultural or historical contexts are cited that enable the meaning of rights to be interpreted differently depending on where in the world a person lives or was born. This is an unfortunate trend that Sweden will forcefully counter. This is particularly relevant with regard to women's enjoyment of their human rights. For example, about 100 states place restrictions on the types of jobs women can do.

For the Government, it goes without saying that human rights are everyone's rights and thereby universal.

Economic, social and cultural rights are given higher priority than ever before. The right to education and health, and to health care and work are just as important as the freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of assembly and other civil and political rights.

Today, access to sexual and reproductive health and rights is a globally contested issue. Forces that want to restrict these rights are gaining strength in many places. More and more, it is a matter of not regressing, for example, on the issue of sex and relationship education, which has a huge bearing on the prevention of violence against women and girls.

It is clear that gender equality issues remain controversial in many parts of the world. This is why we will continue to pursue our feminist foreign policy and focus on issues related to women's equal rights.

The negative developments we see, where human rights, democracy and the rule of law are questioned and challenged in all parts of the world, place new demands on Sweden. This requires strategic analysis and a new approach – but also integrated activity-oriented policies.

This is why the Government is now submitting a written communication to the Riksdag on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. This communication will be our compass for action in the coming years, presenting the Government's priorities and tools. The communication is also unique in that it addresses the development of human rights in every region of the world.

The Government has also appointed an Ambassador for Human Rights to have overall responsibility for the implementation of the communication and to be the messenger of Sweden's human rights, democracy and rule of law policy.

The EU project is more important than ever in a world following a repressive course. It is essential for the credibility of the EU that we practise what we preach; this is why Sweden will continue to push for human rights, democracy and the rule of law both within the EU and externally.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also has an important role to play here with its clear emphasis on human rights, democracy and the rule of law as a prerequisite for sustainable peace and security in Europe.

The UN continues to be one of our most important platforms, and Sweden's imminent entry as a non-permanent member of the Security Council is extremely important for our work. The UN Human Rights Council and other UN bodies Sweden is involved in are important arenas. In each of these forums we intend to continue to pursue policies that are firmly anchored in human rights, democratic values and the rule of law.

Our development cooperation has a strong emphasis on democracy and gender equality, increased respect for human rights and freedom from oppression. The coming policy framework for Swedish development cooperation establishes that human rights and democracy are two of the most important priorities in this area. The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency has been especially tasked with examining the issue of shrinking civil society space and proposing measures that Sweden can take to counter this. The report is to be submitted in the first half of 2017.

As a further step in putting this enhanced ambition into practice, we are conducting a freedom of opinion and expression campaign in connection with the 250th anniversary of Sweden's Freedom of the Press Act. Next year, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs will present reports on human rights, democracy and the rule of law in countries in all regions of the world.

Sweden has a proud history of working for human rights throughout the world. This is a tradition the current Government will strengthen. Our seat on the UN Security Council offers a unique opportunity to fight for these issues in a world that more than ever before needs a clear voice for the equal value and rights of all people.