Margot Wallström is no longer a government minister, Minister for Foreign Affairs
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19 updated country reports on human rights, democracy and the rule of law – some positive developments but still a long way to go
Today, the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs publishes new, updated country reports on human rights, democracy and the rule of law, covering 19 countries in the Americas, Central Asia and Eastern Europe in which Sweden has a permanent presence. The reports are written in Swedish and can be found on the Government’s website.
Our country reports are one of the many tools available to us to promote respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. This work involves a large part of the Swedish Foreign Service. The reports give us knowledge and underpin our analysis.
This round of reports describes the situation as of 31 December 2017. The reports are all written using the same standardised format, and all issues are covered for all countries: an important principle to ensure uniform assessments.
All in all, we see that while progress is being made in some areas, other areas are lagging behind – not least in terms of the situation for certain groups of individuals.
Since 2000, poverty has been reduced extensively in the Americas as well as in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, which has led to a better living standard for millions of people. When people are lifted out of poverty, doors open to new opportunities.
At the same time, we see great challenges when it comes to upholding the rule of law. Corruption, nepotism and, in some areas, collusion with organised crime are widespread, despite many countries having adopted legislation to counter these developments.
The huge increase in the number of democracies in the world since the end of the Cold War has halted. In some areas, developments are even moving backwards.
Civil society space is shrinking. Many countries, not least in Eastern Europe, have instituted complicated legislation often specifically targeting human rights organisations that are critical of the ruling party. Laws on 'foreign agents' are used to silence civil society.
In the Americas, defenders of the rights of indigenous peoples, often in connection with conflicts concerning land or natural resources, are often particularly vulnerable and, in some cases, structurally discriminated against.
Human rights are violated around the world with worrying regularity, including in these regions. Freedom of expression, of the press and of information is often protected in the countries' constitutions, but purported threats against national security or from terrorism are often used to legitimise restrictions to these and other freedoms, as well as to arbitrarily detain peaceful protesters.
In all three regions, religion is often very present in society, even in countries that do not have an official state religion. Sometimes this leads to religious minorities being denied access to human rights, including through targeted violence.
The conditions in detention centres and prisons are generally very tough and torture occurs, to a greater or lesser extent, in several countries. Sexual and gender-based violence is still commonplace.
We see that people face difficulties organising themselves in independent unions, both because of deliberate actions against them and because the permitted unions are closely linked to the ruling party.
The reports show that sexual and reproductive health and rights remain limited. While there are some positive developments, many countries in Latin America still have very restrictive legislation on abortions, leading to hundreds of thousands of illegal abortions every year. Alongside the physical and mental risks to these women, in some cases they risk facing long prison sentences for having an illegal abortion.
Almost every report describes how women and girls continue to face violence and discrimination, both in law and in practice. Domestic and intimate partner violence, particularly affecting women and children, are often seen as a private matter to be handled within the family, often leading to complete impunity for the perpetrator.
However, it is not all bad news.
In some countries, special courts have been established to investigate violence against women. In other countries, women's political participation has increased. In addition, some countries, especially in the Americas, have taken steps forward in terms of recognising that LGBTI persons should be able to enjoy the same human rights as everyone else. Finally, almost all countries in the Americas, Central Asia and Eastern Europe have abolished the death penalty, either through legislation or through a de facto moratorium.
Overall, however, the reports give us cause for concern. But our work does not end here – it will continue with determination and purpose until human rights, democracy and the rule of law are equally assured to everyone, everywhere and all the time.
I hope that our reports, and the information contained in them, will further strengthen the work that we all do. I also hope that they will be seen as a support to all the brave women and men who – sometimes at risk to their own lives – work to strengthen respect for human rights, and for democracy and the rule of law.
Finally, I hope they can convey a signal to other countries that Sweden will not remain silent when we see human rights being violated.
On 9 September this year, Sweden will hold general elections. That is a privilege. We who live in a country of free and fair elections, and with strong legal protection for human rights, have a special responsibility to pay attention to and help those whose voices may otherwise be silenced.
Let us take that responsibility seriously and stand up for all human rights, everywhere and all the time.
Margot Wallström, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden