Isabella Lövin is no longer a government minister, Minister for Environment and Climate, and Deputy Prime Minister

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Minister for International Development Cooperation and Climate, and Deputy Prime Minister

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Minister for International Development Cooperation

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This content was published in the period between

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Opinion piece from Ministry for Foreign Affairs

"Strengthening democracy"

Published

Svenska Dagbladet July 2 2015

Today, here in Almedalen, the Government has decided to step up cooperation with civil society in Sweden to reduce poverty and oppression in the world. Together, the Government and civil society organisations have drawn up joint commitments to enhance dialogue and collaboration in the area of development cooperation. Meanwhile, as these are being adopted, we witness country after country reducing the scope for independent organisations, human rights defenders and journalists. The Government will fight this trend and work to ensure that civil society organisations everywhere – not just in Sweden – are able to work freely.

Almedalen is a throng of social movements, organisations, political parties and businesses – a scene of Swedish democracy, where spontaneous meetings and discussions take place on the street between politicians, community stakeholders and private individuals. This openness is in stark contrast to what is happening beyond Sweden’s borders. The progress the world has seen in recent decades, including more people who are able to vote and democracy gaining ground, has unfortunately been halted. More than 50 countries have adopted, or intend to adopt, legislation that will make it harder for civil society organisations to operate, for example by making it difficult to seek international support. The best-known case is Russia, but it is not the only one. The trend is spreading rapidly around the world – everywhere from Europe to the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Organisations and human rights defenders with international contacts and financing are being dragged through the mud and denounced as foreign agents. This has devastating consequences for their ability to work and threatens their safety. For many organisations, cooperation for example with civil society organisations in Sweden is a lifeline providing both moral and financial support, and a channel to the outside world. Without it, it is difficult for them to carry out their important work. Without it, it also becomes more difficult for governments and international bodies to get a full picture of the situation in a country. 

In many ways, civil society is the engine that drives society towards continuous improvement. This is certainly the case in Sweden, where civil society organisations have played, and still play, an important role in building our nation. It is civil society organisations and individual activists who warn us when companies commit environmental offences, when governments and authorities are corrupt, when women and children are abused and when political tensions risk leading to widespread violence and instability. The wave of restrictions we are now seeing means that the global network of civil society organisations, individuals and states is in danger of being replaced by something else: repressive states, less scope for people to organise and less cross-border contact.

It is crucial that Sweden acts as a counter force and that Swedish development cooperation is used to support the potential of civil society in the world, as well as human rights, democracy and the rule of law. I am proud that there is broad political consensus on this in the Riksdag and on the added value of Swedish civil society organisations and their role in the fight against poverty and oppression.

The joint commitments the Government and Swedish civil society organisations are adopting today are proof of this and a product of work begun during the previous government’s last year in office and now completed by us.

We, the Swedish Government, are committed to defending the independence of civil society organisations, inviting dialogue and drawing on their knowledge, pushing for favourable conditions for their work and promoting their role as a collective voice and opinion former in Sweden and internationally. With the new direction of Sida’s information and communication strategy the Government has recently established, organisations will be able to do more than merely inform about the results of aid. We are opening up opportunities for them to seek means for reviewing, stimulating debate and public opinion on the challenges and opportunities of development work, and also for giving a voice to civil society in partner countries.  

We will also concentrate more on strengthening democratic institutions in developing countries, for example legal systems, welfare systems, national audit organisations and anti-corruption mechanisms. This is extremely important. People and organisations do not live in a vacuum; they depend on a well-functioning state to be able to exercise their human rights.

We are also going to develop a new framework for the direction of aid and a written communication for human rights, democracy and the rule of law in foreign policy, both of which will be submitted to the Riksdag in 2016. In this context, the scope of civil society has an intrinsic place. We need new thinking to counteract global anti-democratic tendencies around the world. How can we best support the new emerging networks and movements that are being forced to find new ways to organise because of repressive regulations?

Our ambition is clear: the voices of civil society, human rights defenders and journalists must not be silenced. Almedalen may be criticised for being exclusive, gaudy and superficial, but in an international perspective the week here in Visby is a reminder of Sweden’s openness and the opportunities we have for free debate and discussion – something that can never be taken for granted. In too many countries around the world a Democracy Week like the one we celebrate every year in Visby would be absolutely unthinkable. But the lack of openness and pluralism is what creates long-term instability in these countries. The Government’s strengthened cooperation with civil society means we can create better conditions for sustainable development in our increasingly troubled world. 

 

Isabella Lövin, Minister for International Development Cooperation