Margot Wallström is no longer a government minister, Minister for Foreign Affairs
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Speech by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in Lund, 11 December 2015: “Human rights, democracy and the rule of law – challenges in turbulent times”
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We are living in turbulent times.
The world around us is changing rapidly, with disintegrating states, refugee flows and terrorist attacks.
There are many challenges. But it is important that we maintain our perspective and do not forget all of the things around us that inspire hope.
Political and economic developments mean that more people than ever before are able to enjoy their human rights. Since 1974, over 90 countries have transitioned to democracy – in a formal sense. Over time, the number of executions has decreased. More children are attending school and people are receiving better care.
Over the past 25 years, two billion people have gained access to sanitation facilities. And even more – 2.6 billion people – have gained access to better water. One in two people have access to mobile internet. Poverty has been halved.
If you are a politically engaged woman, your chances of getting into parliament have doubled compared with 20 years ago. If you live in Nepal they have trebled.
If you are a girl in South Asia today, you have equally good chances as your brothers of being able to attend school. If you live in Latin America, there are more girls than boys in your class.
If you are a new parent anywhere in the world, the chances of your child dying have halved compared with 25 years ago.
This is enormous progress.
Sweden has contributed to this development through its foreign policy and through concrete measures in development cooperation. Without our commitment and that of others, global developments would not have come as far or moved as quickly, whether it be with regard to the fight against the death penalty or efforts to promote education, democracy and women's rights.
Our shared commitment is particularly important today, when authoritarian regimes have gained greater influence, scope for democracy is decreasing and universal rights are restricted.
People in Nigeria who protest against discrimination on the grounds of their sexual orientation are silenced. Activists in Cambodia or Columbia who fight against environmental degradation and forced resettlement are threatened. Journalists who uncover abuses of power in Russia and secular bloggers in Bangladesh are murdered for the sake of their opinions. Women's rights activists in Iraq are subjected to political persecution.
Laws that restrict or forbid civil society organisations have spread throughout the world. Freedom of expression on the internet has declined for the fifth year in a row.
Authoritarian states are not the only problem. Even non-state actors such as ISIS/Daesh and other religious extremists aggressively claim that human rights do not apply.
After one of the most devastating wars that has affected humankind, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on 10 December 1948. It established the equal value of all people. Three fundaments of freedom, justice and peace in the world were identified: human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
The Universal Declaration states that: "Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law."
It also states that "The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures."
These words created a new set of basic values for a ravaged world and they are more relevant today than ever before. They inspire us all as we stake out the direction of our future work.
In 2016, the Government will submit a communication to the Riksdag on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. This will be our compass. It will be based on our values and make visible our tools.
We are now in the middle of this work. We are talking with civil society organisations, researchers and our missions abroad. We are analysing challenges and assessing where Sweden can be of greatest benefit. We must see human rights, democracy and the rule of law as a whole, in which each part is dependent on the other two.
So what should we do and how should we do it?
Let us start with how.
Sweden must be a strong voice and stand up for, defend and promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law throughout foreign policy.
People across the entire world who are fighting for their own rights and the rights of others provide great hope for the future. They must not stand alone.
And nor should Sweden. Networks and alliances are more important than ever. Sweden must work with states, political actors, civil society, businesses, foundations and individuals. We must be better at collaborating with many actors in broad alliances.
Human rights, democracy and the rule of law must continue to be priority issues in development cooperation. At times like these, support needs to be more flexible, dynamic and adapted to the new situation in the world.
We must dare to take risks, just like the courageous people and movements we support. Progress can mean that one voice is still heard. We must create scope for rapid action with targeted measures.
We must make a difference in individual countries. The Government's reports on the human rights situation in the countries of the world are being broadened to include democracy and the rule of law.
We must sharpen our tools. Work more strategically and pursue the right issues in the right forums. We must create platforms for cooperation with various actors where we jointly pursue issues in the international system. Global forums such as the UN and the development banks, the EU and regional organisations such as the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the African Union, and specialised collaborations such as the Community of Democracies and IDEA are all important arenas in this work.
So what shall we do? Some things are a given.
Sweden is pursuing a feminist foreign policy. The fulfilment of all women's and girls' human rights is crucial and a prerequisite for democracy and the rule of law. It is also a prerequisite for sustainable peace and security. Gender-equal societies run less of a risk of being affected by violence and conflict. These challenges require that we work on several fronts.
We must combat the abuse, violence and oppression that women are subjected to throughout the world. And we must work for women's political and economic participation and influence. We must continue to be a leading advocate for all people's sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Sweden must stand up for and promote democratic institutions and processes. Parties, parliaments and other democratic institutions are weak in many countries. And yet they are crucial for channelling people's interests and resolving political differences in a peaceful way. This is why they must be strengthened.
In times when democracy is challenged and called into question as a social model, there is a greater need to deepen our understanding of the meaning of democracy and to find new ways of strengthening electoral processes with integrity. For every election that is manipulated and abused, there is a risk that the word democracy will come into disrepute. We must protect the meaning of democracy.
Sweden must strengthen the rule of law on a broad front.
We know that the rule of law is crucial for safeguarding human rights, for non-discrimination and for access to justice. Decent states are states under the rule of law. It guarantees access to ID documents, education and medical care, an independent and free media, rules for entrepreneurship – all of the things we take for granted and that characterise functioning societies.
The rule of law is essential to combating corruption. But corruption also infiltrates and undermines the rule of law. There are also serious consequences for democracy when positions become a way of obtaining money. Society's ability to realise its political intentions is weakened. Corruption challenges human security and is a cause of transnational crime.
We must work on norms, institutions and methods to strengthen the rule of law and combat corruption.
Sweden must fight discrimination in all its forms, regardless of the grounds upon which it occurs, be it religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, impairment or belonging to a minority. The rights of indigenous people must be defended.
LGBT persons human rights have been strengthened in many areas, such as marriage and adoption rights. But discrimination and violence directed at LGBT persons are among the great challenges of our time and must be combated.
The perspective of the rights of the child must be strengthened. All children have the right to a name, identity and citizenship. Today, only one in three children are registered at birth. The right to an identity is the key to a whole host of rights, such as attending school and receiving care or protection.
Poverty as a result of discrimination is, in itself, a human rights abuse. Economic and social rights must be strengthened. The fact that the UN member countries have agreed on a new, shared agenda for sustainable development, including seventeen new, global Sustainable Development Goals is a major step and inspires hope. Implementation of Agenda 2030 for sustainable development and fulfilment of the new goals will be crucial for people's enjoyment of their human rights. Sweden must contribute to this work.
Sweden must defend people's opportunities to assert their rights and demand that both states and businesses take their responsibilities. This is important, not least with regard to working conditions and the right to organise in trade unions, as well as the right to land and natural resources. Yesterday the Government adopted a communication on corporate social responsibility that will shortly be submitted to the Riksdag.
The Government is relaunching the Policy for Global Development. This means that we are strengthening the rights perspective and efforts to ensure that all policy areas make a coherent contribution to the new global sustainability agenda.
Sweden must also safeguard and strengthen the principle of 'the responsibility to protect', not least with regard to preventing conflicts. This does not apply only to conflicts between states. We must also help to prevent mass abuses by non-state actors and protect civilians. Accountability is a cornerstone. When states themselves cannot enforce accountability, the International Criminal Court is essential.
But in the turbulent landscape of today, these core issues are not enough.
We must also work on some of the challenges of the day in a new and strategic way.
In some areas we see the need for special measures. Today I can highlight two of these.
The first is widening the democratic space.
At a time when the foundation of human rights is being challenged, free voices are imprisoned and social movements are forbidden, special measures are necessary.
Certain values and rights must be defended.
Freedom of expression, association and assembly are key. Sweden must make a special contribution to protect freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the opportunities of civil society and political movements to exist and act. Regardless of whether people are fighting for freedom of religion or the environment, exposing corruption, pursuing land issues or advocating the rights of LGBT persons, Sweden will fight for their right to make their voice heard.
The courageous people who dare to express themselves and pursue important issues are crucial for combating human rights abuses. In an increasingly digitalised world, this engagement is taking on new forms. Sweden must be at the forefront in order to understand and strengthen new forms of civilian and political movements.
In the digital era, the media landscape is changing at a tremendous pace. Independent news and opinion formation is essential to ensure the right of citizens to keep informed and thus be able to exercise their democratic rights. The safety of journalists and other media actors must be strengthened. The same applies to the possibility to express oneself freely through literature, film, music and art in all its forms.
We must stand up for people's opportunities to express themselves, organise and pursue their interests. These are the foundations of open societies – and this is how our democracy and welfare have been built.
We need to strengthen activists through networks and increased support. Protection for human rights defenders must be better. We must act more quickly and in a more concerted manner when developments take a turn for the worse. We intend to produce a handbook for work on promoting the values that lie at the heart of the universal rights.
This is both a short-term and a long-term undertaking. Investments in education for the coming generation are essential.
The second measure is a greater focus on Europe and our neighbourhood.
The European basic values are laid down in the Lisbon Treaty of the European Union: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights – including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. We must protect these basic values in Europe and in our neighbourhood.
But the challenges are growing. In Russia, civil society is being pushed back and freedom of expression is being increasingly restricted. This also has an indirect effect on the human rights situation in Russia's neighbouring countries, and ultimately on all of Europe. Russian propaganda risk depriving a whole generation of the opportunity to freely form their own opinions.
Europe and our neighbourhood must be a strong foothold for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Sweden must highlight in particular the importance of independent judicial systems in Europe. Sweden must take forceful action against discrimination of people who belong to minorities. Racism and extremism must be combated jointly by the entire EU.
Sweden must support human rights defenders, brave politicians, journalists, and civil society in Europe and its neighbourhood. Sweden has played an important role in the establishment of two organisations that support democratic forces in the European neighbourhood in an innovative and flexible way – the European Endowment for Democracy and the Prague Civil Society Centre.
Education, exchanges and broad social contacts between countries in Europe and its neighbourhood are becoming increasingly important.
Sweden must continue to fight to ensure that all of Europe takes its responsibility for people fleeing from war and oppression and for people's right to seek asylum.
In order to give force and focus to these measures, they will be designed as individual projects with goals, resources and follow-up. The mandates will be for three years, but the aim is a long-term one.
We don't know what's waiting round the corner.
It could be solutions to long-term conflicts and democratic openings. It could be more repression and refugee flows.
But one thing we do know.
We no longer find ourselves in a world that lies beyond Sweden.
The rest of the world is here in our midst.
The seeds we plant today shape our own destiny and the future of our children.
I hope that you, too, sow a seed every day. Learn something new. Join an association. Do a good deed. Take issue with an unfounded statement on social media.
After winter comes summer. And you have to have planted your seeds in time.