When Sweden’s Human Rights Record Was Reviewed in Geneva

This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the 58th session of the Committee on Economic and Social Rights (“CESCR”) located at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. I had moved to Sweden three days prior to the conference and had just begun adjusting to my role as an intern at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute. RWI had been invited to participate as a result of an influential research report related to the right to water for Roma residing in Sweden.

When I arrived in Geneva, I was shocked by how international it is. I was a convinced that a pre-requisite to enter the city is that you must speak at least three languages fluently. I mumbled some French words I knew and it must have been enough for officials to let me stay. I arrived at the United Nations building on Monday and retrieved my credentials to get into the campus.

At this point, I was still sure that I would not be let in and they would see through the façade and notice that I, a third-year law student from Boston, did not have nearly the credentials to be on the grounds of one of the most influential international organizations in the world. But alas, they allowed me to enter and I wandered aimlessly, in an overwhelmed paralysis until I found the building where the review was being held. The review itself had its dance of formalities, as to be expected, but was considerably more informal than I had imagined.

Before the review, State Secretary Pernilla Baralt came over to personally greet each member of civil society organizations that were present. Having been in Sweden for a total of 48 hours, I had no idea who she was but I had at least enough information to determine that she was important. As I watched her take her seat at the head of the delegation, I realized that my determination was correct.

The CESCR periodically reviews member states on the state’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (“ICESCR” or “Covenant”). The Covenant, in contrast to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR), contains articles related to social, economic and cultural rights, such as the right to work, the right to an adequate standard of living, and the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

One hundred and sixty four countries have ratified the ICESCR.  Notably, the United States has not. The United States has never been before this committee and will not be before the committee unless some drastic political change happens. So, as a U.S. citizen, sitting in on this review was a unique experience. I kept this in mind as the review progressed and it was hard not to think about the “what-ifs”.

What if United States delegates were held accountable for human rights violations related to economic, social and cultural rights? What if the U.S. delegation was sitting before the committee and had to address questions about human rights violations related to the right to water and what’s happening in Flint, Michigan and all throughout the United States?

Or issues surrounding campus rape? Issues surrounding race and police violence? Access to health care? How would this dialogue progress, and would it force the United States to hold itself more accountable to its constituents’ basic human rights?

The Committee opened on June 6th, and will culminate on June 24th after the review of Sweden and six other states — Angola, Burkina Faso, France, Honduras, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and the U.K. The review progresses in stages. Prior to review, the Committee sends the State a “list of issues” that it must respond to. The state is charged with formulating a response, often acknowledging the issues brought by the Committee, justifying its occurrence or explaining efforts being taken to ameliorate the issue. Civil society organizations are given the opportunity to participate by submitting reports prior to the review in order to give both the State and Committee members more information about the issue from a different perspective.

The Committee interacts heavily with civil society organizations throughout the review. The relationship seems to be symbiotic – the organizations are given a platform to advocate for various issues, such as the rights of vulnerable EU citizens, and the Committee uses the opportunity to further arm themselves with more information surrounding the issues, which influences the both the Committee’s questions to the delegation and its overall review of the State.

The review progresses with a series of question and answer sessions between the Committee members and the State delegates. The Committee has the opportunity to ask questions related to the Articles within the Covenant and the delegates must formulate responses. Further, the head delegate, as well as the Committee chairperson and the State’s special rapporteur (a Committee member charged specifically with addressing issues within that State) are each given opportunity for opening and closing remarks.

Sweden, represented by State Secretary Baralt as the head delegate, was one of the first countries to be reviewed in this session. The civil society organizations involved met with a handful of Committee members prior to the question and answer session and were given the opportunity to speak on issues their organization is especially concerned with.

Martha Davis of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute spoke on the right to water for vulnerable EU citizens residing in Sweden, and the forced evictions many Roma have faced due to the lack of sanitation in informal settlements. Other groups spoke about the State’s failure in general to protect the rights of vulnerable groups, such as refugees and the Roma and Sami populations, the State’s failure to acknowledge violence within same-sex relationships, the impact the mining industry has on vulnerable populations as well as transnational business agreements that have a negative impact on human rights abroad. The Committee members had an opportunity to present questions to the organizations, and encouraged a dialogue on the issues. I was surprised by how collaborative this meeting became.

The formal review began with State Secretary Baralt who gave her opening remarks to the Committee and civil society organizations. Her statement began by acknowledging both Sweden’s progress in regards to human rights, as well as its shortcomings. She emphasized that while Sweden has always valued human rights, there is always room for improvement. She stressed her openness to learn and grow with the aid of the Committee. Her words seemed to create an air or cooperation between the Committee members and the Swedish delegation, and were well received by many Committee members.

Next, the Committee had the opportunity to ask the delegation questions related to each Article in the Convention. The delegates then had time to convene and formulate answers to those questions. The Committee followed-up with more questions and would use that opportunity to ask more pointed questions if the answers weren’t initially satisfactory, or if the delegation seemed to skirt around a direct answer. The Committee often used that time to provide general comments on the specific issue. For example, the Committee asked the delegation about the forced evictions that Professor Davis had discussed in the informal meeting with civil society organizations. When the delegation responded by stating that the municipality, rather than the federal government, carried responsibility for decisions regarding eviction, the Committee used the follow-up opportunity to ask more specific questions about forced eviction and the State’s responsibility to adhere to principles articulated in the ICESCR. State Secretary Baralt was able to address those issues in a more formal manner as she made her closing remarks. This was interesting to see, because it seemed obvious that she knew that forced evictions were a serious issue, but she also knew that due to Sweden’s deference to local, municipal control, she didn’t have the opportunity to say more about the issue.

Regardless, the fact that she brought it up and acknowledged forced eviction of Roma as a serious issue can be used in future reviews if Sweden is not yet in compliance with the ICESCR in that regard.

The CESCR review mechanism can have positive human right implications, despite the CESCR’s lack of formal judicial mechanisms. However, from what I saw, the impact is largely dependent on the country. For example, Sweden has been well-known for promoting human rights, both domestically and abroad. Naturally, Sweden will be more apt to act on suggestions and criticism, as many truly want to see the highest attainable standard for human rights citizens. However, Sweden is undoubtedly being challenged with new and emerging human rights issues that it largely has not faced before as new sets of vulnerable people are settling within its borders. The review can serve as a compelling platform for dialogue between governments, experts in the field of human rights and civil society organizations to discuss issues within the country and can positively serve as a platform for advocacy for many concerned civil society organizations.

More information on the 58th Session.

Anna Holding is a legal intern at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. She is currently studying at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, Massachusetts and her main interests are women’s reproductive health and anti-trafficking policy.

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