The Raoul Wallenberg Institute attended the World Human Rights Cities Forum 2017 in Gwangju, South Korea this past week.
The Institute has been working with the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKL), as well as the municipality of Lund, Sweden, together on initiatives exploring the concept of human rights cities. Together with SKL, a platform for human rights cities was created and published in 2017.
RWI’s Gabriella Fredriksson, team leader for Inclusive Societies, spoke at the four-day event in South Korea. You can read her entire speech here.
Human Rights in Sweden – challenges and progress
I am honored to be invited here to share experiences, to learn and bring home new ideas to explore further. I want to thank the organizers for arranging this important forum. Working for the Raoul Wallenberg Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law as a Team Leader for Inclusive Societies the aim of each day is to strive to strengthen the protection, fulfillment and promotion of human rights for all. Today I will focus on the situation in Sweden, the challenges and progress made when it comes to human rights mainly at the local, city level.
I want to start by saying that Sweden is a well developed country where I dare to say the majority of people lead a good every day life. Sweden has ratified many of the international human rights treaties which have been transformed into Swedish law and the European Convention of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms is incorporated into Swedish Law. The Swedish Constitution consists of four fundamental laws out of which three clearly protects human rights. These laws can only be changed by two decisions with a national election in between. The judicial system is robust. We have several ombudsman institutions in place, the oldest one was established in 1713. They oversee the performance of the public and private actors and their actions according to Swedish legislation. Democratic elections are held regularly with a participation of over 85,8 % of those eligible to vote in the last national elections. Transparency International has ranked Sweden as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. The country has not been in war for over 200 years. The unemployment rates are low in comparison to many other countries and we have very strong labour unions since many years. Working places usually holds high physical safety standards. Primary and Secondary schools are public and free of charge for all children.
This is all good, but is it good enough? One of the fundamental principals of human rights is that they belong to each and every individual. This means that it is not good enough to say that most people lead a good life as long as there still are people being discriminated, not have their rights fulfilled or protected to the same extent as others. I dare to say that Sweden has been a very strong advocate for human rights at a global level and in dialogue with many developing countries but we have not always been good at talking about the rights in our own country or rather not at least in a human rights language.
Analyzing the situation in Sweden from a human rights perspective the picture looks a bit different. Let me bring to your attention some of the conclusions and recommendations from the United Nations Treaty Bodies that I believe could be of particular interest to you, trying not to touch upon the same things as my other colleagues from Sweden. But before doing so I will give you a concrete example. If you are in Stockholm and travel with a commuter train or subway, you will be likely to sit beside many people. Depending on which station your fellow travelers get off at, the life expectancy rate for them can differ as much as 9 years. Analyzing this data with human rights glasses, you realize that it’s not enough that the life expectancy rate in Sweden is high in average when it differs among different groups of people. Why is the right to life so very different in reality for some people in comparison to others, what are the reasons behind this, what rights might some people have and others be lacking? These are questions that we need to ask ourselves even more.
Coming back to the conslusions and recommendations by the UN Treaty bodies.
Firstly, in its last report on Sweden, dated 24 June 2016, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights notes the division of responsibilities in Sweden between the national, regional and local level and is concerned about the limited awareness of local authorities regarding their obligations for the realization of the Covenant’s rights. The Committee therefore reminds Sweden that the government bears responsibility for the implementation of the Covenant at all levels, including county and municipal. The Committee recommends Sweden to ensure that all public authorities, including local ones, are fully aware of their obligations under the Covenant and to this end encourages Sweden to issue and disseminate the necessary information and guidance to local authorities. Similar recommendations have been made in earlier reports as well as by other treaty bodies. This recommendation is closely linked to the fact that Sweden has chosen not to incorporate the international conventions into Swedish laws, with the exception of the European Convention on Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, but to transform them into existing Swedish legislation. This means that the local authorities abide by the Swedish laws and do not refer to the international conventions when taking decisions and thus have little knowledge of the latter. All the Treaty Bodies recommend that Sweden instead incorporates the conventions into Swedish law in order for them to be directly implemented at all levels such as by municipalities.
Secondly, even though there are several ombudsman institutions in Sweden, they are all limited in scope in different ways. For example the Mandate of the Equality Ombudsman is limited to areas such as employment, education, goods, services and housing. Discrimination may be direct or indirect.
The Children’s Ombudsman monitors the work on children’s rights in Sweden but cannot take on individual cases. It is therefore recommended by many treaty bodies that Sweden establishes a national human rights institution in accordance with the Paris principals. This is something that the Raoul Wallenberg Institute along with several other actors, be it public or private, are advocating for right now.
Thirdly, the Discrimination Act has a closed list for discrimination, meaning that only these grounds could be considered in a court case, and it lacks some of the grounds for discrimination in comparison to the definitions in international conventions such as political opinion and social status.
Forth, looking more to the local level, the Committee is concerned about the persisting societal discrimination against Roma people despite many efforts to address this issue in different strategies and projects. The discrimination relates for example to the rights to housing, health, social security and education, all of these rights that are to be implemented at the local level.
Fifth, another issue of concern is the increase of hate speech and violence of people belonging certain groups such as African decent, or having a Muslim appearance or being Jewish. In a report from the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) 60 % of the homosexual respondents replied that they do not dare to hold hands in public.
Sixth, looking at the labour market it is evident that despite many efforts to address the issue, unemployment still affects people disproportionally in Sweden, affecting persons with disabilities, youth, Roma and ethnic minorities. Most women work but remain overrepresented in part-time work arrangements and the gender wage gap is still obvious. Looking at the conditions of work the Government has developed an environmental strategy but we still have a lot of stress related illnesses within the working population.
Seventh, mentioned in many different reports is also the inequality in taking part in the public life. Still we have disproportionally few women, people with disabilities or people belonging to an ethnic minority standing for election. The Raoul Wallenberg Institute held a work shop last year with representatives from the Nordic countries from the public sector. One of the challenges raised then was about participation in the public life and debate for everyone. The need but also the difficulty to reach out to all groups in society, not the least those most vulnerable was emphasized again and again. I know that a fellow colleague from Sweden will talk about a new initiative to engage people with disabilities in the public elections at this conference on Saturday. I find this most interesting and encouraging.
Eight, another issue of concern is the difference in levels of support given to a person with special needs in one municipality in comparison with another municipality and the same goes for education.
Ninth, I would like to mention that Sweden is criticized for is that we are doing enough to protect the right to life. NO, we do not have death penalty in Sweden. However, the amounts of suicides among young people is in comparison, high in Sweden. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has therefore argued that Sweden is not, in relation to its resources, doing enough to prevent children to commit suicides.
Finally, when addressing human rights at different levels, it is evident that rights sometimes will conflict with each other when for example budget allocations are decided and prioritixations must be made. However, by analyzing the conflict of interest issues also from a Human Rights perspective I believe decision-makers can be better informed of different consequences before taking a decision.
Progress and good examples
As initially mentioned these are but a few examples of the challenges and breaches of human rights that we face in Sweden. There are many more and this might give you very gloomy picture of the situation. I would therefore also like to present a lot of good efforts and best practices that have been made at different level throughout the years.
In 2003 the Government adopted its First comprehensive National Action Plan for Human Rights. One of the focus areas was to identify and increase the work on human rights by national agencies and municipalities. This was followed by a Second National Action Plan. None of them had avery good result. In 2016, the Government instead adopted a new strategy to strengthen the national human rights work. It was based on the political decision of the Parliament underlining the importance of the full respect for the international obligations on human rights in Sweden. The new strategy underscores that human rights cannot be taken for granted neither in a short term nor in a long term perspective.
In order to address the fact that the Government cannot take decisions on an operational levels that according to law is within the power of the municipalities, the Government has decided to keep the present division of powers and instead focus on strengthening the work and knowledge on human rights in municipalities, county councils and regions. For this purpose, in 2014, the Government entered into a three-year agreement with the Swedish Association of Local Governments and Regions (SALAR). The association represents all 290 Swedish municipalities and 20 regions.
SALAR was tasked to develop an on-line course on human rights addressing in particular public officials at all levels that is now available for everyone in Sweden.
In order to put into concrete terms what human rights means in a Swedish local and regional context, SALAR also decided to develop a platform for policy and operational development. The Raoul Wallenberg Institute worked with SALAR to develop the platform that was formally adopted by the board of SALAR last spring. I am happy to say that last week it was also published in English. At our table you will find copies for reference and I am glad to share the links to the document to anyone who is interested. You will also find copies of a book containing the papers from researchers and NGOs that were prepared for an initial workshop laying the grounds for the platform.
I have come to understand that this platform is rather unique, one of a kind since it has been developed by an association representing all municipalities and regions. It is not legally binding but serves as a guidance.
The platform aims to highlight what policy-makers in municipalities, county councils and regions specifically needs to do in order to strengthen their systematic work on human rights. I would really like to underline the importance of this, taking a systematic view on the work for human rights, not letting it become scattered projects that come and go. It is also argued that cities should commit to incorporate human rights in formal guidelines, procedures and activities.
The structure of the platform takes its departure from the different roles a municipality has: a democracy actor, a societal actor, a welfare actor and an employer. The platform does not have a definition or certain criteria for a human rights city but it spells out certain characteristics of importance to a human rights city based on the principals of non-discrimination, participation and inclusion, transparency and responsibility. The latter refers to the need for transparency in the policy-making process and decisions. Quite unique for Sweden is also the level of transparency in public actions meaning that all documents produced, even an e-mail, by anyone in the public sector is considered public for anyone to read.
It is now time for the municipalities to start the journey towards becoming human rights cities. Lund municipality has already taken a decision in this direction and aim to be the first city in Sweden to reach this goal. The Raoul Wallenberg Institute is situated in Lund, and we are happy to be engaged with Lund city in this work.
This summer, a new agreement has been signed between the Government and SALAR, aiming at enhancing and strengthening human rights further. It will enter into force in October this year. Exactly what measures that will be taken have not been decided yet.
This might sound like municipalities have not worked on human rights before but this is not true. Many of them have taken a decision to focus on child rights, others to strengthen participation in policy-making decision processes.
Another measure taken by the Government is to investigate how the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) could be incorporated into Swedish law and what effects and consequences such a measure would have. Today, there is a Government bill proposing that the convention becomes Swedish lay in 2018.
To end I would like to share with you some really interesting initiatives and positive cases from municipalities and regions.
First a very concrete one. A girl, let’s call her Anna, has some disabilities that requires her to have the support of a personal assistant to be able to take part in in society. However, previously this assistance was given as a fixed amount of hours every week. Anna had not been consulted before the decision had been made. Taking on a human rights based approach, the municipality changed its routines and started to ask those in need of support, such as Anna, how they would like the support. Anna got to have a say before the decision of her support was made and the result was that Anna then could decide when she would like to have the personal assistant. By putting some more hours in certain weeks and less others, Anna was suddenly able to go to a rock concert with the help of the personal assistant at a time when there actually was a concert to attend, not Monday morning between 9 and 11 o’clock. She got to participate in decisions regarding herself and to decide how she wanted to take part in society!
Another example is the creation of a human rights hospital in the Gothenburg Region of Sweden. Before deciding on the location of the hospital, it was analyzed where people using the already existing hospitals lived and it was concluded that people in a certain part did not use the hopsitals even though they were open to all. It was decided to place the hospital in that part of the city. The architectural design of the hospital is based on human rights. And the way the hospital reach out to the clients/beneficiaries in society is based on human rights. One example from one of the psychiatric wards at the hospital was the work to lessen the use of strapping people/clients. At that time, they use of strapping as a method to calm clients down was about 5 times per week. They realized that many of the incidents occurred after 6 o’clock in the evenings. The staff decided to talk to the clients to find out why this was the case. One of the main answers they got was that after 6 o’clock the clients were not allowed to drink coffee. Some of the clients got really angry about this, arguing that this was an unnecessary restriction. The staff decided to question why they had this rule for everyone and came to understand that it was because one drank too much coffee. The decision had therefore been made that no one could drink coffee after 6 o’clock. After this, they changed the rules and they also decided to talk more in another way to the clients when they saw them becoming angry or distressed. The result of this was a decline in the use of straps from five times a week to twice a year.
All this said I believe we do have challenges but there are also a lot of efforts already being made, sometimes without being labeled as efforts aiming at strengthening the implementation of human rights. What is important to remember is to keep on trying and to do it a systematic way and to learn from each other. I believe that the efforts to strengthen the implementation of human rights for all have everything to gain from emphasizing the implementation of and the responsibility for the international standards also at the local level. I am here to listen and learn and I hope that the examples from my fellow Swedes and myself also have inspired you.