Human Rights Cities in Sweden

This article is written by a master student and reflects their individual perspectives and opinions. It does not constitute an official representation of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute. The content provided here is for educational and informational purposes only, and readers should be aware that it does not necessarily align with the official position of the institute. Readers are encouraged to independently verify information and seek guidance from appropriate academic authorities when necessary. The authors bear full responsibility for the content presented in this blog and any potential consequences resulting from it.

Liza (Elizaveta) Tuneva, a former visiting researcher at the RWI (September – December 2023). She is pursuing a Master’s degree in European Urban Studies at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany. Liza is interested in the topics of human rights and social participation on the local level.


Did you know that human rights (hereinafter, HR) cities can be found all over the world? And even in Sweden, there are two of them: Lund and Piteå. If you are now in either one of these cities and had no idea about their status, I can assure you that there are a lot of people who do not know, just like you.

From September to December 2023, I conducted a research project on HR cities in Sweden trying to understand what this status meant and how it was used in practice. While talking to experts, academics, and practitioners, I realised that the topic of HR cities is just a one entry point to a broader dialogue on the work with HR on the local level. In this article, I would like to summarise the main findings from my report, so it would inspire further research or trigger a discussion.

What is it?

It would be a shame (and a kind of a waste of time) to talk about a concept without defining it. However, unfortunately or luckily, there is no universal definition of “HR city”. This can have different effects. On the one hand, it makes the status confusing and hard to live by. At the same time, it gives freedom to regions and municipalities to choose areas of improvements and development. In the literature, most commonly, HR city is defined as a city which is organised around norms and principles of HR. Then, when we study cities more closely, we discover priorities and motivation in each case.

In the Swedish context, the terminology is quite important. When we say “HR city”, in Sweden it applies to the whole municipality, including rural areas. In this sense, perhaps, it would be more correct to use the term “HR municipality”, as SALAR does. However, then there is a potential issue related to international cooperation that might be put at risk if participants would use different terminology. But then one can rightfully ask about what is more important: international cooperation or consistent and just work on the local level?

Why is it important?

It is quite curious to learn why municipalities in Sweden decide to proclaim the status of a HR city, even though they are obliged by the Constitution to work with HR. During the interviews, I received different answered that can be grouped into three categories. First, work with HR is considered natural for Sweden: for municipalities, the status confirms their commitment to work more, but also sheds more lights on the most relevant issues and challenges. At the same time, it is part of a city and regional branding that targets both local inhabitants, but also attracts newcomers and labour force. In case of Lund, the idea of creating a HR hub is quite noticeable (considering that currently not only the RWI, but also the Swedish Institute for Human Rights are located in the city). Lastly, proclaiming the HR city status can be considered an attempt to foster democracy on the local level in times of the international and perhaps even national “crisis of democracy”.

How does it work?

As it was mentioned in the previous section, there is no universal definition, and therefore no procedure on how to become and function as a HR city. The timing of proclaiming the status can vary. The first way is to proclaim the status first, and then prepare policies and strategies on implementing them. Another way is to work consistently on protecting and promoting HR and then proclaim the status as a result of this work. There is no right or wrong way, since it is the prerogative of local authorities and other stakeholders (if there are any).

Piteå Kommun- by Liza Tuneva

As I learned, in Sweden, it is always the decision made by politicians (a mayor). After that, certain policies, strategies, and education for civil servants and politicians of the municipality are developed and implemented. It is worth mentioning that focus areas and priorities can be adjusted to changing circumstances. For instance, in case of Piteå, it was quite interesting to observe how the initiative started with the focus on diversity (and positioning “Piteå for everyone”) and open citizen dialogues.

Currently, they are planning to revise the existing policies and, perhaps, add additional focuses on national minorities or environmental issues, which are quite noticeable in the Swedish agenda in general.

What also caught my attention is that in both cities, Lund and Piteå, there are initiatives and projects related to HR which are not linked to the HR city status. These can be raising awareness about SGDs in the library, cultural events, participation in the ICORN network, educational projects on national minorities languages and teaching Swedish, and many more. Some interview partners mentioned the importance of advertising the status and work with HR in general, and, possibly, linking these kinds of projects together under the “HR city/municipality” umbrella might be a solution.

What can we learn from it?

Lund-by Liza Tuneva

There are so many angles to the topic of a HR city. For instance, I was searching for the main focuses of policies and strategies, but we can also look at what is not included or mentioned. As I was told, most often, these are the most controversial or debatable topics, such as refugees rights. One might argue, it is easier to focus on environment or education which are undoubtedly considered important.

Another aspect is related to participation and decision-making processes. In one of the previous sections, I mentioned that politicians make decision on proclaiming the HR city status, and their involvement is crucial to implement programs in the municipality. However, academic literature highlights the importance of civic participation. During my project, I did not observe a lot of it with relation to cooperation with local authorities. Certainly, it could be because I did not spend much time studying it, but it might also indicate a potential room for improvement of this process.

Nevertheless, whether a city has the HR city status or not, the most important thing is the consistent work on promoting and protecting HR on all levels of government. It is equally important to reflect on how this process functions in each case and if this process is transparent and accessible to all actors affected.

Further readings

Oomen, Barbara, Martha F. Davis, and Michele Grigolo, eds. Global Urban Justice: The Rise of Human Rights Cities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Kjaerum, Morten, Martha Frances Davis, Gabriella Fredriksson, and Isis Sartori Reis. 2018. “Human Rights Cities and the SDGs.” Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights.

Call for inputs: Human Rights Council resolution 51/12 on local government and human rights

Human rights cities in the EU: a framework for reinforcing rights locally

Merry, Sally Engle. 2006. “Transnational Human Rights and Local Activism: Mapping the Middle.” American Anthropologist 108 (1): 38–51.

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