Today, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA) is presenting new country reports on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The launch is part of the Government’s work to promote, prevent and influence developments in these areas. The reports can be read as of this afternoon on the Government website. Here, I describe some of the overarching trends that can be identified based on the extensive material contained in the reports.
This year’s publication is the result of an increase in the level of ambition. This is the first time since 2010 that the MFA has published reports from all regions of the world at the same time. Moreover, it is the first time that the reports highlight democracy and the rule of law so clearly, alongside human rights.
Developments over the past few decades have meant that more people than ever before feel that they are entitled to express their opinions freely, have access to medical care, organise in trade unions, work, and live with people of their own choosing.
Since the 1970s, many states have made the transition to democracy – at least in terms of the introduction of multi-party systems and the conduct of regular elections.
Not surprisingly, the reports show enormous differences between countries. Unfortunately, the overall picture is that the positive trend has stalled in many parts of the world. It is unclear whether this is a change of direction for the worse or just a temporary dip.
We have long been drawing attention to the fact that the space for civil society is shrinking in many parts of the world. The reports confirm that many regimes exercise tight control over civil society through registration and reporting requirements, and bans on foreign financing. Representatives of civil society organisations are subjected to harassment, threats, violence and arbitrary deprivation of liberty.
With regard to civil and political rights, we can see that ‘terrorist threats’ are often used as a reason to imprison people and restrict their freedom of expression, freedom to demonstrate and right to practise their religion. The reports show that journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to work in many countries.
Extrajudicial executions of crime suspects and police brutality affect many people, and ongoing conflicts in many places mean that the right to life and personal freedom is seriously violated through arbitrary violence.
The reports show how women are discriminated against, including through legislation in areas such as inheritance, property and the right to divorce. In extreme cases, women are not even considered to be legally competent. The reports show that the right to abortion and women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights are seriously restricted in many places. Violence against women and girls occurs throughout the world, which is clearly highlighted in the reports.
It is sometimes easier to pursue certain economic and social rights than issues concerning freedom of expression. This includes the right to pursue demands for higher pay and fair working conditions. At the same time, a clear picture emerges of the difficulties people experience in organising in independent trade union organisations.
The vulnerability of minorities and refugees is also highlighted in the reports. From Europe, too, there are reports of increasing racism and hostility towards refugees and immigrants.
Regarding the rule of law, the reports provide many examples of countries where all state power is concentrated in the hands of just a few people. Authorities often serve government instead of acting neutrally under the law. The reports show the widespread politicisation of courts of law. Corruption and nepotism are commonplace.
There is also cause for concern in Europe and our immediate vicinity. We see how governments are trying to change constitutional laws to limit the independence of the courts. Judicial institutions are called into question even in countries where they have traditionally enjoyed a strong position. It is deplorable that these rights are being restricted in these countries where people have been fighting for them for decades.
Concerning democratic elections, too, the reports show many worrying examples of countries where general elections are a chimera. In extreme cases, political parties are banned and any opposition is regarded as treason.
However, there are some rays of hope.
Although genital mutilation is a major problem in a number of countries in Africa, several of them have taken steps to reduce its prevalence.
Conditions for women are being defended and strengthened in many places, including in regions where developments in other areas appear gloomy. In Central America, special courts have been established to investigate violence against women. In Asia and Africa, steps are being taken to reduce violence against women, including through legislation.
In several countries, LGBTQ people’s rights have been improved through laws on protection against discrimination; same-sex couples now have the right to enter into marriage, register a partnership and adopt children. But the situation for LGBTQ people remains very difficult in many countries and the reports show that violence and harassment are widespread.
Unfortunately, the overall picture painted in our reports is a bleak one.
But we will not be defeated. We are pursuing a feminist foreign policy that has attracted attention and made an impression in large parts of the world. We are working on the UN Security Council, the UN Human Rights Council and other organs. The EU is an important actor for pursuing human rights issues throughout the world, but also in the Member States. Human rights, democracy and the rule of law are among our top priorities in development cooperation. Sweden also regularly raises these issues in dialogue with other countries.
It is my hope that these reports will strengthen our work. I hope that they will provide support to the brave women and men all over the world who fight to secure and strengthen their rights – sometimes risking their own lives to do so.
A sense of affinity grows from the realisation that we are all dependent on one another, and those of us who live in a country with free and fair elections – a society where our individual rights are respected and protected in law – bear a particular responsibility to draw attention to and help those whose voices otherwise risk being silenced. It is our duty.
Margot Wallström, Minister for Foreign Affairs