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Preliminary findings and recommendations of the United Nations Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity, Mr. Obiora C. Okafor, at the end of his visit to Sweden

Stockholm (27 April 2018) – At the end of a 5-day mission to Sweden during which the Independent Expert held meetings in Stockholm and Malmö, Mr. Obiora C. Okafor delivered the following statement:

“At the outset, I would like to express my sincere appreciation and gratitude to the Government of Sweden for inviting me to the country to conduct my first official visit as Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity, and for their full support and cooperation before and during my time here. 

During my five days official visit to Sweden from 23 to 27 April 2018, I met with Ambassadors at Large for Human Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law, for Children and Armed Conflict, for Corporate Social Responsibility, and for Gender Equality.

I also met with other Government officials and representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Employment, and the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, and representatives from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. Visits were also paid to Members of Parliament from the governing and opposition parties, officials at the city, municipality and regional levels in Stockholm and in Malmö, and representatives of Swedfund. I also met with representatives of civil society organizations based in Sweden, as well as UNHCR representatives. A visit was also paid to the Roma Information Knowledge Centre in Malmö and the youth centre, Fryshuset, in Stockholm. I would like to warmly thank all those who took the time to exchange views with me. 

My objectives during my visit were primarily to learn more and gain first-hand understanding of issues related to the experience and practice of human rights-based international solidarity in Sweden, including efforts that have been made in that direction and remaining challenges. I was especially interested in learning more about how Sweden incorporates human rights in its international solidarity thought and action, as well as how its  efforts contribute to the promotion of a human rights approach to addressing many of the global challenges that the world is currently facing, including – but not limited to - climate change, cross-border migration, refugee issues, global financial flows, and peace and security. 

Sweden has a long-standing tradition of practising human rights-based international solidarity at the international level, including through its generosity and cooperation in providing financial and other assistance to other countries and peoples. Solidarity lies at the foundations of the contemporary Swedish society and spirit. At the heart of the governing strategy of the Swedish Social Democratic Party, in power for more than 40 continuous years until 1976, the concept of solidarity became an essential component of Sweden’s economic and social policies, along with the ideas of equality, justice and freedom. The Swedish welfare state model became a leading, and one of the most praised systems in the world that provides basic social security and social protection to residents, with the distinction of it being universal and tending to cover the entire population living in Sweden regardless of their circumstances. In establishing this egalitarian, solidarity-centred and growth-inclusive system, the State contributed to the alleviation of poverty and ensured that the basic needs of people on its territory were met. This allowed the country to grow over the decades into one of the countries with the highest GNI in the world, currently ranking 12 out of 215 countries according to the World Bank . The relatively robust Swedish social welfare system has helped to put Sweden in a good position to promote human rights-based international solidarity. I was very impressed, during my visit, by the efforts and spirit of state and society in Sweden to build upon and maintain the substantial support among Swedes for human rights-based international solidarity.

Thus, in line with this long tradition of human rights-based solidarity both at the domestic and international levels, it is safe to say that the Swedish Government and the Swedish society have generally endorsed and demonstrated  committed support to the concept and practice of human rights-based international solidarity as a duty of the state and society in Sweden, as elsewhere, especially when it comes to rethinking the ways of addressing the many global challenges currently facing the world. The large consensus within Swedish society and across the political spectrum on the imperative of practising human rights-based international solidarity is commendable. 

Swedish efforts towards the advancement of human rights-based international solidarity 

Sweden has for a very long time been an outspoken defender on the international scene of principles of human rights and democracy. These remain at the heart of Swedish foreign policy as stated in a Government Communication of 2016. The country has played a leading role among nations in the promotion and protection of human rights and the advancement of gender equality. I particularly commend the strong Swedish support for the kind of multilateralism that makes human rights-based international solidarity effective. I also commend the appointments of thematic Ambassadors-at-large, including, but not limited to, one for Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law, and another for Children in Armed Conflict. I commend all of these thematic Ambassadors for the roles they have played in our world, including at the UN and with other countries. I welcome the collaborative and respectful approach adopted by some of them in consulting and including from the very beginning the persons around the world (such as children affected by armed conflict and insecurity) who would be most affected by their work.   

As part of its practice of human rights-based international solidarity aimed at the eventual elimination of poverty worldwide, Sweden’s efforts to promote and protect decent work in cooperation and solidarity with other countries and civil society organizations, is highly commendable. The creation of the multi-stakeholder partnership, known as the “Global Deal,” as well as the establishment of an Ambassador-at-Large mandated to tackle this issue, signify Sweden’s commitment to working jointly with other countries and peoples to find ways to address the serious challenges in the global labour market and enable all people to benefit from globalisation. 

Great effort has been made by the Swedish Government and by several Swedish civil society organizations, company employees, investors and funds (such as  Swedfund), to get Swedish companies to implement corporate social responsibility and human rights principles in their work abroad, most often in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. I really believe that the appointment by the Swedish Government of an Ambassador-at-Large for this issue will reinforce Sweden’s practice and model in this area. I would also like to emphasise that the conduct of human rights due diligence by Swedish companies when acting abroad should not be voluntary and that they should all work harder to integrate the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into their day-to-day operations, as has been suggested by many other UN human rights mechanisms.  

Furthermore, the efforts that have been made by all levels of Government to mainstream the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development from a human rights perspective in all Government policy areas are commendable. I encourage the Swedish authorities to strengthen their efforts with regard to the monitoring and evaluation of the implementation of Agenda 2030 in all laws, policies, regulations, plans of actions, and programmes, in order to obtain a fair and transparent assessment and review.   

International cooperation and humanitarian aid as International Solidarity

Sweden has demonstrated strong commitment to “create preconditions for better living conditions for people living in poverty and under oppression” around the world, and has been a ubiquitous voice and supporter globally on development issues and for international humanitarian operations. Impressively, Sweden sees Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) as a floor and not a ceiling.

In 2016, the current Government presented its policy for international development cooperation and humanitarian assistance, integrating the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development; the Paris Agreement on climate change as well as the then newly adopted Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. Drawn, as this Plan is, from the SDGs, I was pleased to learn that human rights, democracy and the principles of the rule of law, are holding a central place at the heart of this new policy for the expression of international solidarity via international cooperation and development.

I also welcomed the news that the Swedish Government recently adopted its new strategy for its development cooperation in the areas of human rights, democracy and the rule of law for the period of 2018–2022. In January 2017, the Government adopted an additional strategy for Sweden’s humanitarian aid via the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) for the period 2017–2020. 

Working on behalf of the Government and Parliament, SIDA is the main agency implementing Sweden’s policies and strategies for development cooperation and humanitarian assistance. Its main objective is to contribute to the reduction of poverty worldwide from a human rights based approach that has been central to all its actions. Democracy, human rights and freedom of expression, along with Environment and climate, Health, Market development, Agriculture and food security, Education, Sustainable societal development, Conflict, peace and security and Humanitarian aid are the nine areas where SIDA provides support for actions. Responsible for about half of the Swedish Aid and development budget allocated by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, SIDA works bilaterally on development and cooperation projects in more than 35 countries in all regions and in partnership and regional agreements, including through many UN agencies, European Union identities as well as through Swedish and country-based civil society organizations. 

Sweden is one of the few countries to meet and even exceed the United Nations target, as set in the Monterrey consensus, for countries to allocate 0.7% of their GNI for Official Development Assistance (ODA). Indeed, for the past years Sweden’s foreign development aid has amounted to 1% of GDP. In 2017, Sweden’s net ODA represented 1.010% of its GNI and in 2018, Sweden allocated a total of SEK 49 billion (approx. USD 5.7 billion) for its development aid budget. With regard to humanitarian aid, Sweden is one of the largest donors of un-earmarked core support to UN humanitarian entities. As an example, the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs allocated over SEK 2.6 billion (approx. USD 298 million) to several UN agencies working on humanitarian aid, and especially the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in solidarity and response to the current migration and refugees flows in Europe at the beginning of 2017. I commend Sweden for its international leadership position in remaining over the past years and up to now, one of the few countries to contribute as immensely, actively and efficiently to human rights-based international solidarity; including via its advocacy role and financial support to international cooperation and humanitarian aid. In this connection, the core support given by Sweden to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is to be commended. 

I was surprised to learn that the Swedish Government decided in 2015 to deduct from the budget usually allocated to foreign development and humanitarian aid, in-country refugees costs to respond to the massive flux of new arrivals of refugees and asylum-seekers in fall 2015.  Even though I was informed that these were exceptional measures in accordance with OECD Development Assistance Committee rules, that were kept to a maximum 30% of the Swedish foreign aid budget in 2016, I would recommend that funding for in-country refugees be separately budgeted for and kept separate as much as possible from Sweden’s foreign aid budget.  

One of major weapons exporters in the world, Sweden has recently amended its law regarding arm trade, to reinforce its intent that nations to which its arms are sold must be democratic and respect international human rights. In line with Sweden’s human rights approach to foreign relations, I recommend that a systematic monitoring and evaluation of the implementation of this law be conducted regularly to ensure that the law is effective in practice.

Gender equality, women and girls’ human rights, and international solidarity

In line with its human rights-based approach to international solidarity, Sweden has worked for many years to advance gender equality nationally, regionally and worldwide. Sweden was the first country to institute a “feminist foreign policy”, which I believe has great potential to contribute to the very important collective effort to uplift the status of women and girls around the world. Commendable efforts have been made to mainstream Gender equality in all the policies and operations, decision-making, and resource allocation, of the current Government, including with regard to Swedish international cooperation and humanitarian aid. I was pleased to learn that SIDA considers gender equality and the rights and empowerment of women and girls, as a key thematic area to be mainstreamed throughout their work. In addition to learning about the efforts of the Swedish Government to mainstream gender equality in their international solidarity work, I witnessed strong and deep-rooted national and local initiatives and plans in Malmö and in Stockholm, to ensure equal rights, non-discrimination and participation as well as access to gender-specific healthcare needs. In order to reinforce Sweden’s international leadership role and credibility in the areas of gender equality, something that would play an important role in its efforts at practising international solidarity, I would recommend that Sweden adopt promptly a national plan on sexual and reproductive health rights.

International solidarity and migration/refugees

Sweden has a long tradition of being a generally welcoming society and safe haven for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants. I was informed that a high percentage of Swedes have two parents with origins from a foreign country and that 18% of the Swedish population were born abroad. The efforts made by the Swedish Government over the decades to welcome significant numbers of refugees, and the fact that Sweden was  one of the two European nations that welcomed the bulk of the refugees who crossed into Europe in 2015, is illustrative of  Sweden’s continuous and exemplary efforts  to ensure the protection of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers. This is a good example of human rights-based international solidarity. 

Furthermore, I commend Sweden for its commitment not to use its development cooperation and foreign aid as leverage to pressure other countries to take back migrants and refugees who hail from those places. Although I have been informed that Sweden has not been spared by some of the problems associated with the current rise of populist discourses around the world, I would like to emphasise that such discourses, especially as they are directed towards refugees and migrants, tend to jeopardize considerably efforts to advance human rights based international solidarity. 

During my visit, I was pleased to hear about the many positive initiatives available upon their arrival to refugees and asylum seekers in Sweden, and the measures taken to ensure that these newcomers are better integrated into Swedish society, including through their insertion into the job market. Here are some non-exhaustive examples at the national and local levels that I consider as good practices:  

  • the introduction programme and other resources administered by the Ministry of Employment to ensure refugees and asylum-seekers have a residency permit to find employment;

  • all asylum seekers arriving in Sweden are entitled to a free health check-up upon arrival; children and young people under 18 are entitled to free healthcare and education; people above 18 have access to urgent healthcare and those registered as asylum seeker are entitled to pay only SEK 50 (approx. USD 5) for a healthcare visit; I was also very pleased to learn about the establishment of a Knowledge Centre for Migration and Health by the Skåne region that aims to help advance the cause of providing more equal and safe care to people from other countries, and that especially put the emphasis on newcomers’ mental health status, with a specific attention to those fleeing war and conflict zones, who experienced torture and ill-treatment, or who escaped an oppressive situation.

I was pleased to hear about the longstanding cooperation and partnership of Sweden with UNHCR with regard to in-country refugees and processes of resettlement and returns. However, forced returns to any country torn by war and armed conflict, where people may face the danger of continuing violence, and the high potential of retaliations for having left, are – even when based on individualised assessment – not compatible with human rights or human rights-based international solidarity. These kinds of returns should therefore never occur. In addition, efforts should be made to ease the process of family reunification for persons granted refugee status in Sweden. 

In a year’s time, Sweden will have to review the establishment of temporary and restrictive policies aimed at limiting the number of people seeking protection in the country that were put in place in July 2016. In line with Sweden’s traditional spirit of international solidarity and its commitment to human rights, I strongly advise the future Government to ensure that these measures remain temporary. At the same time, Sweden should continue to work with other EU countries to secure a fairer European Union arrangement on the issues of refugees and migrants, in order to ease its own disproportionate responsibility in this social sector.  

During my visit, I have received information concerning the actual and potential criminalization of people who act in a humanitarian way to come to the aid of refugees and asylum-seekers in need, including unaccompanied children. Such persons can be charged with human smuggling. Such acts should, as is the law in certain other countries, be covered by a humanitarian exemption.

Climate change, environment and international solidarity

When it comes to living in a more sustainable and environmental-friendly way, Sweden has always been an innovator. 

Indeed, the current Government adopted a climate policy framework in 2017 in order to comply with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and implement the Sustainable Development Goals. I was pleased to hear during my visit about the very many innovative ways, especially at the city and county levels, through which effort has been made to ensure a more sustainable society in Sweden and abroad. This is a signal contribution to international solidarity in this area. For example, as part of their environment programme running from 2017 to 2022, the Stockholm County Council has established several procurement partnerships with a sustainable development approach, especially in the areas of public transportation, healthcare and IT services. The strong participation of Malmö and Stockholm cities in European and international networks, as well as in other cooperation partnerships to promote the SDGs with regard to water (Goal 6) and life below water (Goal 14), contribute to the Swedish effort and commitment to promote a clean and sustainable environment and advocate for its protection. These are all expressions of human rights-based international solidarity or of efforts to advance it.

Throughout my visit, I found significant evidence of the work of Stockholm and Malmö cities and regions to promote and protect human rights, mainstream gender equality, implement environmental friendly solutions and create plans for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. These efforts contribute immensely to a form of human rights-based international solidarity.

Role of civil society organizations with regard to human rights based international solidarity 

I strongly believe that the role of civil society organizations and their cooperation with the authorities and other relevant stakeholders is fundamental to the advancement of human rights-based international solidarity in several thematic areas, such as migration, refugees, and climate change. I had the opportunity to hear and learn more about the amazing, innovative and efficient work undertaken by some Swedish-based NGOs and actors that contribute to the empowerment of many groups within the global population, through the establishment of development cooperation projects and programmes, where human rights principles and gender equality occupy a pride of place.

My visit to Sweden has been a productive and fruitful endeavour. The above comments are preliminary in nature and are not comprehensive in scope. A full and detailed report of the visit will be prepared and submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2019.

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1/ According to World Bank data for GNI (2016)

2/ As stated by the Riksdag (Parliament), Skr. 2016/17:60
3/ According to OECD data