Swedish Foreign Minister’s speech to UN Rights Council

Foreign Minister Wallström speaks at the UN Rights Council’s 40th session in Geneva, Switzerland on February 26

Thank you, Mr President, High Commissioner, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted, 70 years ago, there were only two women members of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

These were the celebrated Eleanor Roosevelt and the Indian writer and independence activist Hansa Mehta.

When the phrase “all men are brothers” was proposed, Mehta objected. She noted that this could be used by some to exclude women.

Instead, she insisted on an expression that recognised the equality of women and men, which resulted in the first article: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Everywhere and always, all humans are entitled to equal rights.

Today – in a world where democracy and the rule of law are being contested and undermined across the globe – I think it is fair to ask: what happened?

This story about Hansa Metah captures the three areas that will be the focus of my address today: firstly, democracy and its decline; secondly, women’s rights, and thirdly, the need for multilateral cooperation.

Decline of democracy, freedom of expression, religion or belief

Mr President,

For the first time in decades, more of the world’s people now live in countries with authoritarian tendencies than in countries making democratic progress.

Democracy means more than the right to vote in free and fair elections. A democratic society lets its citizens participate in policy making and political discussion. It safeguards their freedom of expression and opinion. It has a lively debate. It is socially and economically fair.

Today, researchers see a decline in all these dimensions of democracy. We can see it in our own country reports on human rights, democracy and the rule of law, which now cover 135 countries.

Strong-arm leaders are centralising political power and suppressing dissenting and minority voices. Parliamentary and judicial independence is being undermined in attempts to weaken checks and balances. Minorities and marginalised groups are being wrongfully blamed.

Human rights defenders, journalists and artists are being named enemies of the state and are suffering from threats, harassment and violence. In 2018, 321 defenders in 27 countries were killed for their work. This was the highest number ever recorded, according to data from Front Line Defenders. 53 journalists were murdered.

A number of Swedish citizens have been jailed or abused in other countries because of their opinions or beliefs. Sweden will never accept this. We continue to work for their release.

Our government has named the defence and promotion of democracy worldwide a top priority for our foreign policy.

This means that we will support democracy where ever it can grow, and be vocal when democracy is undermined.

It means standing up for the right to freedom of expression, opinion, political dissent, religion or belief.

And it means targeting the social and economic injustices that are making people lose faith in our democratic institutions.

Women’s rights

Mr President,

Secondly, as Hansa Metah pointed out, we cannot disregard half the population. Women’s rights are human rights.

Five years ago, Sweden launched its feminist foreign policy. In everything we do, we ask whether women have the same rights, representation and resources as men.

Women and girls rarely have the same rights – to schooling, to work, to marry or divorce freely. They are rarely equally represented in decision making – in government, parliaments or businesses. And they rarely have access to the same resources, be they medical care, education or a fair share of state budgets.

I specifically want to mention women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. Unsafe abortions, birth complications or harmful practices such as female genital mutilation can lead to death. We must strengthen access to comprehensive sex education for all. And we must combat child, early and forced marriages.

Multilateral cooperation

Mr President,

Thirdly, I want to raise the issue of multilateral cooperation.

It is essential that we defend multilateral institutions that monitor and report on human rights issues.

Sweden strongly supports this Council as the premier body for human rights issues that draws attention to serious human rights violations and protects and strengthens human rights. We will continue to defend the independence of the human rights system and urge all states to fully cooperate with the Office of the High Commissioner and the mandate holders.

Human rights are a central element of international law. They are legal obligations and commitments undertaken by states. We must constantly counteract all attempts to weaken and relativise human rights and their universality. Human rights are not something to pick and choose from. Religion, customs or traditions are not excuses to undermine these rights.

We do not choose to promote democracy and human rights out of national self-interest, we do it because every individual should be entitled to govern their own future.

Mr President,

Democracy, women’s rights and respect for the multilateral order are indeed being challenged.

The trends are visible in many countries that are represented here today. 

Let me encourage you to turn this development around.

Let us not fall into distrust and polarisation. Let us embrace diversity, and address these urgent matters together. Let us be self-confident enough to accept dissent and opposition. Let us unite in defence for democracy and human rights.

That is our responsibility – to present and future generations.

Thank you.