Ambassador Staffan Herrström's speech

The 8th Isaan Human Rights Festival,  Mahasarakham University, 24 November 2017.

I am a citizen of Sweden – a country in Northern Europe that has enjoyed peace for 200 years.  Ten million inhabitants, 16% of them born outside Sweden. One of 28 members in the European Union.

Last time I spoke at this prestigious university I mentioned that our democracy has evolved gradually over a long time. The same goes for our human rights progress. A system of local self-governance was put in place 150 years ago. The full right to vote for both women and men was enacted around 100 years ago. Now 45% of the MPs and 50% of all the ministers are women. As it should have been long ago. 

I am saying this to put our experiences into context.

But I am not meaning that it today must take that long to develop democracy. On the contrary, today the preconditions are different and better. The world has changed. We have agreed global norms about human rights within the UN. We have the internet. We can learn from each other.

One first key lesson learned from our perspective is the fundamental importance of freedom of expression. Democracy isn’t only about elections.

It is also about rule of law. Independent civilian courts. A transparent, professional civil service. A free press. The right to scrutinize and criticize people in power. The right to debate ideas, proposals, and draft laws. That right is crucial to make sure that flaws are detected and mismanagement is exposed – but also to create an arena for compromise and consensus.

Our democracy has strongly benefitted from that kind of approach: free debate built also on the respect for the views of others. And a readiness to seek compromises, agreed solutions, beyond all dividing borders – between employers and trade unions, between government and opposition, between the political left and right.

Democracy is also about equality between me and women. Gender equality is a cornerstone of Sweden’s human rights policy. It helps to make sure that every person, regardless of their gender or sexual identity, will enjoy the same rights and opportunities as others do.

Respect – that’s a fundamental dimension of human rights. It’s not a European thing or an American thing. Human Rights are universal. Allowing free debates, enabling the free press, and promoting gender equality is part of what any government should do to ensure that citizens are generally respected and not mistreated or marginalized.

Make no mistake: freedom of expression is where it all starts.

And freedom of the press and freedom of expression are intertwined. You can’t have one without the other.

December 2nd last year Sweden and Finland celebrated the 250th Anniversary of our first Freedom of the Press Act, which makes it the oldest legal instrument of its kind. We could do it jointly because we were the same country at the time.

Our Freedom of the Press Act in 1766 was a starting point, abolishing censorship, guaranteeing the freedom of establishment for the media and providing for public access to information.  In recent years, Sweden has also increased efforts to ensure that human rights are respected online in the same way as they are offline.

I have discussed each of these elements at length already in my past speech here, so I will not get into too many details here. But if anyone has questions, I am happy to answer them during the Q&A.

But let me emphasize one of them:

The right to information is extremely wide, particularly through the principle of public access to official documents. Everyone has the right to read official documents. You don’t have to state your name and any reason for your request. Exceptions can be made only with reference to very specific articles in the law.

And remember, with unrestricted access to public documents and information, citizens become better informed, and that helps them in the exercise of their freedom of expression on government policy and spending

Let me give you an example: I spent nine years as Regional Director for Eastern Europe at our development agency, Sida. Every day, I knew that the way we managed aid money from Swedish taxpayers could be scrutinized through the files in our archive. We had visits from such journalists quite regularly. One of them was often sitting hours and hours with our documents. And from time to time he published critical news about us, based on the documents that we had provided him with. I was held accountable.

A second lesson: If one half of the population is dominating the other half, then rights are abused and capacity wasted.

Gender inequality is a story about power relations – now clearly tilted in favour of men. This is a structural issue all over the world. It is clearly visible among decision makers in politics and business, but the tilted power relations go deeper – into the households, into the uneven division of labour among women and men in families, into the minds of individuals. It is wrong. It is changing, but often very slowly.

It changes more rapidly when women gradually strengthen their financial independence, when they gain their sexual and reproductive rights including the right to education, to contraceptives and to safe abortions, when women organize to struggle for their rights and when men start to engage around the same issues. The HeForShe campaign we are engaged in is based on this conviction. Men need to speak up for gender equality. It is not only a battle for women.

We have seen that happen in Sweden. The role of the women’s movement within the civil society as well as in politics cannot be overestimated when explaining that development in my country. It is very clear in the struggle for affordable, high quality child care available to all families. But the observation is valid also in general. Women need to organize to make change happen.

Finally, I am aware of the ongoing debate about human rights and natural resource management in Isaan.

Sweden is the sixth country in the world to adopt a national action plan for business and human rights. The Swedish Government’s action plan for business and human rights was drawn up in dialogue with businesses, trade union organizations, government agencies and civil society. I know that Thailand now is developing an action plan of a similar kind as a result of our recommendation in the UN UPR last year. Good instrument that I hope will be widely used all over the world.