Has Sweden lost its way on human rights?
The Swedish government prides itself internationally on its feminist foreign policy and its leadership in sustainable business.
It is therefore surprising that, since 2014, Sweden fails to show commitment to the ongoing process to regulate business behaviour with respect to human rights protection, the UN Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights. This effort builds on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and will create an even stronger framework for the protection of human rights on an international level.
As the seventh session of the UN Binding Treaty takes place this week in Geneva, it is expected that Sweden will remain passively in the backwater of the joint EU position. This lack of active engagement is not without further consequences, however. It creates additional space for Russian and Chinese influences, among others, to water down substantial decisions. One worrisome example during the last negotiation round is the attempt to weaken LGBTQIA+ rights in the draft. Sweden, moreover, places itself out of the way of large corporations which are keen to decide what constitutes an appropriate human rights protection on their own terms.
For decades, Swedish governments have gone to extreme lengths to support corporate interests. This is manifested through Sweden’s uncritical support of trade agreements, awarding unilateral rights to corporations to bring claims against states through private, non-transparent court mechanisms. One outrageous, although in no way unique example, is the Swedish state-owned energy corporation Vattenfall. The corporation has twice utilised investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) private court mechanisms in the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) against Germany resulting, thus far, in weakened environmental protection standards for a coal plant and multi-billion euro claims for compensation from Vattenfall.
With this in mind, are democracy and public legal routes to justice, from the government's perspective, merely an obstacle to trade?
Additionally, at the same time as COP26 takes place in Glasgow (31 October-12 November), ECT negotiations will take place (9-12 November). EU countries such as France and Spain have argued for leaving the treaty since it is an obstacle to desperately-needed state action to phase out fossil fuels, and as there is little hope for reform that would bring it in line with European climate goals. The question now is whether the Swedish government will join them in taking a stance for climate justice and green energy – the government’s record thus far is not convincing.
Taken together, one might ask what the Swedish leadership on sustainable business entails. Quite frankly, the government seems more focused on outsourcing the responsibility to other countries by making a big fuss about the initiation of voluntary measures such as National Action Plans abroad, rather than showing leadership through the introduction of binding legislation on human rights and business at home. As has become disturbingly obvious through recent reports of child labour in the cocoa industry, codes of conducts are insufficient. More children are exploited in the value chains of chocolate - including the Swedish markets - now than when the programmes started.
Even John Ruggie, the architect of the most well-respected voluntary guidelines, the United Nations Guiding Principles, has repeatedly emphasised that binding regulations are needed for serious human rights protection. This is due to the current economic system and corporate structures that allow for legal loopholes between national borders.
It is, after all, the main mandate of states to protect human rights — as such, human rights must weigh heavier than shareholder dividends. It is evident that strategies centering codes of conduct support corporate branding, rather than protecting people and the environment.
The Swedish government has lost its track to protect the most excluded human rights defenders. The years of active foreign policy and international solidarity on behalf of Swedish governments are long ended, yet the government still prides itself on its reputation from the 1970s. Based on this, the passive position Sweden is taking today within the UN and international politics for human rights sits very uncomfortably.
This shameful lack of ambition on behalf of the Swedish government continues despite the 2018 recommendation of the Swedish Agency for Public Management to put in place binding measures, and despite the sharp increase in 2020 in the number of calls for legislation on human rights and business, nationally, regionally and internationally. We are witnessing a palpable determination to reassess corporate accountability whilst the Swedish government lags behind together with its illusions of leadership in “feminist” foreign policy and sustainable business.
A Swedish feminist foreign policy will only be credible once it sides with female small-scale farmers, Indigenous Peoples and human rights defenders against privileged corporations. When will Sweden again get back on track to support people and the planet before profits?
We urge the Swedish government to live up to your aspired leadership; engage constructively during this week’s Binding Treaty negotiations and side with the thousands of movements and civil society organisations walking the talk on human rights and environmental protection.
We, as Treaty Alliance Sweden, urge the Swedish government to live up to its aspired leadership. This entails stopping the heavily biased coddling of big business and caring for the rights of ordinary people, not only in commitments, but in action — at home as well as abroad.
We urge the Swedish government to live up to your aspired leadership; engage constructively during this week’s Binding Treaty negotiations and side with the thousands of movements and civil society organisations walking the talk on human rights and environmental protection. Any serious commitment – stipulated in regional or national frameworks – must be complemented with a robust UN treaty.
Louise Lindfors - Secretary General, Afrikagrupperna
Sofia Hedström - Campaign Manager, Friends of the Earth Sweden
Sanna Ström - Spokesperson Human Rights and Business, FIAN Sweden