Sweden has earned an international reputation as a country where human rights law is respected. However, serious flaws exist affecting ethnic and sexual minorities, persons with disabilities, women and the elderly who are often exposed to discrimination and other human rights abuses.
There are also other human rights issues that affect Sweden such as the increasing police violence, violations of privacy, ethnic profiling, deficiencies in asylum law and crimes against the fundamental rights of Roma and Sami coupled with the increasing prevalence of hate crimes within Swedish society. These are the main areas of focus for Civil Rights Defenders and will outlined in greater detail below.
Details have emerged in recent years demonstrating how Sweden has been heavily involved in telecommunications surveillance. There is a lack of effective protection of individual rights coupled with substandard mechanisms for transparency and accountability. Information from, among others, the whistle-blower Edward Snowden has shown that the Swedish Authority Defence Radio Establishment (FRA) has worked closely with its counterparts in the USA and UK. It has emerged that the FRA both engages in active signals intelligence but also that it shares large amounts of unprocessed raw data with American and British intelligence services. These revelations stand in direct contrast to previous assurances given by the FRA and the Swedish government.
The legislation that governs FRA’s activities limits the agency’s ability both to monitor people in Sweden and to participate in joint international operations. But the law regulating the FRA is vague and equipped with several exceptions that are difficult to interpret. The Defence Intelligence Court is supposed to guarantee that the legislation is complied with and must grant formal approval to any signal intelligence activities. The State Inspection for Defence Intelligence (SIUN) is also charged with overseeing the activities of the FRA. However, these control mechanisms are insufficient. An EU report published in November 2013 found that the national regulatory mechanisms in Sweden both lack independence and ability to effectively review and monitor compliance with the law. Given that FRA’s, the Court and SIUN’s activities and decisions are confidential, it is impossible to scrutinise how their supervision works. For the same reason it is not possible to make any independent review of the FRA in order to assess how the law is applied in practice and to what extent people in Sweden are subjected to surveillance.
Police use of firearms
Death as a result of police intervention has increased in Sweden. Throughout 2013 and the first few months of 2014, six people were shot dead by the police, compared with the previous ten years where no more than one person per year died as a consequence of police actions. Nearly half of all those who died in police shootings since 1990 suffered from mental illness. Investigations into police use of deadly force has so far, except for one pending case, been closed off with the findings stating that the police officers in question acted in self-defence.
Since 2002 Swedish police have used expanding bullets (also known as dumdum bullets), as ammunition. The use of this ammunition has been banned from armed conflict since 1899 as it is considered to lead to unjustifiable suffering. Self-defence is regularly invoked when the police are involved, and the regulation of the police use of firearms is out-dated and difficult to apply. Investigations into the police use of force is not independent but carried out by an internal investigative body governed by the National Police. Furthermore, the police have no special expertise or training in dealing with people who suffer with mental illness. The government to date has not demonstrated its willingness to reform procedures concerning the police use of firearms.
The right to be free from discrimination is a fundamental principle of human rights law and a cornerstone in all key human rights instruments. The Swedish Discrimination Act of 2009 prohibits discrimination in a wide range of areas and provides opportunities for those affected by discrimination to claim redress. But despite this strong legal protection, numerous reports have demonstrated that the application of the law in many cases is flawed. Roma, Muslims, African Swedes and people with physical and mental disabilities continue to face systematic discrimination in many areas of society. Gender discrimination and discrimination against LGBT people is also common.
According to the Equality Ombudsman’s (DO’s) annual report for 2013, 1,827 complaints of discrimination were received by the agency. The majority of complaints concerned reports of discrimination on grounds of ethnicity, disability and gender. While these reports apply to discrimination in most areas of society, for discrimination on the basis of gender and ethnicity the majority of complaints concern employment discrimination. When it comes to ethnicity, a large proportion of the complaints received regarding discrimination concerns job recruitment. Although complaints are generally evenly distributed between the sexes, in the workplace there is a clear over-representation of women, in particularly with regard to sexual harassment. In education, most complaints relate to discrimination based on disability or ethnicity and sexual harassment. The number of resolved complaints that are dealt with by DO is generally low and redress to the victims is rare. In 2013, merely 17 cases made it to court—which is a considerable decrease compared to the previous year—and only seven settlements were reached (compared with 27 in 2012). In 2013, 887 cases were closed after DO determined not even to open an investigation, compared with 379 cases in 2012. At the same time DO has proven unable or unwilling to use the large number of entries that do not lead to legal processes in order to map structures of discrimination and engage in preventive work, strengthening the public perception that it is not worthwhile to report abusive treatment.
The right to asylum
Sweden has been a pioneer in its generous application of refugee law and has earned an international reputation in this regard. However, there are inherent problems with the Swedish asylum process as well as Sweden’s interpretation of the UN Refugee Convention. It is very difficult for European citizens to get asylum, regardless of the individual level of persecution. This applies to EU citizens—such as Roma from countries in Eastern Europe where widespread oppression of the Roma population prevails—but also Roma from non-EU countries such as Serbia and Kosovo. Swedish authorities have repeatedly ruled that widespread discrimination does not qualify as “persecution” and therefore does not constitute grounds for asylum. This is an interpretation that runs contrary to international law.
The grounds for asylum of women and LGBTQ persons must also be assessed more thoroughly. Women who have been subjected to rape or domestic violence often have difficulties to present the reasons for their claims during the assessment and do not receive adequate support during the process. Persecution on the grounds of sex which expresses itself in violence by private actors can constitute grounds for asylum but asylum officers handling such cases often lack the skills to understand the complexity of the situation of women. A critical feature of both Swedish and international asylum law is that every single person should be evaluated individually. When relevant migration authorities today investigate a family’s asylum claim generally they base their decisions on the man’s experiences. The result is that the remaining family members’ own reasons are often not taken into account. Women and children’s specific reasons are rarely discussed. Similarly, the threat to LGBTQ people seeking refuge in Sweden from countries where they risk abusive treatment if their orientation is revealed is often misinterpreted by administrators and policy makers. Critical for a good handling of asylum cases is updated and relevant land information from independent sources as well as sufficient time to assess each case, but the Swedish asylum process is flawed in both regards.
The situation for Roma
The UN Treaty Monitoring Bodies have repeatedly raised concerns regarding the situation for human rights of the Roma in Sweden. Most recently the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concerns that Roma are subjected to structural discrimination and stigmatisation in Sweden in the fields of employment, education and housing. The UN Committee against Torture has made similar assertions. According to a state report published in 2010 entitled “Roma Rights: A Strategy for Roma in Sweden” as many as 90 per cent of Roma adults may be unemployed, the proportion of Roma children who do not finish their schooling is far higher than that of children from other groups, and up to 30 per cent of all Roma may have experienced discrimination in their access to housing. While it has been demonstrated that Roma in Sweden have been discriminated against in every conceivable walk of life and are often subjected to hate crimes, government measures to overcome prejudice and deal with redress is considered substandard. There are also a large number of unrecorded violations against Roma in Sweden as a result of the historical abuse that the group has been subjected to, which has led to a lack of confidence in the police and the judiciary. Roma who have experienced abuse often choose to refrain from reporting violations.
In the autumn 2013 a story broke in the media about the police in Skåne that had established a register of over 4700 people, mainly of Roma origin. Around a quarter were found to be children under the aged of 15, about 220 people were deceased, and a large number of people were living outside of Skåne. In cases where the police have the mandate to process personal data there must be a clear purpose of the registration connected to a documented need for the register, such as combating crime. Such a need was lacking in this case. To register a person only based on his or her ethnicity is prohibited by law.
The Security and Integrity Board (SIN) concluded after an investigation that the register was illegal in many ways, but did not specifically state that it was based solely on ethnicity. The Chancellor of Justice (JK) in an historical decision found that all persons in the register were entitled to damages for the violations they suffered. The amount of compensation was low, however (merely 5,000 SEK/person) and it is problematic that JK only based her decision on the illegality identified by SIN rather than assessing the alleged ethnic discrimination. To date, no one has been held accountable for the Roma registration.
Civil Rights Defenders is currently preparing to sue the state for the discrimination and ethnic profiling we claim that the register constitutes.
The situation for the Sami
The Swedish Minerals Act has been criticised by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples because the law does not respect Sami special interests and rights. Human rights experts argue that the Swedish law and its application run contrary to UN human rights conventions and the ILO Convention no 169 in regard to Sami self-determination and the Sami’s right to own and possess the land they traditionally occupy. The rights of indigenous peoples to approve or veto the use of natural resources within their traditional territories is one of the key principles of international indigenous rights. Furthermore, the realisation of Sami cultural and linguistic rights, strongly connected with their land rights, is a central obligation of states under core human rights conventions.
In the autumn of 2013 the issue was brought to the fore in connection with mining exploitation in Gállok outside of Jokkmokk in Norrbotten, when the police drove off Sami representatives from their traditional areas to make way for the mining companies. In Rönnbäck in Västerbotten, the government has granted concession to a foreign company to establish a large nickel mine on land traditionally used by the Sami. When these concessions are awarded to foreign companies only a small part of the tax revenue go to Sweden, which makes the exploitation hard to understand even from a socio-economic point of view. The project has been reported to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for discrimination against the Sami and violation of their land rights. The Committee has expressed support for the claim and has urged Sweden to halt all exploitation in Rönnbäck until the Committee’s issues its decision.
According to Sweden’s new mineral strategy, the number of mines in Sweden is set to double by 2020 and triple by 2030 as the government embarks on making Sweden “the world’s leading mining nation.” In this process, Sami representatives claim that they are routinely silenced and marginalised.
The incidence of hate crimes in Sweden is increasing and only rarely is the perpetrator of hate crimes brought to justice and the victim given redress. According to the Crime Prevention Board (BRÅ) only 3% of all hate crimes committed in 2012 had led to legal action by April 2014. Afro-phobic hate crimes are by far the most common in Sweden. Hate crimes against the Roma appear to be on the increase but only approximately 1% of these lead to prosecution.