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Holder hails Sweden as human rights 'champion'

Published: 04 Feb 2014 18:31 GMT+01:00

"I have repeatedly seen the significant, positive difference that Swedish engagement brings to the international stage," Holder told the gathered audience of politicians, dignitaries, and representatives from various human rights groups in Sweden.

Holder, the first African American Attorney General of the United States, went on to praise Sweden for passing the Discrimination Act of 2008 and for being a leader in recognizing same-sex marriages.

"By becoming the seventh nation in the world to extend the right to marry to gay and lesbian couples, you've stabilized families and expanded individual liberty," he said.

He went on to reference Sweden's tradition of being a "safe haven" for refugees dating back to the granting of asylum to Jewish migrants fleeing persecution during World War II.

"You've shown that, although it is seldom easy, it is both noble and, more importantly, right to fight the short term comfort of indifference; to welcome those who flee from persecution; and to shelter those who struggle to survive in the lands where they were born," he said.

The speech, billed as a talk about confronting contemporary civil rights challenges, comes as Holder faces questions back home and from leaders in Europe about the surveillance methods of the National Security Agency (NSA).

The issue came up once again during questions following the Tuesday's speech in Stockholm, when Holder was asked whether individual privacy protections need to be strengthened following revelations about the extent of the NSA's data gathering activities.

"The activities undertaken by the NSA are legal under American law," Holder pointed out.

"But that doesn't answer the question. Simply because we have the technical ability to do certain things and the legal ability to carry out certain surveillance activities, the question we need to ask ourselves is whether or not this is something that we should do."

He added that he, along with the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, is now engaged in an effort to review US surveillance methods.

"It's with the understanding that we want to keep the American people safe; we want to help keep the citizens of our allies safe," said Holder, adding he hopes to "strike a balance".

Holder was in Sweden for a brief visit before heading on to Poland. In addition to giving his speech, the attorney general also met with Sweden's Justice Minister Beatrice Ask. According to a US embassy spokesman, the two discussed "US-Swedish cooperation in global law enforcement issues" but refrained from providing any more specifics.

Holder also met with Swedish Prosecutor General Anders Perklev, an embassy source confirmed for the TT news agency. Perklev had come under pressure from legal experts in Sweden to take action to resolve the ongoing case of whistle blower Julian Assange.

A recurring theme of the speech was the importance of protecting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people around the world, with Holder quoting remarks made by Barack Obama during his September 2013 visit to Sweden in which the US president noted that "our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters must be treated equally under the law".

Holder called the fight for LGBT equality one of the "defining civil rights challenges of our time", before praising the US embassy in Stockholm for proclaiming during last summer's annual Pride festival that the embassy was "anti-anti-gay".

Among those who attended the speech was author and television presenter Mark Levengood, a US-born Finn who moved to Sweden when he was 19 and who is active in Sweden's LGBT movement.

"I thought it was a brave speech," he told The Local following the event.

"We have Russia as a close neighbour with all sorts of terrible things happening to the LGBT community there, so it's great to hear a US attorney general come with such tough words."

Levengood was particular moved by Holder's reference to Obama's comments on the importance of LGBT rights.

"It was a huge moment for me," he said.

David Landes (david.landes@thelocal.se)

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