The new US President Donald Trump is expected to make human rights less of a priority. This situation requires the EU to advance its position as a global human rights defender, and Sweden must work for that to become reality. With Sweden on the UN Security Council, it’s an excellent opportunity for the government to show that it is serious about human rights being a security issue.
Trump has both during his campaign and in the months after the election made a number of statements which suggest that the US will protect human rights to a lesser degree than before. These signals are a cause for concern for human rights defenders and for our colleagues who are fighting against governments who systematically violate civil and political rights. Forces hostile to human rights across the world are rubbing their hands together.
A relevant example is a statement from Szilard Nemeth, a vice president of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, regarding organizations which receive support from the businessman George Soros:
“These organizations must be pushed back with all means possible, they must be thrown out. And now I believe that the international conditions are right with the election of the new (US) president.”
Soros’ organization Open Society Foundations is a major financer of human rights and democracy work around the world.
The American state has for a long time been responsible for serious human rights breaches, like the prison in Guantánamo for example, but it has also at the same time been a strong voice for human rights in many parts of the world. Human rights defenders in countries ruled by dictatorships have testified how pressure from American representatives had a great significance in different human rights questions, and that the USA’s criticism has had a slowing effect on oppression. The new US administration will likely not give human rights defenders the same support as before.
In that situation the EU needs to step forward and take a greater responsibility for protecting global human rights. The EU guidelines on human rights defenders give EU missions and member state embassies broad powers to protect vulnerable human rights defenders. The application of these guidelines is today far from satisfactory. Sweden should require that all institutions which have a mandate to implement the guidelines are also required to do so. All EU missions and embassies should have a person who is expressly responsible for the guidelines being implemented.
The EU must also become consistent in its criticism of oppressive regimes. The EU has in recent years made excessive political concessions, like for example in its relationship with Belarus, where the EU introduced a number of sanctions on the grounds of human rights violations after the presidential election in 2010, then lifted them permanently in 2016. That’s despite no real changes taking place.
Another example is the EU’s new agreement with the government in Cuba, which neither includes a demand for the democratisation of the Cuban political system, or for the respect of human rights. The USA and EU’s improved relationships with the Cuban government in recent years has meant that their open criticism of repression has reduced, which in turn has led to increased oppression of Cuban human rights defenders, and to many of them giving up their work and leaving the country.
In Russia, authorities have driven an aggressive campaign against critics of the government, intensifying since 2012. At the same time, the EU’s collective support for human rights organizations in the country has been almost non-existent. Sweden is today the biggest donor to human rights work in Russia, with around 57 million kronor ($6.43 million) in 2015, followed by the UK with around 10 million kronor ($1.12 million). That’s compared to Georgia, which received 72 million kronor ($8.12 million) funding from Sweden in 2015 for work involving “governance, democracy, human rights and equality”. Georgia has around four million inhabitants, Russia has 143 million.
An argument often put forward by donors is that support is reeled in so as to not put the recipients at risk. But the experience from Civil Rights Defenders’ daily contact with Russian human rights defenders shows this to be completely wrong – Russian dissidents want support and are ready to take risks.
Sweden has an important role to play here as a member of the EU. In the national security strategy presented by Stefan Löfven during the People and Defence conference two weeks ago, a clear link between security and human rights was made. The government wrote that, among other things:
“Democracy, human rights, economic and social development are the best grounds for both human security and intergovernmental security.”
That’s a conclusion Civil Rights Defenders shares. The greatest guarantee for Sweden’s security is that Russia and other countries which border the EU respect human rights and are led democratically. The same applies in other parts of the world. We therefore look forward to the government making its rhetoric reality, and giving as great a level of support to human rights in its policies as in its analysis. That applies both with respect to human rights within the EU, not least when it comes to migrants, and to foreign policy, both direct and via the EU.
In a situation where the US ambitions in the human rights area reduces, Sweden needs to both directly and via the EU:
- Openly criticise governments responsible for human rights breaches in the UN Security Council, and not reserve the criticism for separate human rights conversations.
- Require that all EU missions and all representatives of EU Member States are liable to implement the EU’s guidelines on human rights defenders.
- Require that the EU as a whole increases its economic support of Russian human rights organizations.
- Deploy clear and measurable demands for the improvement of human rights in conversations about cooperation with non-democratic countries.