Sweden versus social and economic human rights … what gives?

by Rhodri C. Williams

I think it is fair to say that most of us non-Swedes view Sweden as an incredibly seductive place. Mind you, I refer not so much to sheer pulchritude (though any readers out there who think Swedes are past the beauty myth should check out this nonsense) as to social policy. In American terms, right-wingers view Sweden’s allure as dangerous and misleading, with wretched proletarian drones somehow managing to masquerade, year after year, as happy, well adjusted social democrats. Left-wingers, by contrast, drool unabashedly.

And what’s not to like, one might ask? Look around and you will observe a generous and well-funded welfare state balanced by privatization in all kinds of unexpected places, impressive gender equality, rule of law, one of Europe’s more frivolous right wing populist parties, the ability to power through global economic meltdowns without even getting your ponytail mussed, and social capital to burn.

Sweden also occupies a special place in the human rights pantheon. If Americans assume that their human rights record is beyond question because they wrote them, Swedes do the same because they embody them. Where other countries fuss endlessly over balancing public interests and individual rights, Swedes often seem to assume they are the same thing.  Swedes love human rights. At least, fifty percent of human rights. Curiously, in a country shaped by the labor movement, infatuated with solidarity and social justice, and punching well above its weight in development cooperation, economic and social rights seem not to be a polite topic for dinnertime conversation.

This realization has dawned on me gradually during my time here, but I was recently given a reminder by a proposal related to ‘grading’ countries on their human rights performance published in a leading Swedish newspaper (Dagens Nyheter) by a leading Swedish jurist (and former Bosnia colleague, Krister Thelin). My proposal to respond directly to Krister’s article was turned down by the DN editors on the unreassuring grounds of “insufficient space, among other things” (it seems that I have yet to stamp my authority on the world of Swedish punditry). Happily though, this gives me the opportunity to finally blog a bit more on local issues of relevance to TN.

All this by way of announcing two forthcoming posts on ‘Sweden versus social and economic human rights’, the first responding to Krister’s grading system proposal and the second focusing on Sweden’s approach to the right to water. Both are indicative of an apparent unease with this category of rights in a country that has absolutely nothing to lose from embracing them.  Sweden probably outperforms most other countries in the world in implementing these rights in practice, but eschews them in principle. Is it a question of local political culture, a hangover from the Cold War, both or neither? And what broader significance might it have in a world where social and economic justice claims remain both burningly relevant and persistently controversial? All this and more to come. Hej så länge!

Part 1: Benchmarking human rights (o9 September 2011)

Part 2: The right to water (15 September 2011)

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4 responses to “Sweden versus social and economic human rights … what gives?

  1. Pingback: Funderingar om svenska inställningar till SEK-rättigheter. Gästinlägg av Rhodri C. Williams « Juridikbloggen

  2. Pingback: A roundup of international law debates | TerraNullius

  3. Pingback: TN turns two! | TerraNullius

  4. Pingback: Immeasurably important? The development discourse eyes the rule of law | TerraNullius

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