Annika Ben David: Human rights and democracy must be central to Covid response

Annika Ben David: Human rights and democracy must be central to Covid response

Izvor: N1

The Swedish model of tackling the coronavirus pandemic has become a topic of discussion around the world. The Stockholm government did not opt for mass quarantine, and relied instead on what they called democratic trust in their citizens. Meanwhile, Sweden moved to launch a pan-European initiative to preserve human rights and democracy in Europe during and after the pandemic. For our series World in Times of Corona we talked to Sweden's Ambassador for Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law, Annika Ben David.

For the beginning, I have to ask you, because all the world was talking about this Swedish model of tackling the pandemics. There were pros and cons but at the moment we see the whole Europe kind of trying to facilitate the measures and after the lockdown and the biggest wave of pandemics people are trying to find their ways out of this moment before the summer. So from your point of view, you know, was it a good decision, or bad decision, or somwehere in between?

We are certainly aware that the Swedish response is discussed all over the world. I think the whole world is struggling now to manage the spread of the virus, and our response has been singled out for being lax or radical or even controversial because we have not imposed a broad general lockdown, an approach that has been taken by many other countries.

And we are known for having a strong welfare model, including public health care for everyone, we have one of the world's highest life expectancies, and some might find it difficult to reconcile this image with our approach to cintain Covid-19. But I think it's time to set the record straight when it comes to what is going on in Sweden.

Our goals and challenges are the same as everyone else. We want to save lives and protect public health and we need to flatten the curve, so that large numbers of people don't become ill at the same time. The key here I think is the strong social contract and trying to make measures as sustainable as possible. The Swedish laws on communicable diseases are mostly based on voluntary measures and individual responsibility so it is our coronavirus strategy, it builds on these principles, it's a strategy that makes sense for Sweden, but of course, we are humble enough to admit that it may make make less sense elsewhere because all societies are obviously different.

But why it works for us? The key factor is the high level of trust in Swedish society. There is an interpersonal trust but there is also trust in authorities. There is a social contract that works. So that's why the government has aimed for recommendations rather than extensive legislation.

Because we know we are in this for the long haul. We are certainly not out of it. This is not the time to slack off. We have to live under these new circumstances for a very, very, long time, so that's why it has to be a model where people can maintain a certain controlled liberty.

We have decided to keep pre-schools and schools open, so that parents who work in the health sector and parents who hold other crucial functions in society can actually go to work. We have also decided to keep businesses open, with very strict recommendations for spacing, etc, in order to keep economy flowing - so that society can sustain itself for a long period of time. Because we, as I said, we are certainly not out of it, and our Prime Minister has been very clear on Swedes needing to stick to strict recommendations for a very long time.

You've mentioned several questions or issues that are important for our discussion. Your portfolio is human rights, democracy and the rule of law. When we talk about tackling this pandemic in terms of, you know, social situation, the situation of preserving human security, and of course economy at the end, what can we as societies do to preserve the elderly in these societies because in Europe we have a trend of negative demography, there were harsh critics of Swedish model, some of them said you're sacrificing - maybe it's a too harsh word, but you know - sacrificing the elderly for the sake of the others. I would like to hear your perspective because I saw the Swedish government just announced approximately €200 million package for basically future policies and care for the elderly.

Thank you for the question, thank you for bringing that up. Because I think that the assumption that Sweden would be sacrificing one's elders as is simply an expression of disinformation. That is certainly not true. We have a universal health coverage in Sweden that pertains to absolutely everyone, and let me also say in reference to the previous question that, as I said, we are not out of the pandemic yet and we will have to wait until the end to see what strategy has been the most effective, and how many lives have been lost.

I grant you we have a challenge in Sweden with many elderly facilities having been contaminated by the coronavirus. We don't know if it comes from within, or from the healthcare workers, or from relatives visiting. We had to ban relatives visiting already in mid-March.

It was the same all around Europe, we saw this happening in Italy, in Spain, in Croatia, we had several homes for the elderly that had like their own outbreaks within.

I know that there was a story circulating in Croatia that there was a general decision to spare the elderly Covid patients from, to be put on life-saving support. This is absolutely not true. Everything is done for every patient, irrespective of age, it's only a medical decision of course, and as I said we have the same challenges as everyone, and we will have to wait to see at the end what has worked and what has not worked. And what we will learn from that in the future.

But if I may speculate on a personal basis, without scientific evidence, because it is too early to say - the fact that the spread of the virus to Europe took place in February when all Swedish schoolchildren and many many people in the workforce take a week off for outdoor activities and when many many travel, could have accelerated the spread of the virus in Sweden.

There are many of course question marks over our heads all around the world still. There is one huge question mark over Europe and its fundamental values - how do we preserve democracy and human rights in these times? Just before the pandemics you yourself and your government announced this plan, it was called Drive for Democracy because the background for this initiative that you launched was the growing concerns about threats to democracy within Europe, so when you compare where we were before the pandemics and where we are now with all the trends and the decisions that we saw in certain European countries, how do you feel, and what can we expect?

Well let me first say that this pandemic entails enormous consequences for every society all of the world. Be it in terms of health, the economy, people finding themselves in humanitarian situations, for human rights, for democracy, and the rule of law. And these consequences are often aggravated by weak health systems, by poverty, by governance, socio-economic inequality, and conflict.

So it's clear that this pandemic will have a major impact on the poorest countries, particularly on individuals who are already discriminated against and marginalised, including women and girls. So what is at stake is a health crisis that risks becoming a human rights crisis, a crisis for democracy and the principles of the rule of law.

We are, the Swedish government, extremely concerned that there are risks that efforts in response to the pandemic may have serious and far-reaching repercussions on the enjoyment of human rights. This is a risk that is imminent now in the ongoing crisis, but we must also be vigilant to see when we come out of the crisis whether norms, standards, when it comes to human rights and democracy have shifted.

We must prevent at all cost that the lasting effects will - on the international human rights system as such, and for individuals in their everyday lives - will have not altered these standards and norms. This is why I think it's important, it's key actually, that we put human rights and democracy at the heart of the Covid response. Because to curb human rights and democracy in fighting Covid-19 is to repeat the very fight against the pandemic.

So our starting point is that the emergency responses and restrictions must be strictly in line with international law, they must be necessary, and they must be non-discriminatory. This boils down to the assumption that the crisis could never, or should never, be taken as an excuse for undue restrictions of democracy and human rights.

Already before the crisis democracy was in decline globally, and respect for human rights was inadequate in many parts of the world, the principles of the rule of law were undermined and challenged, and that is why Sweden last year introduced a new focus area in Swedish foreign policy, alongside the feminist foreign policy, the Drive for Democracy.

And the backsliding of democracy on all continents is the backdrop to this. Under the Drive for Democracy we want to work with multilateral actors, with other countries, and with civil society to uphold and defend democratic institutions, democratic principles, and democratic defenders. There is empirical evidence that supports that there is this backsliding going on, also in mature democracies which is of course a very strong concern.

There was this institute in Sweden that created this so-called Pandemic Backsliding Risk Index that was presented several several weeks ago. And we also these not so nice trends I can say.

Exactly. The Swedish government relies heavily on the research that is done by the International IDEA, an inter-governmental institute for electoral research and assistance based in Stockholm. They produce a flagship report every year, on the state of global democracy. We also rely on a research institute connected to the Gothenburg University, Varieties of Democracy, that you alluded to, and there is a wealth of empirical data that supports this global trend of democracy backsliding.

So what we see now is that if we translate the Drive for Democracy onto the context of fighting Covid-19 it means that we must make sure that measures, actions to combat the pandemic, do not undermine democracy or its institutions. It's an incredibly important topic that must be at the heart of every policy making now. We think that in the aftermath of all this we will see what form of government has worked best to curb corona, but we do believe that it is possible not to infringe on democratic principles, not to undercut human rights, and still fight corona.

Annika Ben David Izvor: Annika Ben David/N1

Talking about you know what we will see in the future, we saw laws being implemented, in the case of Hungary for example, for one side, but you've mentioned the question of gender equality, which is of huge importance for the world today, we saw it is one of the priorities of the new European Commission. But also we saw the global rise of violence against women, violence in the family, during the pandemics 60 percent, WHO said, there was a global rise of this. How can we... You know, we have the Council of Europe convention, Istanbul Convention, so-called Istanbul Convention, and also Ursula von der Leyen put it as a priority for all the countries to ratify it. But to make this a meritum of one society, to say no to violence, we had a case in our capital of Zagreb, the city denied to give three of its apartments to the victims of the violence during the pandemic. So how can we put that in fabric if the gender equality is politicised, being used in populism, being used to reduce women's rights reproductive rights et cetera?

Sweden was the first in the world to wage a feminist foreign policy that has taken hold, luckily. We see in several countries, we are happy to see several countries emulating it, because that's a policy that benefits society as a whole. Not only women and girls but men and boys. And it's about women's political and economic representation.

We are now working hard to put a strong gender perspective on the corona situation and the global response, because we know that women and men, boys and girls, are affected differently from the crisis. For example, as you say, there are numerous reports about staggering levels of all violence against women during confinement. Experiences from other health crisis - such as the Ebola one for example - shows that access to sexual and reproductive health and rights decreases when funding is diverted or limited. This means less access to safe and legal abortion, less access to contraceptives. We know also that women dominate the workforce in the health sector, and that often women are sole providers for their families. So there is a strong need for a gender-mainstreamed perspective in the global response to the corona pandemic.

In societies that we lived before this, in terms of, you know, backsliding of human rights and democratic standards, we saw a lot of attacks on minorities, we saw the approach of several European countries over the question of refugees, immigration, asylum seekers. How important it is to talk in these times about their rights?

It's very important. As I said, it's critical to put human rights at the heart of the response, because if we don't do so, if we allow for discrimination, stigmatisation, to take place, that will curb the very fight against the pandemic. We have two major priorities right now, I would say. The first one is access to factual, free, independent, information so that people can seek information on how to protect themselves and to speak out about their situations. We need to fight disinformation and propaganda as we know that there are those who wish to distort information about the situation in various countries.

The second one concerns socio-economic inequalities, and this is also a priority for the Swedish government. Because we know that your chances of making it through this pandemic depends on your socio-economic situation. We have universal health coverage in Sweden. We wish that were the case for everyone in this whole world, and we don't want your individual situation determine whether you will get access to healthcare protection that your deserve.

There are several cases on elections during the pandemic, so WHO still hasn't announced the end of pandemics even though restrictions are now being lifted all around the world, but how can, still, if your practice social distancing, do you think that full democratic right of free and fair elections can be sustained, still, in, you know, these times we are living in?

I think what is important now is to uphold democratic principles and standards right now, to ensure civil and political rights, to the maximum extent. I do grant that it is possible to limit the application of human rights under international law, it has to be necessary measures, they have to be proportionate, and they have to be time-limited. What we are afraid of is that there are those who wish to use the pandemic as an excuse to further curb democracy, further undercut the rule of law or human rights. We are worried that the democratic space for civil society, for human rights defenders, for free and independent media, and for opposition parties, will shrink further during the pandemic.

So basically to hold elections, as we are expecting now in July in Croatia, you think that the states can guarantee free and fair elections, even though you know some people are still in the self-isolation or, the pandemic is basically still going on.

I would say that I don't have any technical solutions, of course, but I think that it is critical to uphold democratic principles even during a crisis time. And I am absolutely certain that societies benefit from this in the long run.

We heard reactions from Europe, from the Commission, from the European Parliament, on our need to basically sustain basic standards, which you've mentioned. But what are the models that we can basically develop for the future because the world is changing, you know, we are more and more in this digital age, you've mentioned of course disinformation campaigns et cetera but we now basically cannot exercise the right to protest, the citizens, as you said, you know, the freedom of the media can in a way be limited, you know, to get the right information et cetera, or maybe covering something up under the shadow of the pandemics or the crisis situation. So what can we do? What tools can we develop, some new things which can we use in the future?

This is precisely the concern of the Swedish government that now much of the formal human rights system is on hold. The Human Rights Council in Geneva cannot convene, and it is difficult for people to gather, to share ideas, and to make their voices heard. This is why we need to make sure that there is adequate monitoring, reporting, on what's going on during quarantine, during the pandemic, in order to prepare for a later stage when one can hold leaders to account as is in normal times.

So Sweden has initiated a range of measures. We have gathered.. The ministry for foreign affairs, and the ministry for development cooperation have initiated a series of digital meetings to raise the human rights, democracy, and rule of law dimensions of the corona crisis. The first one was with senior representatives of the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European union, and the OSCE - the organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe - to see how we can think together, act together, not to let spoilers use the vacuum now when the formal system is somewhat on hold.

This series of digital meetings will continue with civil society - the Swedish one - and then in an international setting, and then at a later stage we are going to reach out also to like-minded countries. We want to to contribute to the global conversation around these extremely important perspectives. We want to use our political dialogue to cast light on the need to not have human rights be an afterthought in the corona crisis.

This is also why we have gone through our comprehensive development cooperation engagement, to see where we can top up current support, where we can find new ways to support civil society, among others. We have now, just two days ago, the minister for development cooperation has announced new allocations for human rights defenders, so that they can continue working, continue monitoring and reporting, gathering facts, for later accountability, when that will be possible.

We have also granted new funds for democracy research, as we find this is critical, to keep track of how democracy might be challenged and eroding also during corona.

You said you're going to invite like-minded countries. We know Croatia is still, until July 1, presiding the Council of the European Union. Have your reached to Croatian authorities, do you think that Croatia can be on board, or, is it a like-minded country, even though now they say we are the honest broker as the presiding country of the Council of European Union?

We are now following up the conversation with global players, High Commissioner for Human Rights, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, etc. And we are following up through our channels throughout the Swedish foreign service. The Drive for Democracy is an effort that is mobilising our entire foreign service with all our diplomatic missions abroad.

And now we are in the phase of preparing talks with civil society, so at a later stage we will reach out to like-minded countries. And just to stress, this is certainly the time for cooperation and international solidarity. This is not something where one country can go at it alone, so we will need to keep up dialogue, and keep up cooperation with everyone, including of course our European Union partners, the European Union being a prime foreign policy arena.

We saw at the beginning of the pandemic, and still, you know, racist abuse towards people of Asian descent, but not long ago we had a huge revival of anti-Semitism in Europe, and before that we had also Islamophobia, after this age of terorrism that we used to call it, so can we as a continent start to think in this pandemics of the concept of human security, not the national security, because we talk about our foreign and security politics... That's completely my opinion, I don't think that we are innovative and creative in that part, concerning the fabric of which Europe is made of.

I think that a global crisis like the corona pandemic is one that reinforces intolerance streaks, reinforces discrimination where it appears, violence, threats, intimidation, etc. Human rights abuses and human rights violations. That's why we see that persons belongings to communities or groups that suffer marginalisation or a stigma or discrimination in normal times suffer doubly now.

So it reinforces our resolve to work for main-streaming of human rights as a societal concept. I think that Sweden has become very, let's say both politically and legislatively progressive country, but also economically extremely successful, because we have worked hard to curb discrimination.

We have adopted legislation that is free of discrimination...

Yes, and inclusive, but you still have challenges in front of you, unfortunately. As the most progressive in this field.

Absolutely we do, we do. And you mentioned anti-Semitism - our Prime Minister has invited his Croatian counterpart and and heads of state and government from 50 or so countries all over the world to a forum that now will not be able to take place as planned, but for 2021, to highlight the cancer of anti-Semitism that sill plagues our countries 75 years after the war and 20 years after of the creation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance that I happened to be the delegation leader too.

So I think that the pandemic reveals discrimination and prejudice against Jews, against Muslim populations, against migrants, against LGBTI persons, etc, etc. It is critical that during the pandemic everybody without any discrimination can access the same healthcare and the same protection from the authorities.

And I really hope, with this message for the end, we, as Europe, first of all, and we as the world, can preserve what we had in the future. Thank you so much for your insights from Sweden, and hope to see you next year maybe on the forum where are you invited the Croatian Prime Minister.

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