“It could have been me”: talking human rights with the Swedish ambassador

UBON RATCHATHANI – At the 10th Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival at Ubon Ratchathani University, the Swedish ambassador to Thailand, Lao PDR, and Myanmar, Staffan Herrström, joined Isaan community representatives, academics, activists, and students for an exchange about the human rights issues affecting the region and Thailand.

Saowanee T. Alexander from the university’s Faculty of Liberal Arts, interviewed Herrström on stage about Sweden’s experience and the global struggle to uphold human rights.

Saowanee Alexander: Please give us an impression of Swedish people’s views on human rights.

Staffan Herrström: First of all, I think freedom of expression is something that, if you would ask a Swede what human rights are all about, many people would first and foremost come to think of freedom of expression. That’s because it’s so fundamental to our society and to democracy all over the world. It’s also something that was established quite early in our society. In Sweden, we celebrated 250 years of our first law on press freedom a couple of years ago.

Secondly, I realize that there has been a lot of discussion on participation as a fundamental element of democracy. In our history, the establishment of local democracy to replace the centralized government that dominated our country over two centuries ago. The right for people to govern their own municipalities became a fundamental part of our country.

Women’s rights and LGBTI rights, I have seen how those have developed rapidly just in my lifetime. If you would check with a Swede, quite a few would think that women still haven’t gained total gender equality. But rapid and profound change in gender equality rights has been achieved in the past decade.

The final example: when Swedes and other Europeans act as customers, they pay so much more attention to human rights and sustainability. That also influences things in other countries. Swedes have become much more aware of making informed consumer choices in favor of human rights.

Swedish Ambassador Staffan Herrström: “All the courageous human rights defenders that I’ve met in so many different countries–in Tanzania, Poland, Vietnam, and Lao PDR. I’m deeply moved by their dedication, energy, and courage.” Photo by Adithep Chanthet

Saowanee: Have you ever seen anywhere in the world any creative ways of defending human rights without getting into trouble?

Herrström: It is perhaps natural that, when I think of how to address human rights as a diplomat, I try to do so without getting into a conflict with the government, or the various groups in the countries I am stationed in. Certainly, this is not so creative, but we need to repeat always that we are dealing not with something Swedish, but with global norms. This is something that we all signed up for in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I always try to refer to our experiences in Sweden, like the example from 250 years ago that I mentioned. Our first law on press freedom has survived to this day, including a very radical law on the public’s right to information. Take our tax office, or the prime minister’s office–all documents in these offices are available for public review unless they fit within an extremely rare case for exemption.

I do not go around telling other countries that they have to copy what we do in Sweden, but they can feel free to be inspired by these examples.

And then finally, I think of how to find entry points for human rights that cannot be seen in any way as a conflict. I think business and human rights is a good example because it takes you into a discussion about land rights, the environment, and labor rights. It doesn’t just involve governments, but also businesses, consumers, and civil society.

This [raising a book for the audience to see] is something that was submitted to the United Nations as a set of recommendations for Thailand. It is a national human rights and business plan. You can say to the government, “OK, you have this plan. Now what is being done?”

Saowanee: As a well-travelled person, having seen different cultural practices, what surprised you the most in the struggle for human rights?

Herrström: One positive surprise: all the courageous human rights defenders that I’ve met in so many different countries: in Tanzania, Poland, Vietnam, and Lao PDR. I’m deeply moved by their dedication, energy, and courage, their never giving up even under very difficult circumstances. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but I have been surprised, and I feel very humble in the presence of these people. The world needs more people of this type.

One negative surprise: What I’ve seen, what we’ve all seen in recent times, is the trend towards shrinking spaces in civil society. More governments increasingly act in an authoritarian way to silence critics. It is depressing because many of us thought, at least in the 1990s, that the world was moving decisively towards more democracy and human rights being respected. It’s sad, but it’s also an inspiration for us to work even harder to ensure that human rights are respected.

Addressing the audience in their (mostly) native Isaan-Lao, moderator Saowanee Alexander translated and explained the points made by the ambassador. Photo by Adithep Chanthet

Saowanee: What is the most important skill or quality for someone to have to realize the importance of human rights?

Herrström: I’ve thought of a couple, but probably the most important characteristic is empathy or compassion. Meaning the ability to put yourself in the position of others. Meaning that you stop and think, “it could have been me,” that is the stateless child. It could have been me that has been put in jail and is now incommunicado. It could have been me that has been silenced for voicing my concerns over some injustice or violation that I am witnessing.

Then in combination to that, respect, and the ability and willingness to listen to others. Not being absorbed by “me” or “us,” but to pay attention to “you,” others. I’ve done that here. I’ve tried to listen and learn when I come to the human rights fest, and it has opened my mind to many new perspectives.

Read our coverage of the 10th Annual Isaan Human Rights Festival

Isaan human rights defenders between fight or flight

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