By Ms Margot WALLSTRÖM, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sweden
Launched in 1997 by Sweden and France, the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Informal Seminar on Human Rights has become one of the longest lasting components of ASEM Tangible Cooperation. Co-organised with the Philippines, the 15th edition of the seminar recently took place in Montreux, Switzerland, on the theme of “Human Rights and Trafficking in Persons”.
The very 1st ASEM Informal Seminar on Human Rights was held at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute at the University of Lund in southern Sweden. The theme of that inaugural seminar was “Human Rights and the Rule of Law: Administration of Justice”.
Back in 1997, the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights were fresh in the minds of the participants. It seemed that the road was open for an ever stronger focus on how human rights and the rule of law could be improved all over the world.
And much has indeed generally improved in the world since then. More countries have formally adopted democracy. The total number of executions worldwide has declined. Women increasingly participate in decision-making. More children go to school and people have access to better medical care. The number of people living in absolute poverty is decreasing. These are major steps forward.
But looking around at this particular juncture, the world has again become more unpredictable and less secure. In 2015, for the ninth consecutive year, several countries have again experienced a deterioration of democracy and human rights. Authoritarian and repressive regimes are gaining influence, both over their own citizens and worldwide. Terrorist groups commit atrocities in areas devoid of civilisation. Democratic space is shrinking. The possibilities for civil society to contribute to better development are being reduced, freedom of expression is being curtailed and universal rights are being questioned.
We need to continue to try to broaden democratic space. As human rights are being challenged, voices of freedom silenced by imprisonment and the rule of law flagrantly flouted and obstructed, we need to work even more diligently to defend freedom of expression and ensure the means for civil society to exist and work. Right now, disinformation and propaganda have put an entire generation at risk of being unable to form their own views about society and the world around them.
The rule of law is essential to fight corruption. However, corruption is eating into and undermining the rule of law. The consequences are serious when holding a public office becomes a means of obtaining illicit material gains. The ability of societies to carry out political intentions is weakened. Corruption also leads to transnational crime and reduces our security.
In order to live up to the rule of law and true democracy, it is essential that women and girls are able to enjoy their human rights. The involvement of women is imperative to ensure peace and security. Societies with gender balance run less risk of violence and conflict. For these reasons, Sweden now has a feminist foreign policy. We believe that the empowerment of women and girls is a prerequisite for an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable world.
Much remains to be done when it comes to strengthening economic and social rights. The global goals established in the new 2030 Agenda for Development by all members of the United Nations are great steps forward. Implementing the 2030 Agenda will be crucial to fulfilling many of these rights.
In this context, both states and private sector companies have responsibilities regarding decent working conditions and the right to organise in labour unions. People’s voices need to be heard in relation to the distribution of land resources and agricultural land.
Establishing and supporting fora where people from different countries and continents can meet and freely discuss issues is vital to our ability to work towards a better understanding of all aspects of human rights. The Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) provides important platforms that enable such free-flowing discussions.
The ASEM Informal Seminar on Human Rights will continue to be a forum where governments, academia and civil society can meet and discuss issues of common concern to all of mankind. Later this year, China will host the seminar on the theme of Human Rights and Persons with Disabilities. We look forward to interesting and in-depth discussions on this very timely topic which is of great concern to all of us.
Countering all forms of discrimination and violence based on ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability is vital. We can now see that continued discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons remains one of the great challenges of our time and needs to be addressed – perhaps in a future ASEM Seminar on Human Rights.
This article is part of the ASEM 20th Anniversary Book on “20 Years of Asia-Europe Relations”. The publication is a collection of articles by leaders and experts from Asia and Europe on the past, present and future of ASEM. Selected articles from this collection will be compiled and published as a book by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), which will be distributed at the11th Asia-Europe Meeting Summit (ASEM11) in July 2016 in Mongolia.