Sweden must step up efforts to fight systemic racism, urge UN experts

Swedish police ‘should focus on strategies to restore their trust among the communities they serve,’ says UN expert.

Sweden must step up efforts to fight systemic racism, urge UN experts

A United Nations Human Rights Council-appointed group of independent experts urged Sweden to step up efforts to fight systemic racism and focus on strategies to restore trust between the police and minority groups.

The experts on advancing racial justice and equality -- Tracie Keesee, Yvonne Mokgoro and Juan Mendez -- held meetings and conducted interviews in Stockholm, Malmo and Lund, where they collected information on tackling racial discrimination, combatting systemic and structural racism, “excessive use of force” and other human rights violations by law enforcement and the criminal justice system against communities of color.

During the five-day visit, the members of the United Nations International Expert Mechanism met representatives from the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Employment, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Council for Crime Prevention, the Offices of the Parliamentary Ombudsman and Equality Ombudsman and members of the Swedish Police Authority, Prison and Probate Services.

The Mechanism also met with members of the Swedish National Human Rights Institution, civil society representatives, researchers, academics and affected communities, as well as members of the Swedish Police Authority.

Concerns over police treatment

Keesee told Anadolu Agency that in the meetings held with “communities of color” but also with researchers, “a lot of folks” raised concerns “around treatment when it comes to their interaction with the police” in the Nordic country.

She emphasized the need to address unequal treatment of the minority groups by the police and to begin to understand the nature of the broken relationship between law enforcement and the communities.

The Swedish population is considered to have confidence in the police, yet most of the testimonies received from members of racialized communities “spoke of fear of an oppressive police presence, racial profiling and arbitrary stops and searches,” said Keesee.

“Sweden should broaden the definition of safety that does not rely exclusively on police response. The police should focus on strategies to restore their trust among the communities they serve, including through diversifying its staff to reflect Sweden’s true multicultural society,” she added.

Alexandra Pascalidou, a well-known journalist, author and human rights activist who lectured Swedish police on many occasions about hate crime and racism, told Anadolu Agency that there is no real trust between minorities and the police force.

She said that minorities are even reluctant to report racist attacks to the police as they feel that no actions will be taken and “you know, unfortunately, they are right, because every time I reported threats” (directed at myself), “I mean, nothing really happened.”

Prison visits

The Mechanism also visited police detention and pre-trial detention centers in Stockholm and Malmo, and it raised concerns over an “excessive recourse to solitary confinement.”

There is “really a need for an evaluation and a clear understanding,” said Keesee.

Furthermore, there was a concern about how Sweden may be addressing “legitimate security challenges,” including growing gang criminality, through a response which focuses on “over policing, surveillance, and undue deprivation of liberty,” according to a statement made by Mendez.

Keesee agreed that “it's a big concern, because oftentimes, when you are trying to address violent crime, which we also recognize as a concern for Sweden, you often will do that without recognizing what the underlying causes are.”

She pointed out that “many lessons” need to be learnt “throughout the country, in ways in which those things will not work or sustain themselves.”

“We call upon Sweden to fully comply with the Nelson Mandela Rules -- formerly the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners -- and to privilege alternatives to detention,” Mendez added.

Pascalidou accused Sweden of treating minorities like criminals, saying “it is like all of us are criminals until we prove that we are not criminals, that we're innocent.”

She said that this is a “huge problem” in the country because it stigmatizes enormous amounts of people.

“And the only thing we have in common is that we have other backgrounds, or we look different, we talk different, our names are different or anything,” and all of this is causing, “of course, racism,” she added.

Concerns over race data

The experts “were deeply concerned by the reluctance to collect data disaggregated by race in Sweden,” taking into consideration “historical sensitivity” around racial classifications in the country.

“So, you have not just people of color, but you have the institution of slavery, colonialism. And you have things like that have been part of the history, how folks have been identified, how they've not been identified,” said Keesee, adding “these threads still remain today.”

Mokgoro, chair of the Mechanism, said in the statement that “the collection, publication and analysis of data disaggregated by race or ethnic origin in all aspects of life, especially regarding interactions with law enforcement and the criminal justice system,” is an essential element for designing and assessing responses to systemic racism.

She added that “Sweden needs to collect and use this data to fight systemic racism.”

Pascalidou thinks that the fight against racism is not really on the Swedish agenda.

“Nobody really discusses it,” she said, but hopes that the intervention by the UN will start the discussion.

Nazis ‘tried to kill me’

But for now, the public debate in Sweden has been withdrawn, as in her experience as a journalist, she was confronted with negative comments whenever she tried to stand up against racism.

“On one hand, we have racism, and on the other hand, we have people saying there is no racism in Sweden. So it's crazy, and it's worse to say that somebody is a racist than to be a racist,” Pascalidou said.

In her fight against it, she even faced death threats.

“I had Nazis outside my door trying to kill me,” she said.

But for her, fighting against racism “is a duty for all of us. It is within the democratic system.”

Hence, she will not be silenced.

According to the UN statement, the Mechanism has shared its preliminary findings with the Swedish government and will draft a report to be published in the coming months and presented to the Human Rights Council.

Hüseyin Demir

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