No democracy without human rights!

Democracy and human rights; two concepts that go hand in hand, where one is needed for the other to have full effect. Or is it that simple? In the past few years, we have seen a decline in democracy globally, a development accentuated by the Corona pandemic. Why is that, and how does it impact the fulfilment of human rights? How can we reverse the trend and strengthen democracy locally, nationally and globally and ensure that human rights are respected for all people at all times?

A Democracy for All?

A vivid democracy requires more than free, general and safe elections. In between elections, the law ought to be respected, power distributed and controlled. Furthermore, a series of civil rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom of religion, should be respected. But what is the status of these rights today? Does everyone have the same opportunity to exercise them? What long-term effects do the restrictions of rights put in place during the Corona pandemic have on democracy?

The conditions to exercise one’s rights are already today unequal. Discrimination and growing gaps threaten democracy since economic and social rights are a pre-condition for active citizen participation and involvement. Someone who has nowhere to live, is a refugee, cannot afford education, has difficulties supporting themself or suffers from ill-health often has more difficulty exercising their civil rights. What is needed to secure democratic participation for everyone?

Children and young people under 18 years are not allowed to vote in Sweden but are a part of the democratic society and should be involved in making decisions that concern them. How can we ensure children’s and the youth’s democratic participation and their involvement in shaping the society in which they and future generations will live?

Political representation is a cornerstone in a well-functioning democracy. Lack of representation can lead to a feeling of powerlessness and declining trust in society. Simultaneously, threats and violence against politicians are increasing. What happens with democracy if fewer people want to be elected representatives, and what impact does that have on representation? Who is heard and seen in the democratic dialogue, and whose opinions count?

The Scrutinizers of Power and The Guardians of Democracy

Having the means to scrutinize the democratic institutions and demand accountability from those in power is a prerequisite for a strong democracy. What are the conditions for independent media around the world today? How are journalists and opinion makers affected by growing hatred and threats, and how does that affect reporting on particular issues?

Social media has enabled access for more people to democratic processes, to voice their opinions, protest and organize – the threshold to participate in the democratic dialogue has lowered and thus increased representation. However, anti-democratic forces have gained ground on the internet, too – the spreading of hate, disinformation and propaganda on the internet poses a new challenge to democracy. How is democracy affected when we shut ourselves in our filter bubbles where uncomfortable truths can be dismissed as “fake news”? The private companies that own the social media platforms have gained increasingly more power – what democratic responsibilities do they have, and who scrutinizes them?

As democracy and human rights are constantly questioned, knowledge and the ability to think critically become critical for their survival. The school, popular adult education (folkbildning) and civil society all play an essential role in creating these conditions for each individual. Human rights organizations have important functions in supervising, inspecting and criticizing when rights are violated and demanding rectification in case of human rights abuses. However, simultaneously human rights defenders are objected to threat and violence. How is the shrinking democratic space affecting civil society in Sweden and the world? Social movements have played a crucial role in the evolution of democracy. But what is the situation nowadays, and what is the future of social organization?

Human Rights and Democracy – Interrelated or Challenging Each Other?

The essence of democracy is said to be inclusion. However, historically that has not implied that all peoples value, voice and rights are heard and respected. When democracy is merely understood as a governance system, there is no guarantee that rights are respected. Instead, democracy – understood as the will of the majority – can be used as a medium to restrict or violate rights.

If democracy is based on the idea that everyone has equal value – why does the perception that some human rights do not need to be respected persist? For example, the right to asylum, the right to decide over one’s body and non-citizens’ right to healthcare is questioned in an increasing number of democratic states.


In 2021 Sweden celebrates 100 years of democracy. In reality, however, our democracy is considerably younger than that. The Swedish Forum for Human Rights in Gothenburg will mark this jubilee by stressing the possibilities and challenges that democracy poses to the fulfilment of universal human rights.

The programme will focus on discussions encompassing everything from the will of the people to the rule of law, distribution of power, class, discrimination, minority rights, influence, civil disobedience, the principle of subsidiarity, co-creation, civic dialogue, trust, polarization, municipal self-governance and climate change. The democratic participation and the influence of the youth is a common thread running through the programme. We prioritize programme contributions that strongly relate to human rights and the principle of anti-discrimination. We welcome status and consequence reports happily but even more forward-looking visions and concrete proposals for ways to strengthen democracy and human rights in practice.

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