Human rights campaigners have high hopes for Swedish EU presidency

Sweden’s history of progressive positions within the European Union on human rights has campaigners optimistic about the upcoming Swedish presidency of the EU.

Officials with Amnesty International, the human rights NGO, said in Brussels on Tuesday that while they are not in the business of ranking EU member states in terms of their commitments to human rights, with Sweden in charge of the EU for the next six months, the group is "very hopeful".

"Sweden made a considerable impact on the EU’s broader human rights agenda during its last presidency in 2001," said Lise Bergh, secretary-general of Amnesty International Sweden, speaking to reporters ahead of the presentation of a serious of recommendations for Stockholm’s turn at the helm of the bloc.

Amnesty is in particular hoping the Swedes will turn around the EU’s track record on torture in recent years, ensure that a robust anti-discrimination directive is agreed to under its watch, and begin to arrest the growing anti-immigrant flavour of security policies across the bloc.

It wants the Swedish presidency in particular to focus on redress for European collaboration with American "extraordinary rendition" practices in the war on terror – popularly known as "torture flights" – in which individuals suspected of links to terrorist activities were kidnapped and tortured either by Americans or at the hands of nationals whose states were known to employ such coercive techniques.

"Member states have assisted or turned a blind eye to CIA rendition flights over their territories, shared information that has led to people being forcefully captured and tortured, failed to protect EU citizens or residents from torture and allowed the CIA to operate secret prisons in Europe," Mr Beger continued.

The group wants Sweden to push for an EU position supporting reparation for victims and accountability for individuals responsible.

Amnesty is also placing a lot of emphasis on the new anti-discrimination directive presented by the European Commission last July. The bill extends protection against discrimination on the grounds of age, disability and sexual orientation in a range of goods and services – including healthcare and housing – not currently covered by existing EU anti-discrimination laws. Currently in the middle of its legislative journey, the directive must win the unanimous support of the member states – a job that will take a skilful EU skipper to complete.

The group also wants to see the Swedes take an active role in the growing preference of some member states to address the issue of irregular migration from a criminal law perspective.

"People residing or entering the territory of member states should not be treated as criminals and EU member states should never use criminal sanctions against irregular migrants for the sole reason of their irregular entry or residence," the report reads.

Engagement with countries beyond the EU on this issue has as a sole objective the prevention of undesired migration, warns the document, instead of the human rights of the migrants concerned.

Italy under fire

"The decision of the Italian government in May to return individuals rescued at sea to Libya without entering into a proper assessment of their potential protection needs as set a dangerous precedent."

As a result, Amnesty is calling on the Swedish presidency to include in the next five-year plan for the EU in the area of freedom, security and justice – also known as the Stockholm Programme – mechanisms for the monitoring of human rights in EU migration policies.

Italy also came in for sharp criticism for its recently passed "Security Package", which criminalises irregular immigration, legalises vigilante ‘patrols‘ and sentences landlords to up to three years of prison if they rent to undocumented migrants.

"[Sweden] has to argue against Italy’s role … How this is done is obviously up to them, but it must be done in a clear manner. They must speak out against the Security Package full stop. It has to be said."

They worry that while there are EU guidelines for human rights, no channel exists for human rights protection within the 27 member states.

"It’s actually quite amazing that while there is anti-discrimination legislation and the like, there is no mechanism for monitoring, no commitment in terms of peer review."

The campaigners said that the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency can issue reports, but "no one in the Council has to read or respond to them."

"The EU has no way of talking to itself about this issue."

The Amnesty recommendations were released a day after Sweden’s conservative Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and the country’s Europe minister, the liberal Cecilia Malmstrom presented their country’s plans for their time as EU chair

"We want to focus more on the individual as a victim and to have clear and transparent rules on migration," Ms Malmstrom told journalists on Monday.

Ms Malmstrom is also a supporter of Stiftelsen Expo, a research foundation that combats racism and the growth of the far right and founded by Stieg Larsson, the late investigative reporter and author of a series of best-selling novels.