OPINION: When will Sweden require companies to respect human rights?

March 2020

After a year-long maternity leave, I have now been back for two months. In social sustainability and human rights, my area of work, there seems to be ONE topic on everyone’s mind – companies, consultants, NGOs. Is Sweden going to be next in line to propose binding regulation requiring companies to respect human rights (and conduct human rights due diligence)?

In various other countries, it is already happening– either a law, or a proposal for a law around the topic on business responsibility to respect human rights; UK, Australia, France, Netherlands, Norway, Germany, Switzerland…

What I find curious is that the opinion of many Swedish professionals in sustainability appears to have shifted in a very short period of time. The view used to be that companies should be given a chance to implement human rights by themselves, on a voluntary basis (implement the global frameworks for business and human rights, notably the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights).  A person who would propose a law on business and human rights would be called radical or an activist.

Two years ago, I led a small group of lawyers that were selected by the Swedish Agency for Public Management (Statskontoret) to assess whether there were any gaps in Swedish law as compared with international frameworks on business and human rights. In short, whether Swedish law already required in some form, companies to respect human rights – to do no harm. Or at the very least, whether there were any formal obstacles for companies to do so. Our conclusion upon completion of the assessment was that there is an urgent need for the Swedish legislator to put in place a mandatory obligation for companies to respect human rights – covering Sweden and international value chains. Because indeed, Swedish laws not only have gaps, but provide obstacles for holding Swedish companies accountable for human rights harm – especially for harm taking place abroad.

So why do we need to require by law, that companies should respect human rights, and conduct human rights due diligence? When weighing the arguments for a binding regulation and the challenges with such, we came to the conclusion that everyone, companies and victims alike, will benefit from a level playing field. For those still in doubt, including the Swedish government, here are the strongest arguments:

  • First of all, human rights are not intuitive to companies. Companies aren’t equipped or suited to decide themselves in corporate boardrooms about the appropriate risk tolerance levels for human rights abuses in the value chain. In other words, it shouldn’t be up to corporate managers to decide what an appropriate level of salary is in South East Asia, how to deal with human rights abusive security forces in South America or whether ground water pollution levels in Southern Africa are acceptable to local communities.
  • Secondly, regulation that requires companies to respect human rights – and conduct human rights due diligence – will level the playing field for companies. Right now, many big and global Swedish companies are investing a lot of money and time into figuring how to implement human rights. By demanding the same from all companies, no company will get away with dodging – whilst other companies are compelled to do it from pressure from investors, peers or customers – or because they just want to.
  • Last but not least, a law requiring companies to respect human rights and conduct human rights due diligence will force accountability into the structure of companies. It will require liability for grave omissions or acts, and secure impartial remedies for victims.

Before my maternity leave, this position was questioned (which in itself is healthy and good). Now most people seem to agree. The remaining question is: when and how will the Swedish government take the next step and propose to regulate corporate responsibility to respect human rights?

Sandra Atler
Director of the Human Rights & Business Practice Group
Enact Sustainable Strategies