The Committee against Torture this afternoon concluded its consideration of the eighth periodic report of Sweden on the efforts made by the State party to implement the provisions of the Convention against Torture. In the dialogue, Committee Experts commended Sweden for its implementation of human rights standards and asked for information about pre-trial detention conditions.
A Committee Expert noted that Sweden’s commitment to a rules-based international order was very encouraging, adding that Sweden was known to be among the most forthcoming States with respect to developing and implementing universal human rights standards. As for pre-trial detention, an Expert noted that it was commonly used in Sweden, and that the Committee in its 2014 concluding observations had recommended that Sweden should use pre-trial detention as a measure of last resort, in particular in relation to minors. Could the delegation give more details on new rules around it? Had the Prison Service developed a system to monitor the extent to which pre-trial detainees were being isolated in practice? It was positive that there were now maximum amounts of time for such detention for adults and minors, and it was to be imagined that a decrease in pre-trial detention would be seen in the coming years.
The delegation of Sweden explained that in recent years, efforts had been expended in the area of restrictions for remand prisoners, including a bill with proposals on how to limit restrictions and shorten detention periods. Besides legislative work, the Swedish Prosecution Authority was working with the Prison and Probation Service to limit the isolation in pre-trial detention. It had developed a special handbook on association with other inmates and segregation in remand prison, and had allocated personnel resources to facilitate day-to-day work with isolation-breaking measures. As for COVID-19 pandemic measures in remand prisons, the spread of the infection had been relatively low, and all inmates would continue to be offered vaccines against COVID-19.
Anna-Carin Svensson, Director-General for International Affairs at the Ministry of Justice of Sweden and head of the delegation, presenting the report, reaffirmed Sweden’s strong commitment to a rules-based international order, adding that Sweden firmly condemned torture. Sweden was aware of issues in the area of pre-trial detention, and was working on legislative and practical measures in that field, including the introduction of time limits for detention periods: a suspect could now be held in remand for a maximum of nine months, until prosecution had been brought against him or her. Further relevant legislative amendments were expected soon, which would contribute to shorter time spent in remand.
The delegation of Sweden consisted of representatives of the Ministry of Justice; the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs; and the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Committee against Torture’s seventy-second session can be found here.
The Committee will next meet in public at 3 p.m. on Thursday, 11 November, to conclude its consideration of the third periodic report of Kyrgyzstan (CAT/C/KGZ/3).
The Committee has before it the eighth periodic report of Sweden (CAT/C/SWE/8).
Presentation of the Report
ANNA-CARIN SVENSSON, Director-General for International Affairs at the Ministry of Justice of Sweden and head of the delegation, presenting the report, reaffirmed Sweden’s strong commitment to a rules-based international order, adding that Sweden firmly condemned torture and did not in any way accept, allow or condone such actions. The goals of the Government’s overall human rights policy were to ensure Sweden’s full respect for its international obligations with regard to human rights, an aim which was applied with a holistic approach covering all sectors and policy areas. Two milestones in Sweden’s work to ensure respect for human rights were notable. With a mandate in accordance with the Paris Principles, Sweden’s Human Rights Institute would commence its activities in January 2022. It would monitor, investigate and report on how human rights were respected and implemented in Sweden, and submit proposals to the Government on measures that were needed to safeguard human rights. Another accomplishment was the incorporation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child into Swedish law.
The combat of the COVID-19 pandemic had raised concerns regarding the respect for human rights, notably for the situation of persons deprived of their liberty during the pandemic. In Sweden, the regulatory framework to combat the pandemic consisted of a combination of legally binding rules and recommendations. The tradition in Swedish health was one of voluntary measures, with an emphasis on individual responsibility. The management of the pandemic in institutions where persons were deprived of their liberty had been governed by the same regime applying to the rest of society. There had been no deaths in Swedish prisons and detention centres due to the COVID-19 virus and a very limited spread of the disease.
Sweden was aware of critique in the area of pre-trial detention and was working on legislative and practical measures in that field, including the introduction of time limits for detention periods. A suspect could now be held in remand for a maximum of nine months, until prosecution had been brought against him or her. Further relevant legislative amendments were expected soon, which would contribute to shorter time spent in remand.
Swedish authorities aimed to strengthen the national plan to combat racism, similar forms of hostility, and hate crime. The Police Authority had been commissioned to intensify its work in the field of hate crimes and other crimes that threatened democracy, including by reporting on clearance rates of hate crimes. The Police Authority continuously assessed threats to religious buildings and communities. At a forum on holocaust remembrance and combatting anti-Semitism, participants had agreed on new pledges to encourage the remembrance of the Holocaust and to combat anti-Semitism, anti-gypsyism and other forms of racism.
A Special Investigation Department had been established in 2015 as an independent body within the Police Authority. It was assigned to independently conduct investigative work and gather information in cases of allegations of ill-treatment and excessive use of force by police officials. Since 2019, it had expanded its capacity in the areas of reconnaissance, intervention, investigation and intelligence, and its work had led to prosecutions and judgments.
In conclusion, Ms. Svensson thanked Committee Members for their attention, and for giving Sweden the opportunity to take part in a constructive dialogue on the common goal of eliminating torture universally. The delegation looked forward to Committee Experts’ questions and would respond to them with a spirit of openness and full co-operation.
Questions from Committee Experts
ERDOĞAN İŞCAN, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Sweden’s review, said that Sweden’s commitment to a rules-based international order was very encouraging, adding that Sweden was known to be among the most forthcoming States with respect to developing and implementing universal human rights standards. He noted that Sweden’s Government did not feel obliged to incorporate a specific provision on torture in its domestic legislation as it was of the opinion that the Convention’s requirements were fully met by Swedish laws and regulations. Was there any direct reference in the Swedish legislation to the Convention and its article 1, and did the courts make reference in their rulings to the Convention in general, and in particular to article 1? Had any complaint been registered about the right to access to a lawyer, and if so what nature of complaint was it, and which measures had been taken in response? As for the right to access a doctor or medical examination, while rules and regulations seemed to be in compliance with the obligations, Parliamentary Ombudspersons had drawn attention to the question of lack of constant access to healthcare personnel. Could the delegation elaborate on possible action to address the issue?
Civil society had drawn attention to problems of implementation in practice regarding the right to be informed of rights at the time of arrest. The report explained the exception to the main rule. Had problems of implementation been brought to the attention of the Government, and could the delegation provide statistical data, disaggregated by age, sex and ethnicity or nationality of the persons, on the application of this exception to the main rule?
Turning to the issue of violence against women, Mr. İşcan observed that it was a derivative of gender inequality and a grave violation of human rights which needed to be kept among the priority items of the human rights agenda. The statistical data in annex 2 on sexual offences indicated that, despite the efforts, there was no tangible progress with a view to reducing the number of offences during the period under review. Did Sweden envisage further action, in law and in practice, to address that grave human rights violation more effectively? As for asylum regulations, what was the current state of Sweden’s temporary law on that matter, which had been adopted in 2016 for a period of three years? Concerning the identification of torture victims among asylum seekers, could the delegation explain in more detail the concept of “enforced return”? Did it cover all three terms to which the Committee referred: returned (refoulement), extradited and expelled? What was the nature of training for the officials who were responsible for identifying torture victims among asylum seekers, and had that training proved effective in practice? It was an exemplary policy and practice of Sweden that no extradition cases in which diplomatic assurances or the equivalent thereof had been cited.
PETER VEDEL KESSING, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Sweden’s review, asked questions about the treatment of persons in custody and about prompt and independent investigation of allegations of torture, among other issues. Could the delegation provide information on how access to medical staff was guaranteed in practice in police custody? Did Sweden intend to review and strengthen legislation to ensure better access to medical care in police custody? Regarding the use of pre-trial detention, he noted that it was commonly used in Sweden, and that the Committee in its 2014 concluding observations recommended that Sweden should use pre-trial detention as a measure of last resort, in particular in relation to minors. Could the delegation give more details on new rules around that?
As for isolation and solitary confinement of pre-trial detainees, what steps had Sweden taken to reduce their isolation, and had the Prison Service developed a system to monitor the extent to which pre-trial detainees were being isolated in practice? To what extent could solitary confinement be used against children? On the issue of the use of force in prisons and remand prisons, was it true that there was no register on the use of force in such institutions? The Committee would like to receive statistical data on the frequency of the use of force in prisons and remand prisons, and to know whether the use of force was increasing or decreasing.
Turning to the situation of patients in compulsory psychiatric care, he noted that the number of children in compulsory psychiatric care was increasing, and that it was reported that some patients in compulsory care were segregated from other patients for very long periods of time. Could the delegation inform about measures taken to reduce the number of children in compulsory psychiatric care, and were any initiatives being considered to reduce the segregation and isolation of patients in compulsory psychiatric care? Were any measures being considered to ensure that patients had the opportunity for daily outdoor access? What measures were being considered to ensure that patients in compulsory psychiatric care were not subjected to coercive measures in excess of what was provided for by the law?
On the issue of foreigners in migration detention, he noted that detainees ran a significant risk of being isolated in practice. Was Sweden considering any measures to ensure that the detention of asylum seekers was used only as a last resort and where necessary, and for as short a period as possible? Could the delegation inform about how it was ensured or monitored that detained foreigners were not isolated in practice? Regarding children in immigration detention, was Sweden considering taking measures toward ending or reducing the practice of detention of children for immigration-related purposes? Had Swedish authorities undertaken an official independent and impartial investigation into reported allegations that young people in residential care were being exposed to unjustified violence by staff?
Under the rubric of prompt and independent investigation into allegations of torture, he noted that in its last concluding observations to Sweden in 2014, the Committee had expressed concern about reported cases of ill-treatment and excessive use of force by the police, and the lack of an independent, impartial and effective investigation of such incidents. Could the delegation provide updated statistics on the number of complaints received by the new Department of Special Investigations – also related to torture and inhuman or degrading treatment – since its creation in 2015? Could the delegation clarify the number of investigations carried out, and the types of sanctions imposed on police officers found guilty of a crime? What measures had been taken to guarantee the independence of the Department of Special Investigations when it relied on police officers from other units to carry out investigations? Had it been considered to remove the Department of Special Investigations from the Swedish Police Authority?
Could the delegation provide information about any steps taken to ensure that prisoners were able to make written internal complaints in Swedish prisons? What steps had the Swedish Government taken to provide training to law enforcement officials on the prohibition of torture? Would the Swedish police consider taking into consideration the Mendez Principles on effective police interviewing and information gathering? Did prisoners have access to COVID-19 vaccines?
Another Committee Expert asked about the right to reparations. Could the delegation provide disaggregated statistics on compensation for victims of torture and ill-treatment? A Committee Expert asked about the situation of unaccompanied minors. Where were such children and young people placed? A Committee Expert asked for further information about training provided in Sweden for military personnel and police, especially those deployed to international missions, noting that the international community owed a lot to Sweden for its contributions to United Nations peacekeeping operations. Another Committee Expert asked for information about training of the Swedish Coast Guard; was training on the Convention included? One Expert asked about the principle of non-refoulement. Could the delegation provide information about Sweden’s views around the practice of putting forward asylum requests from diplomatic premises?
Replies from the Delegation
The delegation thanked the Committee Experts for their questions, which were thought provoking; some answers would be provided today, and some statistical data would be provided tomorrow. The Government was firmly committed to preventing and combatting all forms of gender-based violence, including violence against women. A ten-year national strategy in that field aimed to build long-term sustainable structures at the national, regional and local levels. A 2021 package of measures to stop men’s violence against women contained proposals on stricter penal legislation for those who subjected their partner or former partner to violence.
Addressing the question on the definition of torture, the delegation explained that torture was prohibited by the Swedish Constitution, and all acts of torture were punishable. As for the Special Investigations Department, it was an independent body within the Police Authority. Their information technology systems were separated from the rest of the police, and only employees had access to the case files. Since 2017, the Department had been allocated increased funding, and its financial framework had been significantly increased. That had enabled the development of the Special Investigations Department, including strengthening its surveillance operations. It secured high-quality investigations, including through its case-handling system. Its offices were outside police premises. It was an important part of the Department’s work to build trust. In 2020, it had received over 6,000 cases, an increase over the past year, which was in line with longer trends. The most common crime reported was misconduct, which was also used when a more precise classification was not available.
Turning to pre-trial detention, the delegation explained that in recent years, efforts had been expended in the area of restrictions for remand prisoners, including a bill with proposals on how to limit restrictions and shorten detention periods. Changes in the legislation which had come into effect included that the prosecutor must now present a time plan for the preliminary investigation to the court. Further, juveniles held in remand no longer ran the risk of being isolated in conditions amounting to solitary confinement. Further legislative amendments were anticipated: the review of cases in Swedish courts were generally decided on at a concentrated oral hearing and the courts could base their decisions only on that material. Interrogations documented during preliminary investigations were normally not allowed as evidence. Legislative changes were proposed that, to a greater extent, would allow the use of preliminary interrogations in the main hearing.
Besides legislative work, a lot of other work had been done to reduce isolation, the delegation informed. The Swedish Prosecution Authority was working with the Prison and Probation Service to limit the isolation in pre-trial detention. The latter had for a long time had teachers on staff, enabling youth to continue their studies despite incarceration. It had developed a special handbook on association with other inmates and segregation in remand prison and had allocated personnel resources to facilitate day-to-day work with isolation-breaking measures.
As for the temporary Act on Asylum, it was no longer in force, having been replaced by an amended Aliens Act. The legislative amendments had entered into force in July 2021. The amendments had been found to meet with international obligations requirements as regards non-refoulement.
As for COVID-19 pandemic measures in remand prisons, the spread of the infection had been relatively low. Restrictions had been applied in different ways during the phases of the pandemic. Vaccination efforts were ongoing, and self-tests were available to both inmates and staff. All inmates would continue to be offered vaccines against COVID-19.
Turning to the issue of compulsory psychiatric care, the delegation stated that Sweden was highly committed to promoting mental health and well-being among children and young people, and to further develop and improve the healthcare and social care services. That in turn could reduce the number of children in compulsory care. The Swedish Public Health Agency, together with other authorities, had been commissioned to submit a proposal for a new strategy in the area of mental health and suicide prevention. The strategy would especially target children and young people. As for initiatives taken to reduce the number of coercive measures, including seclusion, the delegation said that legislative amendments had entered into force which tightened restrictions on the use of coercive measures against children under the age of 18 years, such as belts and seclusion measures.
In response to a question about the Mendez Principles, the delegation said the Swedish Police Authority was developing new, national guidelines that would stipulate how investigative interviews should proceed. They would be binding for the Swedish Police Authority. The interview methods were to be adapted according to circumstances, such as if the interviewee was vulnerable.
Follow-up Questions from Committee Experts
A Committee Expert asked whether police officers from the police authority were conducting investigations into complaints, or whether the special unit had its own investigators? Another Committee Expert asked how the Mendez Principles would become binding at the domestic level?
Responses from the Delegation
The delegation addressed questions related to the implementation of procedural rights. A national digital custody register allowed for increased legal certainty and uniformity for detained persons. The custody suite handbook was continuously revised, and revisions were currently taking place regarding children’s rights and handling food in detention centres. In response to questions about access to lawyers, written information about such access was given to persons deprived of liberty. The same digital custody system enabled a register of whether people had been informed of their rights to access to lawyers.
Healthcare services, including those offered to persons deprived of their liberty, were offered equally to all in Sweden. Those with the greatest need should be given priority. The Government was making investments in strengthening mental health and suicide prevention, and in improving conditions for healthcare staff. The normalisation principle was a starting point for the division of labour, emphasising that social and medical healthcare for persons deprived of their liberty should be provided by the bodies in society providing such services to all citizens. Consultancy doctors in remand prisons reviewed patients’ medical drug prescriptions, and if there was a need for further care, an appointment was made. The healthcare service offered by the Swedish Prison and Probation Service was under supervision and oversight by the same national authority as the regular healthcare service, and was regulated by the same legislation.
In response to questions about violence against women, the delegation explained that a connecting responsibility was to protect children, including from witnessing violence. The focus was on building a long-term sustainable structure at national, regional and local levels. During the COVID-19 pandemic, shelters were provided with extra grants so that they could adjust their work to the extraordinary situation. Turning to legislative measures in that area, the delegation said a new sexual offense legislation based on consent had come into force. A rape conviction no longer required the use of violence or threats by a perpetrator, or the exploitation of a victim’s particularly vulnerable situation.
In response to questions about migration and asylum, the delegation reminded that as had been said yesterday, the temporary Act was no longer in force, and amendments had been made to the Aliens Act instead. The bill made reference to Sweden’s obligations under international conventions. The Swedish Migration Agency data base for country information contained information from the Committee, such as cases against Sweden, and information on how to apply the Convention. As for credibility assessments, case officers and decision-makers were required to have knowledge about legal standpoints. The Migration Agency had started a project with the Swedish Red Cross about identifying torture and trauma victims and their needs.
During the asylum process, the Migration Agency must identify special needs and vulnerabilities of the asylum seeker. The compulsory introduction for asylum seekers provided information about health and medical care, and stressed the importance of participating in the free medical assessment. That might help trauma victims self-identify. As for migration detention, a legal comment on the prerequisite to detain an asylum applicant – a result of three cases in the migration court of appeal – had narrowed the possibility for detention of asylum applicants. At one prison close to the airport of Stockholm, a separate building had been reserved solely for detained foreigners. The arrangements allowed for less restrictive measures, and detainees were not limited in receiving visits. Migration agency detention facilities had been upgraded to withstand a higher degree of aggressive behaviour. Along with building improvements, the staff now had a higher degree of training to handle disruptive and aggressive detainees. The majority of detainees placed in solitary confinement were not transferred to prisons or remand centres. Detention staff were provided with training in conflict management.
The Aliens Act permitted the detention of minors only in very restrictive circumstances, and minors should only be detained as a measure of last resort, for the shortest possible time. Children could not be transferred to a correctional institution, remand centres or police arrest facilities. Taking children into detention was to be avoided.
In response to questions about prison and probation services, the delegation addressed the use of force, and questions about written complaints. Statistics on the use of pepper spray, which was a use of force, showed no increase in its use over the past 10 years.
Reported allegations about residential homes were taken very seriously, the delegation said, noting that a heavy responsibility rested on Sweden to protect children from violence, and prevent violations of their rights. Several initiatives aimed to prevent ill-treatment and improve care given by the National Board of Institutional Care. Staff had been given training, including a human rights perspective, and a mandatory introductory education had been introduced for all new employees. An action plan for work with human rights aimed to increase staff knowledge about human rights and to develop methods of work based on a human rights perspective. Several other measures were also ongoing.
In response to questions about redress and compensation, the delegation explained that there was inter alia a possibility for victims to receive compensation for violations of the European Convention on Human Rights. Three cases had been found against Sweden in recent years, and they were all related to the principle of non-refoulement. The Government had compensated the complainants’ litigation costs; no compensation beyond that was awarded by the courts. There were also other ways for victims of crimes to get compensation.
In response to questions about training in human rights for law enforcement officials, the delegation explained that the police authority had conducted workshops in the field of human rights. Training for prison officers was now 24 weeks long, and the principle of the equal value of all human beings remained central to both the basic education and other forms of education within the authority. Human rights were an important part of the curriculum. All Coast Guards were given training in human rights as part of basic training, and the Convention was addressed as part of that. Military officials in international operations were still under Swedish jurisdiction. They were educated in international humanitarian law, and human rights and supporting conventions. The prohibition of torture was included in the legal pre-deployment training as a war crime or an international crime.
Regarding the organizational solution for the Special Investigations Department, the delegation said it recruited all its own staff as part of maintaining its independence from the Police Authority. Special investigations participated only in exceptional cases in development and support solutions with the Police Authority. In some cases, the Security Service supported specific operations that were conducted.
Follow-up Questions from Committee Experts
ERDOĞAN İŞCAN, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Sweden’s review, asked about the two Conventions to which Sweden was not a party: the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and the Convention for the Protection of All Persons against Enforced Disappearance; were there plans for ratifying those two remaining core conventions of the United Nations system?
PETER VEDEL KESSING, Committee Co-Rapporteur for Sweden’s review, asked about pre-trial detention, saying it was positive that there were now maximum amounts of time for such detention for adults and minors. It was to be imagined that a decrease in pre-trial detention would be seen in the coming years. Would the new system to monitor pre-trial detention also cover isolation? Would adults be guaranteed time to associate with others? As for the use of force, why were there statistics on the use of pepper spray but no statistics on the use of force such as handcuffs? Both non-governmental organizations and the Ombudsman had raised concerns about the independence and the perceived independence of the Special Investigations Department; could the concerns raised lead the Government to strengthen the Department’s independence, for example by establishing a separate police complaints mechanism?