Creating an ombudsman institution to provide recourse to victims of discrimination

In Sweden, the Discrimination Ombudsman (DO) is a political institutional body that was created to allow citizens to assert their right to be protected against discrimination and to provide both advice and litigation power. The DO is one of four Ombudsman offices that are used to strengthen political and social protections for those victimized by discrimination.

Sweden has a generous immigration policy and employers have an obligation to actively prevent discrimination. However, the Government of Sweden has acknowledged that a pro-active approach is required to do away with old patterns in the work place that perpetuate discrimination, and that immigrant rights must also be actively protected in order to ensure equality.

To address this, the DO was created in 1986 and was initially limited to gender discrimination. In 1999, its mandate was specifically expanded to ethnic discrimination. In addition, the DO now has jurisdiction over all areas including government, business, labor and other areas of civil society, instead of just the work place. The DO functions on a dual level by allowing individuals subjected to discrimination to get redress through the courts and also by providing education and outreach on the issue of discrimination to expand the public’s awareness and decrease discrimination throughout society.

The DO assists those subjected to ethnic discrimination by providing advice and also asserting their rights through litigation power. It recognizes the importance for an individual to get redress through the courts: whether or not the case is won and the amount of money rewarded is not as important as the recognition that a wrong has occurred. Therefore, for an individual claimant, having the DO supporting their claim means a lot in itself. At the operational level the DO receives complaints from individuals and agrees to take these cases to court. In addition, the DO pays the case costs; this reduces the sacrifice for the person filing the case and justifies their assertion that they have been wronged. Publicly acknowledging that discrimination has occurred in turn makes discrimination visible and raises awareness throughout society. Furthermore, the DO directly employs a more collective approach by using cases as examples to educate the public in order to have a wider impact.

The DO is appointed by the government but is an independent body that is also competent to investigate and sue the government as an employer. However, the resources of the DO are too limited to reach all areas of the labor market. Given such constraints, the DO uses incentives (good examples) and punishment (litigation) to discourage further discrimination. It also provides outreach to immigrant organizations to educate their members and to provide educational support to NGO initiatives that have resulted in other government-supported anti-discrimination bureaus.

The other three Ombudsman of Sweden, the Equal Opportunities, Disability and Sexual Orientation Ombudsman, function similarly to the Discrimination Ombudsman but have different mandates.


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 
Creating an institutional mechanism with a mandate from the government but that is free from state influence is necessary for addressing discriminatory claims from individuals. It is essential that a tactic like this remains independent from the government in order to be able to hold the government itself accountable when it violates the rights of individuals. 
A key component of this tactic is that it provides legal serves for free. Court cases can be extremely costly and people will be less likely to utilize the Discrimination Ombudsman’s services if they must bear the costs. 
While providing legal recourse is an essential aspect of the tactic, it is also important to provide education to the public. People need to know that these services exist, when their rights are being violated, and the recourse options available to them. Using court cases as a way to educate the public also serves the function of deterring possible offenders, hopefully reducing discrimination, and saving on court costs in the long term. 
The primary goal of this tactic is not to win cases, but have the wrongdoing acknowledged. Making the violations visible is important for raising awareness and changing discriminatory behavior in society. 
This tactic, while effective, may be difficult to replicate due to high operating costs. This example had both the mandate and financial support from the government to operate. Other such examples are National Human Rights Institutions, which have differing degrees of governmental support and degrees of independence.