New Zealand smacking debate: Letter from Swedish Professor Jacob W. F. Sundberg to Deborah Coddington

New Zealand smacking debate: Letter from Swedish Professor Jacob W. F. Sundberg to Deborah Coddington



Professor emeritus Jacob W.F. Sundberg was for many years professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Stockholm, and one of the most ardent critics of the Swedish "High tax society". He was also the president of the International Commission of Inquiry into the 1932-33 Famine in Ukraine, also called "The Sundberg Commission". Professor Sundberg was also the Official Reporter to the European Commission on Human Rights and the founder of the Sporrong-Lönnroth Human Rights Moot Court Contest for law students.

In 1999 Professor Sundberg w
as awarded the Danish Raoul Wallenberg Society's Honorary Diploma and Medal for his "efforts in the fight for liberty and justice" and on October 5, 2002 he received the status
Foreign Honorary Member  of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Profesor em. Sundberg is still a very active researcher and
the Director of the Stockholm Institute of Public and International Law - IOIR.

This letter is published here with the kind consent of the author.






Stockholm 11 January 2007








Ms Deborah Coddington

C/o The New Zealand Herald

P.O. Box 32


New Zealand

Please forward


Dear Ms Coddington.

Your article titled “Anti-.smack campaign fails to pack a punch”, which appears to have been published in the New Zealand Herald July 30, 2006, has been brought to my attention and I think it calls from some comments, when read by a Swedish law professor. Indeed, for 7 years I was professor of Family Law at the University of Stockholm and even published a rather solid book on the Swedish family law as then it was (Family Law under change, Stockholm 1969 [Familjerätt i omvandling]). If you study our home page, you will find a few more works on the same topic, some of them in English. You refer in your article to Professor Christian Diesen, who is indeed a law professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Stockholm as I am, but Dr Diesen is a Professor of  Procedural Law, and not of Family Law or even Penal Law although he likes to express himself publicly in penal law matters. His perspective is therefore not necessarily always convincing when  he ventures outside the procedural law. The fact that he has never heard of Mrs Ruby Harrold-Claesson is therefore not very surprising, nor does it blacken the reputation of Mrs Harrold-Claesson. I think that regrettably he has misled you somewhat in the matters you are discussing.


Mrs Harrold-Claesson is not a typical blond, blue-eyed Swede. She is a black woman originating from Jamaica, with a university degree from a French university, and has learnt Swedish and taken a Swedish law degree. In Swedish legal circles she is somewhat an outsider, with a keen eye for some Swedish shortcomings. She is very much detested by the social bureaucracy because she is clever to discover mistakes and misjudgements on their part in those cases that have been entrusted to her. In a tightly knit society as the Swedish one, this rubs off into judicial circles as well, but the difficulties she has experienced there has not prevented her from carrying on her work nationally and internationally. Consequently, she is a well-known figure among people who have a quarrel with the social authorities – not the least among immigrants of her own colouring, and the fact that your referees - like Dr Diesen - seem so eager to discount her may be a compliment rather than the opposite.


The Anti-smacking legislation that was adopted in Sweden in 1979, indeed adopted by a minority Government, eager to cut a profile politically,  was formulated in a rather disastrous way. It said “A child may not be exposed to corporal chastisement or other insulting treatment”. (SFS 1979 No 122, adopted 22 March 1979). It does not require any legal training to see that this is a completely nutty formulation: Most small children do not have sufficient linguistic command to understand that a comment is ‘insulting’ and there is no bottom age limit set. In fact, when the matter was brought before the European Commission of Human Rights in the case Blom and Others vs Sweden (Appl. 8811/79, inadmissible 13 May 1983, press releases B (80) 14, B (84) 21), the Swedish Government Agent suggested that the provision was not meant to be taken seriously, and consequently nothing to complain about. However, it turned out that personnel in schools and day-homes taught the children that it was criminal for their parents to spank them or somehow hit them, and the cases that attracted most publicity was naturally those in which children informed upon their parents and the parents were subjected to criminal proceedings. It goes without saying that the atmosphere in such a family thereafter was less than harmonious, and it was not unnatural that the social authorities thought it best to take the little informers into public care. A powerful tool had been put into the hands of the naughty little children, getting into their difficult teens, and it was often used although, at least in the beginning, these cases were mostly - but not always - dismissed in the courts. But there were other informers around  - neighbours, disgruntled spouses, and career-prone social bureaucrats - and the governmental authorities thought it to be ‘progressive’ to drown the population with propaganda how good it was that corporal chastisement was outlawed in Sweden. They even invested resources in producing leaflets in Finnish and other foreign languages to tell passing tourists that when in Sweden spanking their kids was not permitted, whatever mischief the kids had done – as e.g. the older ones beating the younger ones, a rather frequent case. The way Emil was locked up in the wood cabin in Astrid Lindgren’s popular books was now criminal.


Of course, the usefulness of this kind of legislation was never put to the test, sociological or other. Nobody has ever proven that it has done any good to family life or children’s behaviour; such studies were taboo. To the social bureaucracy, the existence of the legislation was a triumph, emphasizing their enormous importance and securing good work opportunities, and the social bureaucracy increased in numbers all the time and became an important voter group that could not be ignored by the political parties. Consequently, this ridiculous piece of legislation is still with us.


It should be added that assault and battery - misshandel in Swedish - was always criminalized in Sweden, but it was not until the arrival of the anti-spanking provision in 1979 that it went nuts. The principle proclaimed is that you may not do to your children what you cannot do to your neighbour or a passer-by in the street.


I do not think that this Swedish legislation travels well to foreign countries.


Sincerely yours



Jacob W.F. Sundberg

Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus



Professor em. Jacob W. F. Sundberg

Letter from Swedish Professor Jacob W. F. Sundberg to Deborah Coddington

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