A win for the human rights defenders and feminists in Sweden
Written by Linda Åkerström, Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society and Sofia Tuvestad, WILPF Sweden
Last night presented a major victory for disarmament and women’s rights activists in the Swedish peace movement, as the Swedish government declared it will not continue its heavily criticized military cooperation agreement (Memorandum of Understanding, MoU) with Saudi Arabia. The news came the day after Saudi Arabia had blocked a speech that the Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Margot Wallström, was supposed to give as a guest of honour to the Arab League ministers’ meeting in Cairo. Wallström, of the Social Democratic Party, commented that the explanation given to her was that Sweden has highlighted the situation for democracy and human rights, and this was why the speech was blocked. The widespread and horrible violations of human rights in Saudi Arabia have most definitely been on the agenda in Swedish public debate lately, with a strong opinion advocating that the government should stop the so called ”Saudi agreement”. The opposition came from civil society as well as from both left and right wing political actors.
It would have been particularly difficult for the government to prolong the agreement, as Wallström has declared since her first day in office that Sweden will run a feminist foreign policy. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs has also highlighted several times the importance of the gender provisions in the Arms Trade Treaty. The other government party, the Green party, has a history of taking clear stand against the arms trade in general. Still, major and powerful players, mainly from the private sector, have argued that Sweden must continue the military cooperation, trying to highlight export incomes and the need to be a ”trustworthy” business partner. It has also been suggested, but not confirmed, that the Swedish candidature to the UN Security Council has influenced the process through a will to keep friendly ties with the Saudis.
While little information has been released about the negotiations within the government, it has been very uncertain whether the Social Democrats would take the step to stop the agreement as they have a strong tradition of protecting the Swedish arms industry. But as last night showed, despite the clear interest of major economic players to keep the agreement, the human rights defenders and the feminists won this round. There is, however, a big debate left to be had when it comes to arms trade and human rights, as a parliamentary committee is due to propose new regulations for Swedish arms exports in April. The pressure is on, as the public debate these last weeks have shown a very strong support for putting human rights front and centre and not arming human rights abusers.
As we continue our work to advocate a strong proposal from the parliamentary committee, we are also letting ourselves take this moment to celebrate a victory. Money does not always win in the end.
Sofia Tuvestad is Policy and Advocacy Officer at the Swedish section of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, WILPF. She works on disarmament and gender, peace and security. Follow her on Twitter @Sofia_Tuvestad.
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