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Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy Put to Test Over Decision on Arms Sales

November 2, 2015
BY SOFIA TUVESTAD, WILPF SWEDEN

Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Margot Wallström, declared on her first day in office that Sweden would pursue a feminist foreign policy. The policy is shaped around strengthening respect for women’s human rights, increasing women’s political representation, and ensuring a gender perspective is applied in the distribution of resources. A couple of high-level initiatives have been announced, including the creation of a network of women mediators as well as Sweden’s coming leadership for the Call to Action on Protection from Gender Based Violence.

Margot Wallstrom, United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual, Violence in Conflict speaks during the press conference. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

On her first day in office, Margot Wallström, Sweden’s Foreign Affairs Minister, declared Sweden would pursue a feminist foreign policy. UN Photo/ Jean-Marc Ferré

We are still looking forward to seeing the feminist foreign policy enfold into more concrete action, such as in the coming new Swedish National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security as well as in the coming new policy framework for Sweden’s development cooperation. WILPF Sweden is advocating for conflict prevention to be given a central role in these policies, with priority for measures that address the root causes of violence and conflict. We have yet to see Sweden clearly recognising the link between disarmament, especially relating to small arms and light weapons, and the women, peace and security agenda.

But the most discussed manifestation of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy so far was the decision to not prolong the military cooperation agreement between Sweden and Saudi Arabia. Some media has inaccurately reported this as a decision to stop all arms sales to the Saudi regime, which is simply not true – we will get to this later – but the decision was still a big win for feminists and disarmament advocates. Swedish industry lobbyists pushed very hard for the government to keep the agreement, which has been working as a facilitating element in promoting Swedish arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

As much as it made us proud to have a government that took a stand, it was equally devastating to see the silence and lack of support from other EU states. As the EU recently awarded imprisoned Saudi blogger ‪Raif Badawi with the prestigious Sakharov prize for human rights, they might consider standing up for his extremely difficult, dangerous and courageous fight every day of the week and not just occasionally. It is high time for an EU decision to stop all arms sales to the Saudi regime.

And this brings us to the confusion over the Swedish decision on the military cooperation agreement. As much as Swedish CSOs have celebrated the win we have also been working hard to correct the widely spread misunderstanding that Sweden has stopped all arms sales to the Saudi regime. They have not. Swedish export control is governed by regulations that have not been changed since the early 90s, and they are implemented not by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs but by a government agency. The rules have not changed. Sweden can still continue to sell arms to women’s rights abusers all over the world, as long as regulations remain and are interpreted in a way that benefits the arms industry. There are plenty of undemocratic regimes and other human rights abusers on the buyers list for Swedish arms.

Saudi military

Despite new feminist foreign policy, Swedish government can continue arms sales with Saudi Arabian military. Photo: Omar Chatriwala/ Flickr

There is, however, a slim chance of change through stricter regulations. In 2012, a parliamentary committee was appointed to conduct an overview into Swedish export control regulations with the explicit purpose to sharpen export controls against non-democratic states. Their proposal was introduced a few months ago, and we are now eager to see what the feminist government of Sweden will do with it.

We have been advocating that the committee propose stricter regulations that are de facto binding in their human rights provisions – that is, there should be no room for undefined “security interests” to trump respect for human rights by arming dictatorships and other regimes where there are serious and/or widespread violations of human rights, especially women’s rights. But we are not happy with the proposal. It’s too vague and given our experiences from current regulations, we strongly question that the proposed changes would be able to effectively stop arms transfers to women’s rights abusers.

Now it’s up to the government to take the proposal from the parliamentary committee, with consideration to submissions from CSOs and other groups, and formulate a government proposition for new Swedish regulations on arms sales. You might think a feminist government should be clear in its stand against arming patriarchal dictatorships, but we have every reason to worry. Margot Wallström is from the Social Democratic party which have traditionally been very friendly towards the arms industry, and our Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has not made any promises whatsoever on proposing binding regulations – despite a Social Democratic congress decision to do exactly that.

Now is the time to pressure the Swedish government and remind them of that great feeling – even if it came with its fair share of chaos – when the decision to not prolong the deal with the Saudi regime was made public. Sweden can write history by choosing to invest money and political capital into something more sustainable and much more feminist than holding a national arms industry under its arms. Never have the evidence against arming human rights abusers been clearer than they are today, and never before did a government declare itself to be fully feminist. This is the time to put action behind words and change the game.

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