How does Sweden's role as a humanitarian superpower go together with our arms exports?

Also during this Almedalen week, Swedish arms exports have been raised during talks concerning Swedish foreign policy. During the week, I had the opportunity to interview several important representatives of the Swedish peace and disarmament movement about their views on Sweden's foreign policy and the new regulations for Swedish arms exports, as well as their criticisms and expectations with it.

At the same time as Sweden conducts dedicated development work and the government has the ambition to pursue a “feminist foreign policy”, there is a clear goal conflict with our country's current arms exports. This is something that both Malin Nilsson, Secretary General of the International Women's Union for Peace and Freedom, Agnes Hellström, President of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Association and Diakonia's Magnus Walan, highlight during our conversations.

What, then, is the reason why Sweden continues to export weapons, one may ask?
One reason why both the Moderates and the Social Democrats continue to support Swedish arms exports is probably the income of the arms industry. In 2016, Sweden exported munitions worth SEK 11 billion. From the arms industry's side, the positive effect in terms of jobs and contact between the arms industry and the business community in the recipient countries can also be highlighted as an argument. These relations could, for example, be clearly distinguished in the spring of 2015 with Foreign Minister Margot Wallström's statement on Saudi Arabia and the government's decision not to extend the Saudi agreement due to the country's human rights violations, after which several business leaders went out in public protest. Although the decision not to extend the agreement with Saudi Arabia seems to have been seen as a step in the right direction, Swedish arms exports have continued both to states in armed conflict and to non-democratic states. In 2016, an estimated 51% of Sweden's arms exports went to countries in armed conflict. Swedish arms exports to dictatorships in the Middle East then amounted to a value of SEK 160 million.

An example that strengthens the peace movement's reasoning about Sweden's contradictory actions can be seen in the case of Yemen. In March 2018, an estimated 22 million people needed humanitarian assistance in Yemen, of which 17 million suffered from food shortages. In 2018, SEK 220 million is planned to be sent as humanitarian aid with a focus on nutrition, health, water and sanitation. However, the link between the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and Swedish arms exports can be discerned in our arms exports to Saudi Arabia, which has been one of the crucial military actors in the war. In 2016, Sweden exported munitions to Saudi Arabia worth SEK 5,3 billion.

During my interview with Annika Söder, Cabinet Secretary at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, she emphasizes, however, that Sweden is one of the leading countries in the world in including the democratic principles in its decision-making regarding arms exports. The new regulations for Swedish arms exports, which were voted through in the Riksdag in February this year and entered into force in mid-April, aim to limit Swedish arms exports to countries that restrict democracy and human rights. The regulations are something that Agnes Hellström emphasizes was much anticipated and that the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Association worked for too long. But since the regulations are too open for free interpretation, she believes that it cannot be seen as a guarantee that Swedish weapons will not reach non-democracies. This is something that Magnus Walan at Diakonia also emphasizes. All three representatives from the peace and disarmament movement are cautiously optimistic here as they believe that the new regulations provide politicians with a golden opportunity to show good practice in its interpretation and thus also reduce Swedish arms exports to non-democratic states.

With Sweden's support for the many civilians affected by the conflict in Yemen and the parallel arms exports to Saudi Arabia, however, Sweden's goal conflict on the issue continues to be clear. The question also sheds light on the role Sweden wishes to play in the international community and peace work, as well as whether we dare to see the actual relationship between cause and effect. What remains is also how the new regulations for Swedish arms exports are chosen to be interpreted and how Swedish interests are weighed against the human rights of other populations.

My interviews with Agnes Hellström, President of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Association, Malin Nilsson, Secretary General of the International Women's Association for Peace and Freedom, Magnus Walan from Diakonia and Annika Söder, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs' Cabinet Secretary, and many more can be found here

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