The Saudi deal shows the need for a new coordinated global policy

The debate has been heated about Sweden's arms agreement with Saudi Arabia. Many have questioned whether Swedish exports should be subject to human rights requirements. Now we must ask ourselves in what way trade can be part of a coordinated policy for global development, writes journalist Jesper Bengtsson.

In the debate on the now terminated arms agreement with Saudi Arabia, a question of a more general nature often arose: should we condition Swedish trade and exports with demands for human rights?

The question is important. The answer to it determines which strategies are reasonable in the work to increase democracy and respect for human rights in our world.

"It is a dangerous and unfortunate way to go," said, for example, Dagens Industri's editor-in-chief PM Nilsson when he debated the issue in the radio's Studio One. When the agreement with the Saudis was then terminated, Nilsson said that this now threatens thousands of jobs in Sweden.

Does trade automatically lead to democracy?

The 31 business directors who wrote in DN if the Saudi agreement, for its part, means that the issue itself is obscene because they believe they know that trade always by definition leads to increased democracy. Then you do not need to condition anything at all. It comes naturally.

The only problem is that it does not seem to be true, of which Saudi Arabia is a good example. For decades, the country has been an important exporting country and a significant trading partner for most Western democracies without becoming more democratic. Following political pressure from the United States, democratic local elections were introduced ten years ago in some parts of Saudi Arabia, but they have not been followed up, and have no practical significance for how the country is governed.

At the same time, it is of course impossible to condition Swedish trade and tell the partner countries that they must at least become like us if they want to buy or sell goods with us as a partner. It would in one fell swoop reduce Swedish exports without giving us greater opportunities to influence the outside world.

There is a limit to when exports become immoral

But why does it have to be either or? The vast majority probably agree that there is a limit to when trade and exports become something immoral. For example, I have not heard anyone from the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise claim that we should have traded more with Hitler's Germany during World War II. And with that said, I might add that many really traded with Hitler's Germany, not least Sweden. But today, most people draw the line there. Or at North Korea, to take a more modern example.

The arguments that Sweden should keep the agreement with the Saudis suffer a great lack of consistency when compared with other political conflicts in the world. When Putin invaded Crimea, the EU imposed sanctions on Russia without our CEOs standing up as a man and protesting.

Following the decision to abolish the arms agreement, SVT's foreign policy commentator Bo-Inge Andersson chose to devote an entire column to quoting what the Foreign Policy Institute writes about Saudi Arabia in its country guide. It says that: "Violations of human rights are many. Torture, arbitrary imprisonment, inadequate trials and substandard prison conditions are some. (…) Freedom of expression, religion, movement and association are lacking. Women are severely discriminated against. Since 1992, however, there have been written rules for the country's governance. They are based on Islamic law, sharia, and contain certain individual rights. There are no political rights. "

Wanting to stop a weapons agreement with a country like this does not mean that one should always link trade agreements to demands for human rights. For PM Nilsson's sake, I repeat this: It does not mean that trade agreements should always be linked to human rights requirements, but it does mean that there are times when it is appropriate.

What global policy do we want?

On the other hand, there are now good reasons for the government and the alliance parties to sit down and consider in what way trade policy can also benefit moral goals. Ten years ago, the then Social Democratic government introduced a Global Development Policy, called the PGU. The idea was that all policy areas would be coordinated to promote global development, the fight against poverty and the work for democracy and human rights.

It has been difficult to measure the extent to which such coordination has actually taken place, and during the coalition government, many critics claimed that the PGU had been forgotten. The red-green parties demanded before the election that the PGU be reviewed to be more effective and have recently announced that such a revision is underway.

At the same time, there is an increased awareness in the business community that their work in other countries can play a role, but only if they work strategically and purposefully. And then the loose assumption that trade by definition favors democracy is not enough.

Let the conversation that has now been about the Saudi agreement live on. Let it help us have a global development policy worthy of the name.

Jesper Bengtsson

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