Swedish arms trade makes it more difficult for civil societies

Democratic space is shrinking and voices are being silenced. Around the world, freedom of expression has become increasingly threatened. Now Sweden must take its responsibility and stop exporting weapons to countries that imprison human rights activists and restrict freedom of assembly, writes the International Women's Union for Peace and Freedom.

"The shrinking democratic space" - a term that has come to describe the increased restrictions on freedom of assembly, expression and association that have been noted around the world. The space has been shrunk in several ways, for example through increased surveillance, requirements for registration of organizations and withdrawn grants, but also through direct threats and violence. Standing up for justice and democracy has simply become more difficult and dangerous. The restrictions have become a tactic used to silence resistance leaders, human rights activists and civil society.

It was the terrorist attack in New York on September 11, 2001 - and the terrorist wars that began after the attack - that started today's trend of shrinking democratic spaces. The political protests in Eastern Europe in the early 2000s, and since the Arab Spring, also contributed to an acceleration of democratic restrictions.

The shrinking space is often associated with oppressive political regimes, where, for example, the war on terror has been used as an excuse for some countries to restrict civil society. But it is also an indirect effect of other sociopolitical phenomena, such as increased militarization, proliferation, populism and nationalist movements.

Women and minorities are attacked first

Women's rights activists who question patriarchal societal structures have always been exposed to threats and violence, especially sexual violence, as they challenge prevailing societal structures and often deviate from the traditional female role.

When democratic space is limited, it is usually the groups that are already subject to structural discrimination and oppression, such as women and minorities, who are first affected. Due to patriarchal structures and lack of access to official power, civil society is a natural place for women to organize. Thus, the shrinking civil space becomes a direct issue of women's reduced rights and participation.

As a result of Donald Trump's entry ban, for example, many women's activists were prevented from attending the UN Commission on Women's Annual Meeting in New York in March 2017. The global women's movement is also witnessing increasing difficulties for women activists, especially young women, to obtain Schengen visas. international meetings in Europe. This contributes to a reduction in women's participation in international peace and conflict work. This is particularly problematic as the UN headquarters are located in New York and Geneva.

The arms trade collides with foreign policy

The arms trade is an area that often clashes with the overall Swedish foreign policy. The 2016 report from the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Meeting and Association highlights, among other things, the problems of shrinking space in countries such as India, Thailand, Indonesia, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Sweden sold weapons to all those countries in 2016.

In March 2017, the development assistance authority Sida joined a letter on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which proposes how Sweden can work better to prevent the shrinking space for civil society. The letter highlights, among other things, the need for Swedish exports to be more clearly included in foreign policy in order for the government to be able to counteract the shrinking space globally. The letter recommends, among other things, that there should be a system for how "[…] conflicts of interest that may arise when efforts to protect civil society clash with other priorities (eg economic and security policy) should be handled".

For Sweden, feminist foreign policy is also an important and concrete means of influence. One of the focus areas for 2017 in the feminist foreign policy action plan is to "promote the participation of women and girls as a strategy against the shrinking democratic space and the double vulnerability of women and girls". Another focus area is that "[the] foreign administration shall work for a gender equality perspective in the area of ​​disarmament and weapons control". Sweden also has an international commitment through the UN arms trade agreement, which has a specific criterion aimed at preventing gender-based violence.

Sweden must put greater international pressure on governments through direct talks, but also through trade relations. The legitimizing effects of the arms trade on non-democratic countries must be made visible. For example, the arms trade supports states that systematically oppose the values ​​and objectives of feminist foreign policy. Sweden's action plan for entrepreneurship and human rights must also be expanded to include a clear gender equality perspective, binding requirements and concrete measures to ensure that Swedish companies respect human rights.

Annie Matundu Mbambi, Chair of IKFF Democratic Republic of Congo
Annika Skogar, Chairman of IKFF Sweden
Ayo Ayoola-Amale, Chairman of IKFF Ghana
Edwick Madzimure, Chairman of IKFF Zimbabwe
Micheline Muzaneza, Chair of IKFF South Africa
Pascasie Barampama, Chairman of IKFF Burundi
Sylvie Ndongmo, President of IKFF Cameroon

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