NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– Saudi Arabia has restored its ambassadorship to Sweden and now it’s safe to assume the recent flare up is over between the two nations.
The uproar began when Margot Wallstrom, the Swedish foreign minister, tweeted about the lack of human rights in the nation. Incensed, the Arab kingdom withdrew its envoy. United Arab Emirates followed suit. But support from other prominent Swedes was not forthcoming.
For some people who observed Wallstrom closely in her previous role as the U.N.’s first special rapporteur on sexual violence in conflict from 2010 to 2012, the ease of tensions is hardly welcome, though. For them, lack of public support for Wallstrom represents a lost opportunity for human rights.
Last fall, when Wallstrom assumed the foreign ministry post, she pledged to develop a feminist foreign policy agenda for Sweden. She stood by her words in February when she openly criticized the women’s rights situation in Saudi Arabia and followed up when she told the Swedish Parliament that women’s human rights are violated in Saudi Arabia, including a universally enforced religious tradition that bars women from driving.
At the end of March, Sweden, a leading arms exporter, decided not to renew a 10-year weapons deal with Saudi Arabia. Despite appearances, the country’s prime minister, Stefan Löfven, denied the decision was related to the human rights skirmish. Saudi Arabia ranked as the second largest arms importer during that time period, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
"It should have been a pivotal movement, it should have been a time when a state stood up," said Madeleine Rees, secretary general of the Geneva-based Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, in a recent phone interview. "Sweden is no minor player, it should have said, ‘We have this foreign policy; this is what it means.’ The fact is they didn’t all stand up and of course this is not going to be a pivotal movement. In the best of all possible worlds it should have been."
As a result, Rees–who previously led the women’s rights division for the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights–says she wonders if Wallstrom has been let down as foreign minister, not gaining adequate support from the people around her.
"What is sad is the deafening silence around what happened, the story that wasn’t," said Rees. "She only said what everybody else is saying, that it is a medieval state, basically a bunch of rich cousins sitting on oil and that we would not be talking to them and would not be interested in them at all apart from all of this enormous wealth. Nobody should be doing business with Saudi Arabia. It is one of the most pernicious states."
Rees thinks Wallstrom should have found more vocal support for her statements not only from within Sweden but also from other major Western countries as well as UN Women, the super agency dedicated to gender equality.
In January, Wallstrom incensed Saudi Arabia with some unusually blunt human rights criticism of the Persian Gulf, when she Tweeted about the "medieval" treatment of jailed blogger Raif Badawi and said the "cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression has to be stopped."
Badawi, according to Liesl Gerntholtz, the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights division, has been jailed since 2012 for cybercrime provisions, among other charges, and is sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison.
Wallstrom’s offending tweet about Badawi was later deleted but the damage was done.
Saudi Arabia withdrew its diplomatic envoy from Sweden, followed by the United Arab Emirates. In March, shortly before Wallstrom was slated to deliver a speech on human rights at the Arab League meeting in Cairo, the league called off the lecture.
"Some of it came as a surprise because the reaction was very, very strong by Saudi Arabia," said Elisabeth Lofgren, the spokesperson for Amnesty International in Sweden, in a phone interview.
No Real Change
"It would be wonderful if this marked some kind of genuine change, but I don’t think it will," Human Rights Watch’s Gerntholtz said in a recent phone interview. "It is probably a one-off. It will be interesting to see how the Swedish government will bring this forward or support her, or might get her to back down . . . many of us expected that she would be dismissed."
In a recent conversation with The New Yorker, Wallstrom expressed her commitment to becoming a little "braver in foreign policy," and questioned if Sweden should shy away from defending "democracy and human rights." She added, "We’re not backing down from that," she said.
As the U.N. special rapporteur on sexual violence, Wallstrom had a high post but her small office was overwhelmed by the massive scale of its mission to battle the impunity with which sexual violence is perpetrated in conflict zones around the world. A major crisis that exposed her office’s shortcomings came early in her tenure, with the mass rape of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2010.
Wallstrom, a veteran Swedish politician, may be able to act and speak more freely in her current post than while at the U.N., where the diplomatic culture is famously circumspect.
"In terms of making country visits," said Human Rights Watch’s Gerntholtz, "it is a very complicated position and it is difficult to be forthright."