Foreign Minister Margot Wallström and King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Photo: TT
Foreign Minister Margot Wallström and King Salman of Saudi Arabia. Photo: TT

Saudi debacle overshadows Sweden's UN security council bid

"Hard to combine practical politics with moralistic foreign policy"
6:44 min

Last week's diplomatic debacle with Saudi Arabia has stirred up a debate about Sweden's relations with the UN.

When Foreign Minister Margot Wallström last week travelled to Cairo to give a speech at the Arab League, the plan was to also canvass support for Sweden taking a seat at the UN security council 2017-2018.

But instead, Saudi Arabia blocked that speech, and the Arab League ended up unanimously condemning Wallström for her previous criticism of Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

Sweden has had a seat in the United Nations Security council three time before, in the 1950s, 70s and 90s. Roughly once every 20 years, a space opens up for Sweden to run for one of the 10 seats for non-permanent members of the security council. And now it's time again. Sweden is competing against Italy and the Netherlands to gain one of two seats in the council in 2017 and 2018.

But has Sweden's chances to be successful in such a campaign been affected by the recent diplomatic scuffle with Saudi Arabia?

Aleksander Gabelic, the chairman of the UN Association in Sweden, doesn't really think so.

"The vote will be in the end of 2016, and I think many things will happen before then. I hope that we can re-establish our good relations in the Midde East," he told Radio Sweden.

Last week, Foreign Minister Margot Wallström herself admitted that Sweden does not have the support of Saudi Arabia for its candidacy to the UN security council, but she also said she had nothing to be ashamed of. She quoted Jonathan Lejonhjärta, a figure out of a popular Astrid Lindgren novel, who said "there are things that you have to do, even if they are dangerous. Otherwise you are not a human being, but just a piece of dirt".

But this principled stance on human rights may be difficult to combine with attempts to join the high table at the UN, said professor Jan Hallenberg at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm.

"It is quite hard to combine practical politics with a very high-minded, moralistic foreign policy, because foreign policy is by its nature a grey zone where it is very difficult to distringiush between what is really moral and what is not," he told Radio Sweden.

Other critics are harsher. The author and liberal debater Fredrik Segerfeldt, who has written a book called "UN - the shattered dream", hailed recent developments with the words "Finally Sweden can become a moral superpower" in a debate piece for SVT Opinion.

He thinks Sweden should drop all attempts to join the UN security council,  which he calls "a club of oppressors". The Social Democrat drive to be a player at the UN is merely nostalgia back to the days when Olof Palme was prime minister, he says.

And Björn Fägersten, at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs calls the campaign to join the UN security council "a gamble".

"Even if we get at seat at the UN security council, it doesn't really mean we will have an influence, if the UN hasn't got an influence," he said.

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