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Human rights defender or lord of war: Sweden’s identity crisis and its arms sales to Thailand

Unlike Thailand, Sweden was successfully elected as a non-permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council recently. Sweden was by far the favourite amongst the European candidates. It had already received enough votes to secure its position on the Security Council in the first round.

Few would be surprised by Sweden’s successful nomination. Despite only being the 89th largest country in the world by population, it is the sixth largest provider of voluntary contributions to the UN and one of the largest donors to UN development and humanitarian assistance. Sweden made some strong promises too during its nomination campaign pledging that it will “promote respect for international law as the ultimate guarantee of security and defend all human rights” and “work for a more representative, transparent and effective Security Council, equipped to meet emerging forms of conflict” [1].

This is the admirable side of Sweden. But Sweden has another less humanitarian side. It is also a major arms exporter.

Unlike Thailand, Sweden was successfully elected as a non-permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council recently. Sweden was by far the favourite amongst the European candidates. It had already received enough votes to secure its position on the Security Council in the first round.

Few would be surprised by Sweden’s successful nomination. Despite only being the 89th largest country in the world by population, it is the sixth largest provider of voluntary contributions to the UN and one of the largest donors to UN development and humanitarian assistance. Sweden made some strong promises too during its nomination campaign pledging that it will “promote respect for international law as the ultimate guarantee of security and defend all human rights” and “work for a more representative, transparent and effective Security Council, equipped to meet emerging forms of conflict” [2].

This is the admirable side of Sweden. But Sweden has another less humanitarian side. It is also a major arms exporter.

The arms seller

In 2010, Sweden was the largest arms exporter in the world per capita according to the Swedish human rights group Svenskafreds[2]. Since then it has gone down in the rankings slightly. Sweden isn’t just selling weapons to other democratic countries either. It’s also selling arms to countries controlled by dictatorships including Thailand. This is despite an Amnesty International poll which found that 79% of the Swedish public was against its country selling arms to dictatorship regimes [3].

When looking at Sweden’s arms export legislation, it is difficult to see how Swedish arms manufacturers are able to receive licenses to export to the likes of Thailand. According to Sweden’s 1992 Military Equipment Act, the Sweden Agency for Non-proliferation and Export Controls (ISP) has the authority for assessing export applications from Swedish arms manufacturers. According to ISP, a licence may only be granted if there are security and defence policy reasons for doing so and it does not conflict with Sweden's foreign policy [4].

The humanitarian

Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mrs Margot Wallström recently stated that Sweden is pushing for “an increased focus on conflict prevention” and is also ” making a long-term commitment to mediation” and “human rights, democracy and the rule of law are fundamental” [5]. Sweden even plans to appoint a special human rights ambassador. Of course, a longstanding policy of Sweden has also been to remain neutral in armed conflict - a policy it has maintained for over two centuries.

Sweden also has obligations as an EU member when considering whether to permit Swedish firms to export arms. EU members are obliged to consider its international obligations such as upholding embargoes. Members must also ensure arms are only sold to countries where human rights are respected and the country respects international humanitarian law. For instance, a license should be denied where it is suspected that arms may be used by a government for internal repression. In addition, arms should not be exported to countries in international or internal conflict.

An unexpected client

The Thai-Swedish relationship concerning arms has been an important one. Since 2004, Sweden has not only been one of Thailand’s arms supplies, it has been the major arms exporter to Thailand which amounts to almost double the value of US arms exports to Thailand [6].

Based on this level of trade, ISP has obviously concluded that arms sales to Thailand are not in conflict with Sweden’s foreign policy which includes “conflict prevention” and respecting human rights. However, more specifically, ISP has concluded that the Thai authorities respects human rights and international humanitarian law and Thailand is not in a conflict.

Judging by Thailand’s recent UN Universal Periodic Review (UN-UPR) in May this year, it seems quite extraordinary how ISP could have come to the conclusion that Thailand meets the criteria for receiving Swedish manufactured arms. Thailand received 249 recommendations from 97 UN member states. Concerns of human rights abuses in Thailand included arbitrary detention by state officials and state harassment of citizens through ‘attitude adjustment’ sessions, a lack of respect for freedom of opinion and expressing and the use of the Lèse-majesté law to imprison state critics, the trial of civilians in military courts where judges lack impartiality and defendants do not have the right to appeal, and the existence of enforced disappearances as well as state harassment of lawyers and human right defenders investigating these crimes [7].

At the time of Thailand’s UN-UPR, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) president stated that ”a significant number of states are now aware of Thailand’s troubling human rights situation” [8] while the Human Rights Watch Geneva Director remarked that “no one should be fooled by the Thai government’s empty human rights promises” [9].    

Sweden was in fact one of the UN members which expressed its concern during the UN-UPR. “We are concerned about the human rights situation in Thailand including the increased restrictions on freedom of expression in connection with the constitution and referendum” said Veronica Bard, Sweden’s Ambassador to the UN [10].

The human rights situation in Thailand took a nosedive in 2014 when there was a coup and military leaders resumed power of the government. Despite this, ISP allows Swedish arms exports to continue to flow to Thailand because even if a democratic government is suddenly ousted by a military coup, Sweden is committed to supplying supplementary deliveries [11]. Never mind undermining Sweden’s commitment to ‘human rights, democracy and the rule of law’.

However, to pretend that Thailand was on the right track before the 2014 coup and serious human rights abuses were not being committed under previous civil governments would be deeply disingenuous. During Thailand’s first UN-UPR in 2011 when the civilian Pheu Thai Party was in power, serious human rights abuses were widespread and were not being addressed by the government including arbitrary detention, the use of the Lèse-majesté law to suppress freedom of opinion and expression, 7 years of continuous martial law in the Patani conflict region, enforced disappearances, the use of the internal security act and the emergency decree which allows state officials to operate with impunity.

Again, Sweden was one of the UN members which expressed its concerns regarding the human rights situation in Thailand during its first UN-UPR in 2011. “A number of suspected killings and other forms of potential human rights violations have taken place over the last few years without any judicial action taken with regard to those thought to be responsible. Human rights defenders regularly file complaints against the police or armed forces without this leading to any investigations or other attempts at accountability. Bigger incidences such as Tak Bai in 2004 and the dispersement of demonstrations in Bangkok in May 2010 remain without judicial consequences” [12].

Forfeiting principles for profit

Interestingly, Sweden raised the incident which took place in Tak Bak which is believed to have been one of the events which led to the escalation of the conflict in the Patani region. Another example of disproportionate use of state force happened in April 2004 at the Krue Se Mosque in Pattani province when over 100 Patani Malay separatist suspects were killed, some of whom were believed to have been executed by state officials. According to an inside source from the Swedish government interviewed by journalist Nils Resare [13], just a few months after the assault in Krue Se, ISP conducted an analysis to decide whether the Swedish aerospace and defense company, Saab should be given a license to export six Gripen fighter jets to Thailand. According to the source, ISP would have to decide whether human rights abuses in Thailand were serious and systematic or not. That analysis is not available to the public but what is known is that based on that analysis ISP permitted the sale of the fighter jets to Thailand. Resare’s source remarked “It’s completely unbelievable that they could come up to the conclusion that advanced Swedish weapons systems would not be used against the Thai population,”. According to the source, Sweden’s Foreign Ministry was completely aware that Thailand had big problems with democracy and human rights. The source pointed out that it was the Swedish Ambassador to Thailand at the time, Jonas Hafström, who is now Chairman of the Lund University Board, was mainly responsible for conducting the analysis for ISP.  

When Resare cut to the chase and asked ISP’s Deputy Secretary General, Jan-Erik Lövgren outright whether Sweden should be selling arms to Thailand his response was revealing. According to him, it has never been illegal to sell weapons to Thailand even when it is under a military dictatorship like today and the only thing that would make it illegal would be an arms embargo. Resare went on to ask Lövgren whether ISP recognized violations of human rights in Thailand. “No, not with the definition ‘serious, widespread and systematic,’ which would be the terms for an export license to not be granted” was Lövgren’s response [14].

The inconvenient conflict

But there is also another overlooked criteria which it is difficult to see how Thailand could meet – its internal conflict in the most southern part of the country which is also known as Patani. In Thailand – both civilian and military governments – have refused to acknowledge it as a conflict. However, according to a report by Amnesty International in 2011, the conflict meets the criteria of a non-international armed conflict or internal conflict [15]. According to the EU’s criteria which Sweden is subject to, this should automatically disqualify Thailand from receiving arms from Sweden or any other EU country for that matter.

The fact that Thailand refuses to recognize the situation in Patani as a non-international armed conflict means that Thailand is failing to ensure it upholds its obligations under international humanitarian law. Failing to respect international humanitarian law is another breach of the EU criteria for receiving arms exports from EU members.

Thailand’s internal conflict is now in its 13th year and during that period Sweden has been Thailand’s major arms supplier. This hardly sounds like a peace mediating country which prides itself on helping to resolve international conflicts and defending human rights.

Sweden’s identity crisis

While continuing to supply arms to a country like Thailand which has seen such a substantial deterioration in its human rights situation, it is clear that Sweden’s government is suffering from an identity crisis in its role in world affairs. The same cannot be said for Sweden’s citizens however, of whom 84% are against Sweden selling arms to countries with serious and widespread human rights abuses, according to a 2014 Amnesty International poll [16].

Since being nominated onto the 2017-2018 UN Security Council, Sweden has made further ambitious commitments; “During our two-year term, we will take our share of responsibility for international peace and security that membership of the Security Council entails… The last time we had a seat on the Security Council, we were always the ones to emphasize international law and human rights. And that's how it will be this time too” [17].

Let's hope Sweden not only plans to apply these noble principles to its dealings with Thailand but also follows the wishes of its own people.

 

About the author: Adam John is a British national who lives in Sweden and is a supporter of Patani political activism.

 

[1] http://www.government.se/government-of-sweden/ministry-for-foreign-affairs/sweden-for-the-un-security-council-2017-2018/

[2] http://www.svenskafreds.se/swedes-sell-the-most-weapons

[3] http://www.amnesty.se/vad-gor-vi/vapenhandel/svensk-vapenexport/?gclid=Cj0KEQjwwMi7BRDGptbvwOCDj8oBEiQAIALyDD_hwIKiLGA8MtnnAE8xvkwPqG6Fvp31DAPy7aSLZOIaArOy8P8HAQ

[4] http://www.isp.se/sa/node.asp?node=534

[5] http://www.government.se/speeches/2016/02/statement-of-government-policy-in-the-parliamentary-debate-on-foreign-affairs-2016/

[6] Based on data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms Transfers Database

https://www.sipri.org/databases/armstransfers

[7] http://prachatai.org/english/node/6176

[8] http://prachatai.org/english/node/6176

[9] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/05/11/thailand-un-review-highlights-juntas-hypocrisy

[10] http://www.swedenabroad.com/en-GB/Embassies/Geneva/Current-affairs/Statements/UN-Human-Rights-Council-UPR-25th-Session-sys7/

[11] https://www.blankspotproject.se/reportage/how-a-dictatorship-gets-to-buy-swedish-fighter-planes/

[12] http://www.unmultimedia.org/tv/webcast/2011/10/upr-report-of-thailand-12th-universal-periodic-review.html

[13] https://www.blankspotproject.se/reportage/how-a-dictatorship-gets-to-buy-swedish-fighter-planes/

[14] https://www.blankspotproject.se/reportage/how-a-dictatorship-gets-to-buy-swedish-fighter-planes/

[15] https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/asa39/002/2011/en/

[16] http://www.amnesty.se/vad-gor-vi/vapenhandel/svensk-vapenexport/?gclid=Cj0KEQjwwMi7BRDGptbvwOCDj8oBEiQAIALyDD_hwIKiLGA8MtnnAE8xvkwPqG6Fvp31DAPy7aSLZOIaArOy8P8HAQ

[17] http://www.government.se/statements/2016/06/sweden-has-been-elected-to-the-un-security-council/