Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallström’s modus operandi has been regarded as something of a departure from the realpolitik style of diplomacy.
The outspoken Social Democrat has, on the odd occasion, been compared to Olof Palme, Sweden’s charismatic yet divisive prime minister who succumbed to an assassin’s bullet in 1986.
A recent Guardian editorial called her “magnificently undiplomatic”, particularly with regard to the debacle concerning her comments on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.
Wallström, whose government has recently recognised the Palestinian state, was in South Africa recently as part of the Nordic-Africa Ministerial Meeting but spent additional time visiting the Hector Pieterson Museum and an antipoverty project run by Rev Frank Chikane among other places.
On a wintry Saturday afternoon, Wallström and her security detail strolled through Braamfontein for a few hours, with Wallström taking in the scene of the gentrified inner city and chatting to the odd reveller about entrepreneurship and other issues.
Even in person, Wallström has an exacting charm, firmly making her points and correcting what she deems erroneous accounts of her first few months in office.
‘Down to earth’
Chikane describes her as being like “most Swedish politicians, very simple, and down to earth. She interacts with people in a way that most people don’t. She becomes like the people …”.
Sweden and South Africa share strong relations, with the Nordic country having provided substantial financial support to the anti-apartheid struggle. It was also, symbolically, the first non-African country Nelson Mandela visited on his release from prison. Today, about 18 000 South Africans are employed by Swedish companies.
When Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced in January to 1 000 lashes spread over 20 weeks, Wallström, who was appointed foreign minister last year, called the sentence “medieval”, leading to the cancellation of a talk she was due to give at an Arab League Summit in Egypt in March. The Saudis also withdrew their ambassador from Stockholm.
A day after Wallström was to have appeared in Cairo, the Saudi government learned that a memorandum of understanding for an arms trade agreement between the two countries would not be renewed, potentially jeopardising substantial trade in a partnership worth billions between the two countries.
“When we came into government, the fact is there was a majority of political parties in the Parliament that asked for the termination of the memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia and this is what we did,” Wallström told the Mail & Guardian during her recent visit.
“My statements about events that happened for example with this [Saudi] blogger, that was an international reaction, nothing extraordinary from my side. Of course, I clearly state that we are pro-democracy and pro-human rights. I do not regret what I’ve said, I’m not taking anything back from what I am saying and we have corrected what was spread as a rumour in the Muslim world that it was an attack on Muslims and Islam.”
Wrangling and efforts to mend
Wallström said trade between the two countries continues, “based on mutual respect and sometimes agreeing to disagree on issues”. Her statement that “all diplomatic instruments we have available” were used to quell the tensions probably indicates the scale of the wrangling and efforts to mend relations.
A delegation of Swedish officials travelled to the Saudi capital with letters from both Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and King Carl XVI Gustaf, to soften any misunderstandings.
The Arab press carried pictures of former defence minister and Swedish special envoy Björn von Sydow bowing in front of Saudi King Salman under headlines portraying the Swedes as apologetic. It seemed to work as the Saudi ambassador to Sweden was reinstated.
Although Wallström’s political opponents censured her, she said she had “never received so much support and backing and applause – not only from Sweden but from all over of the world”.
“Women’s organisations, human rights organisations, the Washington Post and the Guardian and others have really spoken up. I think that this is really important in all of this. Everything has been restored including the [previously cancelled] business visas, so that’s good.”
Some have hailed the coalition government’s pressure that led to the cancellation of the arms deal with Saudi Arabia as an example of Wallström’s “feminist foreign policy” in action. Wallström, though, is modest, acknowledging the dilemma that comes with having arms production expertise in the current global climate. “We have highly qualified producers of arms and weapon technology, we are among the world leaders in a number of areas,” said Wallström.
“That carries with it a political dilemma. That’s why we have very strict legislation and a method of dealing with these cases by leaving it with an authority that will only consult the government on cases of principle and meaning. It is heavily regulated and what is now under way is an effort to add the democracy criteria to how Sweden will look at different contracts.”
Wallström says her idea of a “feminist foreign policy” involves specific checks run by Swedish embassies to assist host countries in “making sure that women have the same rights as men, that they are represented properly, that resources also go to women”.
Wallström said during a recent visit to Mozambique, she noted with concern the number of young girls being married off in that country. “I was appalled by the information that maybe half of all girls were married as children,” she said, observing that it was referred to as “early marriage” instead of “child marriage”.
“What does it do to an economy of the country if young girls don’t get their education, start very early to give birth, are staying at home and can’t participate fully in the economy and don’t enjoy the same rights or get the same choices as men? It will hamper the economic development of any country.
“I think this is how it should be seen and not as any kind of mumbo jumbo or something that is extreme to any degree. It’s just a matter of equality and making sure that the policies reflect that women have the same rights and that human rights are also women’s rights.”