Truthdigger of the Week: Margot Wallström
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.
Despite a human rights record that could put the Islamic State group to shame, Saudi Arabia became virtually untouchable in the 20th century thanks to the world’s increasing need for oil and — as the filmmaker Adam Curtis highlights in his recent documentary, “Bitter Lake” — unfailing support from American presidents dating back to Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to Curtis, the “special relationship” that emerged from a meeting between King Abdulaziz and Roosevelt in 1945 has shielded the brutal Saudi regime from Western criticism for 70 years.
The newly minted Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallström, has changed all that. Wallström took office last October and is a member of the Social Democrats, which leads the country’s current minority government in coalition with the Greens. Since then, she has kept to her word to make feminism and human rights essential parts of her nation’s foreign policy. And it didn’t take long for Wallström to show her determination. In her first month in office, Sweden recognized the state of Palestine, with Wallström declaring: “The government considers that international law criteria for recognition of a Palestinian state have been fulfilled.”
Israel was angry and immediately recalled its ambassador to Sweden.
Then in January, Wallström denounced the Saudi regime’s flogging of the blogger Raif Badawi, calling it “medieval” and tweeting:
Blogger Raif Badawi was flogged today in Saudi Arabia. This cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression has to be stopped.
— Margot Wallström (@margotwallstrom) January 9, 2015
Wallström has also criticized the Middle Eastern country’s denial of women’s rights. The Spectator reported:
The Swedish foreign minister denounced the subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia. As the theocratic kingdom prevents women from travelling, conducting official business or marrying without the permission of male guardians, and as girls can be forced into child marriages where they are effectively raped by old men, she was telling no more than the truth.
Wallström’s comments were unwelcome in Riyadh, with Saudi leaders’ blocking her from speaking before the Arab League in Cairo early last month.
Their decision came just as the Swedish parliament was mulling over the renewal of a 2005 arms deal with the Arab country. While Saudi Arabia’s cancellation of ‘her speech might be viewed as a veiled threat, the decision seems to have backfired. The Swedish Green Party’s Carl Schlyter said the cancellation “proves that those who argue that a military agreement with Saudi will help human rights have been completely wrong.”
The rest of the Swedish government appeared to agree with Schlyter because the arms deal — up for renewal every five years — was called off by a majority vote.
Sweden was recently ranked as the 12th-largest arms dealer in the world, but the economic ramifications of the Swedish parliament’s vote go far beyond the weapons industry.
“Big Swedish firms do more than £1bn ($1.68 bn) in business with Saudi Arabia every year. Ikea, H&M, Ericsson, Volvo, Scania and Electrolux all sell civilian goods; LKAB, the state-owned mining firm which provides much of the employment above the Arctic Circle, ships 30% of its output to Saudi Arabia. Saab exports military equipment and would like to sell more.”
As Sweden put its money where Wallström’s mouth is, the real backlash began. Saudi Arabia also pulled its ambassador to Sweden; began to rile up the rest of the Arab world against Wallström and the entire Scandinavian country; revoked business visas for Swedes; and took the pettiness to a new level when it turned away “four tiny Amazonian monkeys from a Swedish zoo because of … [the] diplomatic row.” (I mean, really, what do minuscule monkeys have to do with any of this?)
Riyadh seems to have bullied other Islamic countries into following in its footsteps, with the UAE withdrawing its ambassador to Sweden and the entire Gulf Cooperation Council calling the Swedish foreign minister’s statements as “blatant interference in internal affairs,” after making it seem as though Wallström’s words were an attack on Islam. Wallström’s gender has certainly played a role in the saga as well, as the deeply misogynist regime doesn’t seem to have taken well to being criticized by a woman.
But as both applause and criticism poured in from all angles, the Swedish foreign minister stood valiantly by her condemnations. “I won’t back down over my statements on women’s rights, democracy and that one shouldn’t flog bloggers,” Wallström said. “I have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Throughout the controversy, Wallström has had the approval of a large part of the Swedish public, but there has been a glaring lack of support from other Western countries. Yet in the end, it seems the “magnificently undiplomatic foreign minister,” as The Guardian calls her, may have come out on top. Saudi Arabia said it would send its ambassador back to Stockholm in late March after a somewhat embellished announcement regarding Sweden’s “apology.”
While King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden did send a former foreign defense minister to appease King Salman, in no way has Wallström backtracked, nor, does it seem, will she. Instead, she has handled concerns about her comments with grace, declaring in a speech before Sweden’s parliament: “We have the greatest respect for Islam as a world religion and for its contributions to our common civilization.” Her comment was surely not only intended for the Arab countries attempting to punish Sweden, but also for the Muslim population living in the Nordic country.
The Guardian notes that “her words will have done nothing to stop Swedish companies strengthening the Saudi regime as much as they can,” but one can hope that her comments have marked the beginning of a shift in the Western tendency toward turning the other way from allies’ atrocities, even when it means losing quite a bit of moola, or riyals, in this case. Wallström’s actions also go to show that not every politician has a price tag attached and that sometimes when leaders stick to their guns (so to speak) on matters that are as worthwhile as human rights, some progress can be made.
For her feminist, humanist and, above all, legitimate comments against a regime that deserves its fair share of comeuppance, for staying firm in the face of Saudi Arabia’s reprisals and for the bold courage she’s displayed throughout the diplomatic affair, Margot Wallström is our Truthdigger of the Week.