I wanted to alert our readers to the Margot Wallstrom Affair –because, most likely, most of our readers have not heard about it. This is unfortunate because, as a journalist for The Spectator noted, “[i]f the cries of ‘Je suis Charlie’ were sincere, the western world would be convulsed with worry and anger about the Wallstrom affair.” The Affair pits women’s right against politically interested support for the Saudi Arabian regime, by most of the western world, despite the fact that the Saudi regime has been notorious for its violations of human (and women’s) rights. The extremely scant western media coverage of the Wallstrom Affair signals, at the very best, a lack of interest for the protection of human (and women’s) rights.
Several weeks ago, Margot Wallstrom, the Swedish foreign minister, criticized Saudi Arabia for its subjugation of women (women in Saudi Arabia, as many know, are not allowed to travel, conduct official business or marry without the permission of a male guardian; moreover, Saudi girls can be forced into child marriages), as well as for its decision to punish blogger and human rights activist, Raif Badawi, by sentencing him to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes. According to Wallstrom, these were “medieval methods” and “a cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression.” Thus, Wallstrom stated that she thought it would be unethical for Sweden to continue its military co-operation with Saudi Arabia (Sweden is the world’s 12th largest arms exporter, and its exports to Saudi Arabia total $1.3 billion; Wallstrom’s comments may have been immensely disliked by Swedish arms manufacturers and exporters, whose ability to make money would be undermined if Wallstrom’s comments were taken seriously by the remainder of the Swedish government). Wallstrom’s criticism of Saudi Arabia, perhaps too blunt for a diplomat, was nonetheless truthful. Saudi Arabia, a strategic partner of many western democratic nations, including the United States, has an abysmal human rights record and restricts women from enjoying many basic rights that their male counterparts have access to. Yet, the backlash against Wallstrom has been swift and severe.
Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Sweden and stopped issuing visas to Swedish businessmen (and Swedish businesswomen, presumably). The United Arab Emirates joined Saudi Arabia. Several organizations representing Muslim and/or Gulf states accused Sweden of disrespecting the world’s “rich and varied ethical standards” and Wallstrom of interfering with Saudi internal affairs. There is speculation that Sweden may lose its ability to gain a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2017, because of the Wallstrom Affair. Swedish businessmen sent a letter stating that breaking the arms trade agreement with Saudi Arabia would thwart Sweden’s reputation as a trade and strategic partner. Even Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf asked Wallstrom to compromise. In the face of such severe criticism, Wallstron, a left-wing politician who took office promising that she would implement a feminist foreign policy, may have to capitulate and compromise. Strangely, the western media has paid very little attention to this affair, and most western states have failed to indicate their support of Wallstrom.
The lack of coverage of the Wallstrom Affair by the western media, and the lack of support for Wallstrom by western democracies, reveals two geo-political realities. First, it seems that smaller and less influential countries, such as Sweden, may be more easily manipulated into changing their foreign policy stances. Sweden most likely needs to export goods to Saudi Arabia more than Saudi Arabia needs to import the same goods. Second, it appears that human (and women’s rights) always lose to other political and strategic goals. If we were to truly champion human (and women’s rights), we would not partner with Saudi Arabia on much of anything, and we would be willing to publicly condemn this country’s appalling practices. Sadly, the western democratic regimes have sent the opposite message through their lack of interest for the Wallstrom Affair – that geo-political and business interests trump the protection of human (and women’s) rights. Or, “nous ne sommes pas Margot.”