Thursday, December 12, 2019

Swedish race for UN Security Council seat tests feminist foreign policy

In a campaign to secure a seat on the UN Security Council for 2017-18, Sweden holds its flag high over its peace and development agenda.

Earlier in the fall, during a power struggle over the aid budget, the Foreign Ministry warned that deep cuts in aid would put an end to Sweden’s bid for a seat on the prestigious council.

Niclas Kvarnström, head of the team coordinating the campaign, says to Development Today good aid performance is an advantage and it is a field where Sweden is far ahead of the other contenders.

Margot Wallström, Swedish Foreign Minister
Photo: UN Photo

Foreign Minister Margot Wallström said recently that Sweden has “gained increasing support through an intensive campaign” to promote its candidacy. Sweden is competing with two other EU members, the Netherlands and Italy, for two Security Council seats.  

Ambassador Niclas Kvarnström heads the team at the Foreign Ministry in Stockholm leading the campaign for a seat on the UN’s most prestigious council. He tells Development Today that the Swedish Red-Green government said from Day One that this was worth fighting for.

 “We feel that our candidacy is doing very well and that we have turned a corner after being a bit of a late starter a year ago. Now it is an open race,” he says.

Although all parties in Parliament support the bid, the Swedish government has met criticism for its efforts in the press, triggered last spring when Wallström, speaking in the Swedish Parliament, called the Saudi royal regime a “dictatorship” and characterised as “medieval” a court decision sentencing the blogger Raif Badawi to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes.

Sweden had at the time high marks in the Arab world for being the first Western EU member to recognise the Palestinian state. Riyadh retaliated by blocking Wallström from holding a speech at the Arab League, where promoting the Security Council bid was meant to be a key message.

A forceful diplomacy effort calmed down the Swedish-Saudi row, but critics points out that it can be difficult for Sweden to pursue a human rights agenda while campaigning for a seat on the Security Council. It has to win the support of two-thirds of UN members’ votes to reach the finish line. 


Wallström, who has labelled her foreign policy “feminist”, rejects the criticism: “Our candidacy efforts do not involve us compromising on fundamental principles such as human rights – as some might maintain. On the contrary, this candidacy is about gaining a platform for our values”, she writes in a recent opinion published in Svenska Dagbladet.

Noting the criticism, Kvarnström says that Wallström’s statement speaks for itself. He does not comment directly on the Saudi position about the Swedish candidacy, but says Sweden has “good relations in the region.” 

Sweden is working along two main tracks to secure a slot on the Security Council. One arena is the United Nations in New York. “The closer we get to the voting, the more of the campaign work will focus on New York where the votes will be cast,” says Kvarnström.

At the same time, Swedish diplomats and politicians are pushing the candidacy in capitals around the world. According to Kvarnström, Sweden is promoting its candidacy in a soft way. “I think the cornerstone in this is dialogue. For a country like Sweden, it is largely about having a conversation and listening to other countries’ perspective. It sounds simple, but it is quite fundamental,” he says.


Although there is no rotation agreement among the Nordic countries, they have a tradition of supporting each other’s candidacies. Denmark and Norway have had four periods each on the Security Council, while Sweden, the largest of the Nordics and the biggest donor, has only held a seat three times. 



4 periods

1953-1954, 1967-1968, 1985-1986, 2005-2006


4 periods

1949-1950, 1963-1964, 1979-1980, 2001-2002


3 periods

1957-1958, 1975-76, 1997-1998


2 periods

1969-1970, 1989-1990

Source: Swedish Foreign Ministry

Kvarnström says: “What counts is that another country with solid credibility states clearly that we want you to support Sweden and we think the issues Sweden drives are important,” he says.  He notes that such support from Norway, which has credibility in the UN and many partnerships and friends, would be important.

“All the Nordic-Baltic countries are backing Sweden’s candidacy,” but Kvanström notes that each country has two votes to cast for the three European contenders in the first round.  

The Nordics are members in the so-called Western European (WEOG) group, which is one of five unofficial regional groups in the UN. This group consists mainly of Western European countries, but includes Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel. The WEOG holds two of the ten non-permanent seats at the UN Security Council.

Sweden announced back in 2004 its candidacy for a seat on the council and was followed by the Netherland the next year. For a few years they hoped for a so-called clean slate, but Italy joined the race in 2009 turning it into a fierce competition.

“We often get the feedback that this is not good. Why are we forced to choose among three friends, other countries tell us,” Kvarnström notes.


Independent of its candidacy, Sweden has pushed for having only two candidates at a time from the WEOG, a so-called “clean slate” approach as some of the other geographic groups have. But this model has over the years been resisted by bigger countries that aim for a seat on the council on a more regular basis.

Kvanström underlines that Sweden is a staunch supporter of the UN and the sixth largest contributor to the world body. It has had the fewest periods on the Security Council among the contenders. Italy has been a member six times, most recently in 2009, while the Netherlands has been on the council five times.

Kvarnström says this is an unfortunate situation. “We do not think we should throw in the towel because some countries want to be on the Security Council more often. It is impossible to argue like that. If we waited for another 20 years, they could compete with us again anyway“, he says.

Sweden, along with Norway and Luxembourg, are the three donors that provide 1 per cent of Gross National income (GNI) as official development assistance. Sweden is also a huge provider of core funding to UN agencies. In Sweden’s arguments for its candidacy, the country’s broad peace and development agenda is hailed.

Still, Kvarnström warns against the assumption that large aid contributions mean that Sweden is “entitled” to a seat on the council. “I don’t think that works with the developing countries … [rather] we are one of the countries that have preconditions for linking political and security issues to the development agenda.” Sweden has a very broad development approach covering issues like humanitarian crisis, climate and gender, he says.

Earlier this fall the finance ministry in Stockholm asked for an analysis of the consequences of using 60 per cent of the development cooperation budget to fund domestic refugee costs. The ministry’s response was that such a move would put an end to Sweden’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council. Later the government agreed to a 30 per cent ceiling on aid that could be spent on domestic refugee costs.

Kvarnström plays down the incident: “I do not think we had ideas about giving up the candidacy,” he says.

He adds that good aid performance is an advantage and it is a field where Sweden is far ahead of the other contenders for the Security Council seat. But he admits that it would have been problematic if Sweden had been forced due to aid cuts to make radical reductions in UN funding and break agreements with cooperation countries.

“That is of course something we do not want,” he says.  


The campaign leadership rejects press reports hinting that Sweden has been offering aid in return for support for the Security Council bid. “We cannot do that. There are countries using aid in that way. The fact is that Sweden is not such a player,” he says.

In fact, the opposite is true, Kvarnström says. Sweden is a big contributor of core funding to UN agencies. This is money that is not so visible at country level.

Sweden has together with the other Nordic countries been a driver of UN reform. When it comes to the Security Council, limiting the veto power of the permanent members has been a main concern. 

“We can see how destructive the veto is when there is a clear majority in the Council [for action] in serious humanitarian situations,” he says. Sweden is also in favour of extending the number of permanent members.

“A huge majority of the UN’s members are very much in favour of a more representative council,” Kvarnström says.

Sweden also aims to improve working methods in the council and be a good advocate for UN agencies in matters regarding refugees and humanitarian assistance. The interaction between the agencies and the council can be improved, he says.


Kvarnström will not talk in detail about how Sweden is promoting its candidacy because of the competitive nature of the campaign. But he admits that they benefit from the large combined Nordic diplomatic network, largely funded by the countries’ broad development assistance. 

“It is obvious that Nordic support helps to establish dialogue in countries where we do not have representation. We are trying to use all channels,” he says.

If Sweden wins a seat on the UN Security Council, what will its agenda be?  Sweden sees itself as having a deep understanding of what Kvarnström calls the “whole conflict cycle” from prevention to peacebuilding.

“It comes down to finding processes at an early stage that lead to peace and avoid conflicts,” he says.

He also highlights Sweden’s broad security approach, which includes issues like climate and gender.

“A small country like Sweden with strong partnerships in all parts of the world can also be a good bridgebuilder when the council is under pressure. So we hope to be a voice for dialogue and resolving some of the entanglements that occur in the council,” he says.  


·           ODA amounts to 1 per cent of GNI. Ambitious climate change action, generous asylum policy, disarmament engagement.

·           Strong supporter of the UN, sixth largest provider of voluntary contributions.

·           Committed peace partner to UN, more than 80,000 Swedes have served in UN missions.

·           One of the largest donors and providers of core funds to UN agencies.

·           Staunch supporter of UN peacebuilding.

·           A believer in dialogue, a consensus builder, which will advocate for small states.

·           Respect for international law, the ultimate guarantee of security and defense of human rights.

·           Speaks out for common values and principles.

·           Wants a more representative, transparent and effective Security Council

·           It will be 20 years since Sweden last took a seat on the Security Council.

Source: Swedish Foreign Ministry