Sweden’s term on the UN Security Council—its first in almost 20 years—began Monday, a position the country landed but not without raising a huge controversy and embroiling its foreign minister, Margot Wallström, in a domestic scandal.
For a small European country with a population of less than 10 million, a non-permanent seat on the Security Council is an opportunity to increase its diplomatic weight in discussions of global security. Sweden will be an observer position on the council until Jan. 1, at which point the country’s two-year term as a non-permanent member of the council begins in earnest.
Swedish diplomats have indicated that the country has an ambitious series of goals for its tenure: to make the council more transparent, to limit the right of the permanent members’ veto and to push for a so-called “feminist foreign policy”—goals that stand in stark contrast to the back-room dealing that critics say the government used to get this position.
In April, a Swedish newspaper reported that the government had been covertly using money from the international aid budget to entertain UN ambassadors and woo their votes. Fifty ambassadors, largely from small island nations or developing countries, went on an expenses-paid trip to Sweden in 2015 and March 2016. The Foreign Ministry said they were in Sweden for a climate seminar, but experts accuse the government of trying to buy votes. Every country on the Security Council gets one vote in the elections for non-permanent members, so small island states have the same influence as countries like China or Brazil.
“My fear is that our reputation has been tainted,” said Erik Helmerson, a journalist at the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. In an opinion piece published the day before the vote, he called the campaign for the seat “shabby.”
“We sent diplomats and ministers to lots of small island republics in the Pacific Ocean, where they met with nations that no one had heard of before … Other countries might see this behavior as a bit too blatant to be normal foreign policy,” he said in an interview.
A long-serving diplomat and ex-Foreign Ministry official voiced his reservations about how the country gained its position of influence in an interview with Dagens Nyheter. “These are not methods that states like Sweden use,” Carl-Henrik Ehrenkrona, the former legal chief for the Foreign Ministry, said in Swedish.
The charitable Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation picked up the tab for expensive airfares, hotels and restaurant bills for the ambassadors, using a grant from the government of around $1.6 million. That money was intended for developmental aid. Annika Östman, a press officer for the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, denied that the foundation acted as a middleman for the Foreign Ministry.
“We issued a statement to the newspaper and requested a correction as there was a number of incorrect facts in their reporting,” she said via email. She provided a copy of their statement to the press, which said, “All seminar-related expenditures were paid for by us, within the regular budget. The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation has not asked for and has not received any special payments for this seminar series.”
Östman said that the UN ambassadors did meet with Swedish government representatives to discuss Sweden’s candidacy for a seat on the Security Council during their trip, but that the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation had no role in this.
For the Swedish government, gaining a seat on the Security Council became a foreign policy priority 12 years ago, one that the current foreign minister, Margot Wallström, took on after her appointment two years ago. Since then, she has indicated her wide-ranging and ambitious goals for UN reform and the increased participation of women in resolving conflicts.
Speaking last week, Wallström said she was looking forward to working for “a more transparent, effective and legitimate UN—that lives up to the UN Charter.” An investigation is ongoing into her handling of the Security Council campaign after two members of the Swedish Parliament filed a complaint, accusing her and her department of creative accounting.
Representatives from the Foreign Ministry did not respond when asked for comment.
Carl Skau, who works for the Swedish Mission to the UN, was involved in the campaign from the UN headquarters in New York. When asked whether the campaign damaged the country’s diplomatic reputation, he said, “I don’t know where that statement is coming from. There has been a lively domestic discussion on whether it makes sense to run these campaigns, and I think that’s healthy … But I think in terms of our membership now, I would sense that there is full political support and the support of public opinion.”
Photo: Margot Wallström addressing the General Assembly in a debate on peace and security at United Nations Headquarters, New York, on May 10, 2016. Rick Bajornas / UN Photo