Spearheading Security: Interview with Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde

Spearheading Security: Interview with Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde

. 9 min read

Ann Linde is the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Sweden. For 2021, Linde is the Chair-Person-in-Office of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). In the interview, Linde discusses Sweden’s feminist foreign policy, NATO relations, human rights advocacy, and press freedoms, among other topics.

You have been an outspoken advocate for a feminist foreign policy. What does a feminist foreign policy look like in practice? What specific achievements are you most proud of in this regard?

I’m proud of the fact that Sweden has been able to establish feminist foreign policy as a new standard. We’ve witnessed a culture shift over the past seven years since its introduction. A key component has been the shared contribution and ownership of everyone at the Swedish Foreign Service, from senior management to local staff at our embassies. This helps us be a consistent and reliable force for gender equality in times of shrinking democratic space and increasing resistance to women’s and girls’ human rights around the world.

Our feminist foreign policy is firmly embedded in the organization. Gender equality is not treated as a special interest; instead, our policy is a perspective and a working method, and both must be systematic in order to be effective. We also champion gender equality and women’s and girls’ enjoyment of human rights at every opportunity we get, whether it be at the United Nations or during Sweden’s term as Chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) this year. Feminist foreign policy requires us to consider everything through a gender lens and highlight the need for a gender perspective in areas that have been considered gender-neutral by default when that has not been the case, such as international trade policy.

In December 2020, the Riksdag voted in favor of having the option to join NATO. However, you remain strongly opposed to joining the military alliance. What are the benefits of not joining NATO? That said, in which areas do you expect coordination with NATO to grow in the future?

Our security policy remains unchanged. Sweden’s military non-alignment serves us well and contributes to security and stability in our neighborhood. At the same time, our security and defense policy is based on solidarity and building security together with others. In this context, we have committed to deepening our partnership with NATO, as we have with the United States and other key bilateral partners. The government has no plans to adopt a so-called NATO option—as proposed by the Riksdag—as part of our security policy doctrine.

With NATO, we would be interested in developing our partnership further to include dialogue and cooperation on emerging threats and greater awareness of common security challenges in our neighborhood and beyond.

It is important to understand that military non-alignment has deep historical roots in Sweden. We believe that predictability and stability in the formulation of our security policy doctrine are important in themselves, especially in times of uncertainty. That said, Sweden’s security policy is determined by Sweden itself, according to what we at any given time believe best serves our security interests.

In 2021, Sweden is the Chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). What are your main priorities in leading the security organization?

As Chair, our emphasis is on the fundamental tasks of the OSCE. The 57 participating states have agreed on a number of principles and commitments that lay the foundation for our shared security. These commitments–underpinned by international law and the UN Charter–are commonly referred to as the “European security order.” They include respect for the territorial integrity of states, peaceful settlement of disputes, refraining from the threat or use of force, and the freedom of states to choose their own security arrangements.

Through the unique OSCE concept of comprehensive security, participating states have also agreed on the link between security within and between states and respect for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. In a situation where these commitments are increasingly being challenged, we have made it our priority as Chair to defend and uphold them and to contribute to resolving conflicts and crises in our region in accordance with international law. As Chair, we also have a consistent focus on gender equality and broad participation of civil society in all our activities. This is how we see an opportunity to make a lasting contribution to security in our region.

As you have noted, 2020 proved a difficult year for Nordic cooperation, due to COVID-related travel restrictions imposed by Sweden’s neighbors. How do you plan to improve ties with the other Nordic nations? In your opinion, what are the most promising areas for future cooperation that have not yet been fully realized?

The COVID-19 pandemic has put great pressure on our social systems but also challenged Nordic cooperation. Travel restrictions have had a negative effect on our populations, especially people living and working in our border regions. We will need to learn from the crisis together in the Nordic region–what has been successful and what can be improved?

While several challenges remain, we have been able to resolve many acute issues regarding border barriers, such as safeguarding the free movement of goods and the most necessary commuting for work. This has been achieved through constructive dialogue and cooperation.

The Nordic prime ministers have adopted a vision that the Nordic region is to become the most sustainable and integrated region in the world by 2030. Difficult as that may seem today, we will continue to work towards it. Within our regional cooperation in the Nordic Council of Ministers, we have recently increased our focus on combating climate change and protecting the environment.

These are important areas where the Nordics will continue to work together. We also work closely on foreign and security policy, not least on issues regarding our neighborhood, such as Belarus, Russia, and Arctic affairs. There are many issues that we can solve better together than we can individually.

Last year, Sweden released a detailed strategy for the Arctic region. How has climate change shifted Sweden’s approach to the Arctic? What are your thoughts on the increasing militarization of the Arctic?

The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere in the world with global consequences. Our strategy is a response to that, reflecting Sweden’s ambitious environmental and climate policies. Full implementation of the Paris Agreement is key.

Changes in the Arctic have led to increased global interest in the region. A complex dynamic of external factors such as global competition and strained relations between Western states and Russia also affects the Arctic.­

The Arctic is regaining its strategic military importance. The military presence and activity in the region are increasing. It can no longer be taken for granted that the Arctic will remain a low-tension area.

It is, however, important to remember that international law applies to the Arctic. There are no major territorial disputes. The overlapping claims on the continental shelf are handled by the United Nations. The majority of the gas and oil reserves are within the coastal states’ jurisdiction.

In the Arctic Council, we cooperate constructively on issues related to climate, environment, and sustainable development, with the participation of observers. In May, Russia will take over as chair of the Arctic Council for the coming two years.

The deteriorated security situation in our neighborhood has also had consequences for Swedish defense and security.

When it comes to the Arctic, we have a two-track response. First, increased support for international cooperation, dialogue, and confidence-building measures. Second, reinforced national defense in northern Sweden, including deepening security and defense cooperation with our closest neighbors and partners.

Under your leadership, Sweden has voiced strong support for democracy and human rights worldwide, from Venezuela to Myanmar. What concrete actions have you taken to support the movements in each of those countries? What actions must the international community take that have not already been taken?

Standing up for and promoting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law is a key priority of Swedish foreign policy. In response to the trend of global democratic backsliding, my government launched the Drive for Democracy in 2019, which places democracy at the center of Sweden’s foreign, security, development, and trade policy considerations. With this initiative, we also wanted to establish a positive narrative and make the case for why democracy is the societal solution that can best respond to all people’s aspirations and hopes. Gender-equal societies and democracy strengthen one another, which is why it so important to us to continue to emphasize our feminist foreign policy alongside the Drive for Democracy. This is even more important during a pandemic that has further aggravated negative trends.

The toolbox to promote democracy and human rights includes speaking out against violations and taking concrete action on the ground. As much as a quarter of our development cooperation funds go to strengthening and promoting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.  

Achieving real change and working to promote democracy and human rights also require cooperation. Cooperation with actors in a specific country–including civil society, human rights defenders, political opponents, and trade union representatives–and cooperation within the international community with like-minded countries, relevant organizations and institutions.

The situation in Venezuela is of great concern, and I would like to highlight the efforts of the European Union in finding a negotiated political solution leading to free and fair elections. We stand by the EU sanctions targeting individuals responsible for serious human rights violations and fully support the International Fact-Finding Mission, which has reported on serious human rights violations committed by the Venezuelan authorities. Sweden is also working for a peaceful and democratic solution to the current crisis through the International Contact Group. Besides contributing considerable humanitarian aid and leading international efforts for increased humanitarian access, my government also hosted a High-Level Humanitarian Donor meeting in Venezuela last fall.

Our engagement for democracy and human rights in Myanmar is solid and longstanding. Sweden has strongly condemned the recent military coup and emphasized that the ongoing repression must end. At the latest UN Human Rights Council, we voiced our strong concerns about the situation in the country in national statements as well as together with others. I was also glad to see that our joint EU efforts resulted in a session focusing solely on Myanmar and in a strong and broadly supported resolution condemning the removal of the elected civilian government.  

Concerning additional actions that the international community should take, my answer is that we need even more cooperation and dialogue. Not least in a time of crisis and when polarisation is growing, we need to engage and cooperate more, not less.

For years, you’ve worked to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. In your opinion, what is the most viable path toward ending the crisis? How is Sweden working to make that a reality?

The only way out of the crisis is to end the fighting and resume an inclusive, intra-Yemeni political process. We have seen a few positive steps in recent months, such as the formation of a unity government in Aden, enhanced diplomatic engagement from the new US administration, and the recent announcement from Saudi Arabia in line with the UN proposal for a ceasefire. But while there is increasing pressure at the international level, fighting has further escalated on the ground. The conflict has also deepened and grown more fragmented with time. Sweden maintains dialogue with the parties and regional actors in support of the UN mediation efforts, and we are coordinating with international partners for a diplomatic push for peace. The political process will require long-term, committed international support.

We must work for an inclusive peace process with broad geographical and political representation and especially the full participation of women. Such a process is the best guarantee that Yemen will not fall apart or become a scene of conflict between external actors. I have several times, including when I visited Aden, had meetings with knowledgeable women who can in a positive way contribute to a lasting peace.

The agreement that was reached in Stockholm with UN meditation between the parties to the conflict in 2018 prevented a bloody battle for the port city of Hodeida and ensured that vital UN imports to northern Yemen could continue and a UN presence in the city. The prisoner exchange that was partially carried out in accordance with the agreement must now be completed.

In parallel, more humanitarian support is urgently needed to alleviate the disastrous situation for the Yemeni people. On March 1, 2021, Sweden co-hosted the UN humanitarian pledging conference, together with Switzerland. While the funds raised will help sustain life-saving programs, much more will be required during the year. In this protracted and complex crisis, we must also further strengthen coordination between humanitarian relief and long-term development support to build conditions for sustainable peace.

You have spotlighted the recent decline in press freedoms around the world as a serious concern. Can you speak to this phenomenon and share ways that international institutions might be able to combat it?

When voices are silenced and access to information is hindered, there can be no true democracy and no full enjoyment of human rights. Open and vibrant societies require a diversified, strong, and independent media that delivers quality information, news, and investigative journalism. This is of utmost importance, not least now during an ongoing pandemic when independent and impartial information could save lives. That includes strengthening free and independent media.

Very closely linked to media freedom is everyone’s right to freely express themselves–a human right that should be enjoyed online as well as offline. So much information sharing and media coverage are now done via the internet, so the dialogue on press and media freedom must always include this aspect.

An unrestricted and vibrant debate makes opposing opinions visible to everyone in society–not least to elected representatives and other people in positions of power. We, as politicians, must be scrutinized! Now, when press and media freedom is in rapid decline, this has become much more difficult.

We know that journalists far too often work under difficult, if not dangerous, circumstances. One concrete way to try and counter this is by providing support, both politically and financially to independent media outlets and journalists.

The international community has an important role to play here, and we need to come together. When it comes to supporting actors—such as journalists and media outlets—in difficult and rapidly changing contexts, it is imperative that we provide flexible support. This year with the pandemic is a case in point.

The European Union, United Nations, and the OSCE are important platforms and actors. In my capacity as Chairperson-in-Office of the OSCE, I have in my travels in that region addressed the issue of media and press freedom on a number of occasions.