Sweden's Smart Idea for Reducing Global Killing

(Bloomberg View) -- Sweden is about to take a bold step: Its government wants to be the first in the world to impose legislative curbs on selling weapons to undemocratic regimes. If other big arms exporters did the same, fewer people would die in senseless wars.

Sweden is the 12th biggest arms exporter in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, with 2016 exports worth $1.2 billion. Many in the country's powerful civil society have long protested against sales to repressive regimes, especially Saudi Arabia. Since 2014, when the current coalition government came to power, the Greens, who are a junior partner, have pushed for a "democracy clause" in arms exports. The government promises to submit the legislation to parliament on Thursday. There, it's expected to pass easily.

No surprise that this is not a popular measure with the Swedish defense industry. Hakan Buskhe, president of Saab, which makes fighter aircraft, has argued that restrictions on sales to Gulf states would make it more difficult for the industry to develop modern weapons for the Swedish army, forcing it to import them. It has also been criticized from the left for not defining democracy or human rights violations precisely enough for export ban purposes. It's fitting, though, that a country that proudly calls itself a humanitarian superpower should be the first to try setting humanitarian criteria for arms sales.

In practice, lucrative Middle Eastern contracts are difficult to turn down. According to Sweden's reports to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, almost all its arms sales have been to democratic nations in recent years. But the most recent data also show sales to Pakistan, which is technically a democracy but with a history of human rights abuses, and to the United Arab Emirates, which isn't a democracy at all and which is involved in the humanitarian disaster of a Saudi-led military adventure in Yemen. Under the new law, any such proposed sales would come under scrutiny. 

That's a fine example to other weapons exporters, but one they will struggle to emulate given what's at stake. The biggest two, the U.S. and Russia -- responsible for 33 and 23 percent respectively of global arms exports in 2012 through 2016 --  haven't even acceded to the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which seeks to make international weapons transfers more transparent and limit supplies to conflict zones. Russia objected to the treaty because it would make it hard to arm the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The U.S. generally doesn't like the UN to dictate its policies. Though then-Secretary of State John Kerry signed the treaty on behalf of the U.S. in 2013, the country hasn't ratified it and won't with a Republican Congress.

Barack Obama was a proponent of ATT ratification, saying it might prompt other countries to install weapon export controls as good as those in the U.S. These make it difficult to sell to terrorist groups and rogue states -- but not to undemocratic countries that violate human rights. Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. are the biggest U.S. clients. President Donald Trump recently touted what he said was a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis, although it's uncertain whether such a commitment really exists.

Big Western arms exporters -- even those which, like the U.K., France and Germany, have ratified the ATT -- may feel it would be unwise to subscribe to the kind of self-restrictions that Sweden is imposing and leave a large chunk of the global arms market to competitors such as Russia and China, which have no qualms about supplying any buyers as long as they're not hostile to these countries. One could argue that weapons from these competitors are just as deadly, so repressive regimes' military power would be undiminished and Western nations would merely lose revenue and jobs. Long-standing alliances would also be soured. Moral arguments are especially unpopular with the Trump administration. 

On the other hand, as the global center of soft power and moral leadership shifts to Europe, the leading European Union nations might like to make a point of only arming fellow democracies. It would be easier for Germany than for France: Its three biggest clients are South Korea, Greece and the U.S., while France does the most business with Egypt, China and the UAE. 

As a neutral country, Sweden finds it somewhat easier to exercise moral authority. That doesn't mean others shouldn't aspire to similar standard.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

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