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Despite Peaceful Reputation, Sweden is a Major Weapons Exporter to Human Rights Abusers

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While Sweden is known as the birthplace of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Peace Prize, many do not realize it is also one of the world’s largest arms manufacturers. Sweden is in fact the third largest arms exporter per capita after Israel and Russia. Swedish company, Saab, makes more than 50 percent of the weapons the country exports. While the Swedish government often takes a neutral position in international conflicts and offers assistance through peacekeeping missions and foreign aid, it has continued to send military equipment to regimes accused of human rights abuses, including Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Bahrain and Egypt. We speak with two guests: peace activist Martin Smedjeback, who has served three prison sentences for breaking into weapons factories and hammering on weapons meant for export, and with Anna Ek, president of Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, the world’s oldest peace organization. Ek says that while Sweden signed the global Arms Trade Treaty earlier this year, it has resisted incorporating anti-corruption provisions into the country’s own laws.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We are on the road in Visby, Sweden. Visby is on the island of Gotland, the largest Swedish island. More than 25,000 people have gathered here for a highly unusual week. It’s called an [open-air] democracy festival. Every party is represented here. Each day, one party is sort of in control. Today it’s the Green Party.

But I want to talk about an issue that’s not talked about very much outside of Sweden. While Sweden is the birthplace of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Peace Prize, many people don’t realize Sweden is also one of the world’s largest arms exporters. Yes, Sweden is actually the world’s third-largest arms exporter per capita after Israel and Russia. While the country often takes neutral positions in international conflicts and offers assistance through peacekeeping missions and foreign aid, it’s continued to send military equipment to regimes accused of human rights abuses. Its clients include Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Bahrain, Egypt.

For more, we’re joined by Martin Smedjeback, who has followed these developments very closely. You might say he’s put his body on the line—peace activist, nonviolence trainer, served three prison sentences for breaking into weapons factories and hammering on weapons meant for export. Earlier this year, he received the Swedish Martin Luther King prize.

Martin Smedjeback, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the actions you’ve participated in?

MARTIN SMEDJEBACK: Yes. We went into weapons factories in Sweden—several, actually—during a couple of years, hammered on weapons, stayed there when the police came. We offered them chocolates. And we got arrested and then [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: You offered the police chocolates?

MARTIN SMEDJEBACK: Sure. We feel you can hate an act—with the weapons export, I really hate it—but still you can treat people with dignity and friendliness.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the names of the plants that you’ve gone into. Who runs these plants? Who are the weapons manufacturers of Sweden?

MARTIN SMEDJEBACK: The biggest one by far is Saab. And they own—



AMY GOODMAN: What people know as—for their cars.

MARTIN SMEDJEBACK: Exactly. Now they separate the cars from the military, the manufacturing. But Saab, they have more than 50 percent of all weapons export today in Sweden.

AMY GOODMAN: And what kind of support do you get in Swedish society for doing what you do? Would you say it’s equivalent to the Plowshares activists in the United States?

MARTIN SMEDJEBACK: Well, we have the support against the weapons export. It’s actually a quite strong majority for people who want to stop the weapons export. Now, for civil disobedience actions, it’s not a majority maybe, but when I go around and talk to schools, etc., I feel a lot of support. I do.

AMY GOODMAN: Most people do not think of Sweden in this way. It’s the birthplace, of course, of Alfred Nobel. Talk about who Alfred Nobel was and what this means for the country. Well, the Nobel Peace Prize is given out in Norway, but it started here.

MARTIN SMEDJEBACK: Well, it’s complex. He invented dynamite, right? But then, I think, in later years, he came to the realization that we have to work for peace in a very concrete way, and he wanted to support that work, even after he was dead.

AMY GOODMAN: And your actions today? Do you still go into plants and hammer on warheads?

MARTIN SMEDJEBACK: Actually, I was at a weapons manufacturing plant just a few weeks ago and got arrested again. So, yeah, we continue, because—

AMY GOODMAN: What plant was that?

MARTIN SMEDJEBACK: That was in Karlskoga. And they have actually lots of different manufacturers, even BAE Systems, which is one of the biggest in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: What will make you stop?

MARTIN SMEDJEBACK: Well, I’ll happily stop if they stop selling weapons to people and using them in wars. But then maybe I will go into other issues, like the climate, like you talked about before. We’re actually having a climate campaign on meat taxation, to have real political change. That’s what I’m doing here in Almedalen. That’s what my shirt say.

AMY GOODMAN: What does your shirt say?

MARTIN SMEDJEBACK: “Meat Tax Now,” because meat is one of the biggest contributors to the climate crisis we are facing now, actually bigger than all cars and airplanes.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve been speaking with Martin Smedjeback, peace activist, nonviolence trainer, who has served three prison sentences for breaking into weapons factories and hammering on weapons meant for export. He received the Swedish Martin Luther King prize earlier this year.

Now we’re joined by Anna Ek. She is president of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, the world’s oldest peace organization.

Anna, welcome to Democracy Now!

ANNA EK: Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your group.

ANNA EK: Well, as you said, we are actually the world’s oldest peace organization. It’s quite amazing to think that we’ve been—we were founded in 1883, so we celebrate 131 years of peace work, mainly here in Sweden. But we also—we have programs on disarmament, peaceful conflict resolution and on support to democracy movements. So we’re one of Sweden’s biggest peace organizations, but we have quite a broad peace network in Sweden. And we do try to lobby politicians, have contact with the media on, of course, the arms trade because, as we just heard from Martin, Sweden is one of the largest arms exporters in the world. But we also cooperate with peace organizations in Afghanistan, in northern Caucasus, in Myanmar. So we have quite a broad approach to our work. We have about 8,200 individual members here in Sweden, and they are actually increasing, the numbers. So, it’s so fantastic to feel that even though Sweden is such a large arms exporter, there is a large, large percentage of the population that are actually on our side.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Sweden signing onto the international Arms Trade Treaty?

ANNA EK: Well, yes. That was fantastic. We’ve struggled so many times to have Sweden to sign up on different international disarmament treaties. The thing that happened with the Arms Trade Treaty was that the government doesn’t think that it means anything for Sweden. Having said—


ANNA EK: Yeah, because the provisions in the treaty, they think that the Swedish law is even better, so they don’t have to do any corrections in the Swedish system. But the fact is that the Arms Trade Treaty has provisions of anti-corruption, which Sweden has none of in its own legislation. And we know there has been a lot of arms scandals involving corruption in Sweden, of course. The arms industry is one of the most corrupt businesses in the world. The Arms Trade Treaty does cover imports, but Sweden does not have that in its internal law, and they say that they won’t integrate that, either. So, I mean, we try to push the government and the parliamentarians to actually integrate the Arms Trade Treaty into the Swedish export control system.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about where Sweden fits into the international community around pushing issues of peace?

ANNA EK: Let me say it like this. For a lot of years, I think, Swedes themselves and the international community have seen us as some sort of the moral conscience of peace issues of the world, but there is a growing awareness that this is actually not the case. From our fellow campaigners on disarmament issues, for example, we hear that Sweden’s voice in international discussions on disarmament is becoming more and more silent and more and more absent.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does Sweden stand on Iraq? And where do you stand?

ANNA EK: On Iraq? Well, Sweden did an amazingly stupid thing—sorry for my language. When the U.S. decided to invade Iraq, the government condemned the invasion, but at the same time, the arms industry was signing up to new arms deals. It’s typical. It’s like the schoolbook description of how it works in Sweden.

AMY GOODMAN: What do the elections mean in September? And do you think things will change?

ANNA EK: Well, you asked me what I think about Iraq. Well, of course, we were against and are against the invasion. And I think the situation here that is happening now is—it’s heartbreaking, as of course in Syria and so on. But minorities in the region are, and the Muslim majority are really, really paying the price for our arms industry here in Sweden.

And, I mean, for the elections, Amnesty International did an opinion poll here in Sweden just a couple of weeks ago. And it’s so clear: 80 percent of Sweden’s population does not want to arm dictatorships or countries that are not democracies. Around 78 percent does not want to arm countries that are in war. Yet it happens again and again.

AMY GOODMAN: The feminist party, can you talk about the significance of the possibility of it coming into the Swedish Parliament?

ANNA EK: I think they have a—they’ve never been so close of entering the Parliament as today. They have grown in the numbers of members. It has exploded just the last half-year. So I think they have a good chance of entering the Parliament. And they are one of the most progressive and critical voices against, well, defense policy, per se, but also against the arms industry. So, maybe if they get in, we can have a new discussion on how to actually listen to the people in Sweden.

AMY GOODMAN: Anna Ek is the president of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, the world’s oldest peace organization.

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