STOCKHOLM, Sweden — As of May 2014, Sweden ranked as the third largest exporter of weapons per capita in the world, falling behind only Israel and Russia in its sales. Swedish weapons exports and defense technology have reached more than 50 countries since the turn of the century. In 2013 alone, the nation’s three leading arms manufacturers—Saab, BAE Systems and Bofors—brought in more than $1.8 billion in combined sales.
Although Sweden has been manufacturing and selling arms for decades, the decline of the Cold War and associated regional tensions has reduced Sweden’s markets in the Western world. The pressure to find new customers has driven manufacturers to ally themselves with human rights violators with whom the country has long avoided trade.
In 1971, the Swedish parliament declared that those who purchase arms from Sweden must respect international human rights. By the 2000s, that declaration has largely been swept under the rug. Today, Swedish weapons exports are going to rights-violating governments in such places as India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
Among other equipment, Sweden has sold small arms, radar systems, missiles and rocket launchers to these nations, effectively equipping those regimes and perpetuating crimes against the citizens of those countries.
In addition to these white market sales, Sweden’s defense contractors have also carried out private deals with world dictators. In 2012, one of Sweden’s defense ministers was forced to resign after the national defense research agency for which he worked was exposed for secretly helping Saudi Arabia build a missile factory.
Swedish weapons exports have also ended up in the hands of unstable regimes in Myanmar and Somalia. In these countries, Saab’s Carl Gustaf rocket launcher has appeared in the possession of both military forces and extremist groups. How these weapons arrived in either country is unknown, but their appearance implies a gross lack of oversight on the manufacturers’ parts.
Increased violence is not the only consequence of Sweden exporting weapons to dictators. In other developing nations, military spending makes up a tremendous portion of the annual budget. By selling arms to these countries, arms manufacturers are indirectly asking governments to divert funding away from basic sanitation, HIV/AIDS treatment, water infrastructure and a host of urgent issues that are dropped from the budget or reduced to make room for more weapons. For instance, in 2006, Sweden sold a defensive system to Pakistan valued at $10 billion—enough to cover the nation’s water and sanitation budget for 12 years.
Sweden does have major stakes in its defense industry: as many as 30,000 people are employed by Saab and other arms manufacturers, and some parts of the country have even built their economic base upon a foundation in weapons production. Still, the arms industry makes up only 1 percent of Sweden’s exports. Critics say that the national government supports arms manufacturing and exports as a point of pride rather than out of economic necessity.
This pride, however, comes at the cost of empowering dictators in parts of the developing world, exacerbating human rights violations and stripping money away from aid programs. For now, critics of Sweden’s arms exports are vocal but largely unheard.