On the 30th of September, UNESCO’s General Conference voted on Palestine’s full membership in the organisation. The vote passed, 107 votes in favour of admission, 52 abstentions and 14 members, including Sweden, against Palestine membership. The result will bring the number of UNESCO’s Member States to 195, and means that Palestine for the first time is a member of a UN-organisation.
The Swedish no-vote was surprising to many, given that Sweden traditionally has been amongst the most Palestine friendly countries in the EU, with a long history of supporting the Palestinians’ right to a state. In the vote declaration, Sweden argued that the vote against a Palestine membership “has to do with its timing, not its substance […] it does not in any way prejudge the position that Sweden might take if the question of the status of Palestine is brought before the UN General Assembly”.
Ulf Bjereld, professor of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg, disagrees to some extent with this statement:
– I am sure that it is true that Sweden felt the timing was off, but this was not the decisive motive. If it were, Sweden would have abstained.
Ulf Bjereld believes that the most important reason for voting no was that Sweden does not believe a Palestinian UNESCO membership would improve the conditions for a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Bildt upgraded and for the first time officially welcomed the Palestine ambassador to Sweden at a ceremony on September 8th, many saw this as a positive sign, given that the UN is about to discuss Palestine’s status as a member state.
However, this decision had not been discussed within the Swedish centre-right coalition government, but decided by Minister Carl Bildt alone. The Liberal Party – a party that has a more Israeli friendly policy than other parties in the ruling coalition, was not happy with this move.
– It is unfortunate that Carl Bildt has made this decision, at the time when the UN is about to discuss the recognition of a Palestine state, said Fredrik Malm, spokesperson on Foreign Affairs for the Liberal Party and added:
– I believe that Sweden should have a more balanced standpoint in the Middle Eastern conflict and work for a two-state solution and a peace settlement.
The fact that policies related to UNESCO’s mission are a responsibility of the Ministry of Education and Research, lead by Jan Björklund of the Liberal Party, might also have had an impact on the Swedish vote.
– This strengthens the suspicion that it was the Liberal Party, and not the Carl Bildt, that made the decision to vote against a Palestinian membership, says Ulf Bjereld.
Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, on the other hand, denies such a division within the government:
– It was a government decision and the government decided to vote against the admission of Palestine to UNESCO. It is our opinion that the discussion should be made in the General Assembly. We would like to see a two-state solution, but it has to be built on a peace treaty, he said in a comment to Swedish news agency TT.
However within in a couple of hours, the spokesperson on Foreign Affairs for the Centre party, replied to TT that although she understood the government’s standpoint, she would have liked to see another outcome.
Surprised and disappointed
The vote against a Palestine membership caused quite a stir, both in Sweden and internationally. Palestinian democracy activist, and former presidential candidate Mustafa Barghouti said in an interview with Radio Sweden that he was hugely disappointed and surprised by the decision, and that he thinks it goes against Sweden’s traditional policy on the issue.
– We have always thought highly of Sweden’s standpoint, and the positions that Carl Bildt has taken in the past, he said in an interview with Radio Sweden.
The decision has been said to be sending out mixed signals regarding Sweden’s stand in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Urban Ahlin, spokesperson on Foreign Affairs for the opposition Social Democrats wrote that Jan Björklund, rather than Carl Bildt seems to be in charge of Sweden’s policy regarding the Israeli-Palestine conflict, and he tweeted that “Bildt is concerned about the absence of a peace process. Why didn’t the Swedish government vote yes to Palestine in Unesco to push the process?”.
It was not only the political sphere in Sweden that was taken by surprise by the vote. The Church of Sweden reacted strongly to the decision, and the Archbishop published an open letter to Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt on November 3rd:
“Sweden’s action is both surprising and unfortunate, and has caused distress and indignation to many, not the least amongst our Palestinian brothers and sisters. […] the Church of Sweden has received many questions from Palestinian friends and partners about why Sweden seems to have deviated from our former well-known and highly appreciated support for the right of the Palestinian people. […] It is important to be clear that the Swedish policy remains the same. The vote against a Palestine admission in UNESCO is sending out the wrong signals!”
So where does this vote leave Sweden, and the possibility of recognising a future Palestinian state? According to Ulf Bjereld, we cannot be sure at this time.
– There is a majority in the parliament in favour of Swedish recognition of Palestine, but it is the government, not the parliament that recognises states. Much dependens on how the issue develops within the UN. If there is a vote in the General Assembly, Carl Bildt will be under much pressure for Sweden to vote yes on recognition of Palestine. But, on the other hand, the current Swedish coalition government is fragmented on this issue, and there is no telling how a vote would go.