Explosive diplomacy

Observations on human rights

The Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt should have anticipated the torrent of counter-blows he'd visit on himself if he criticised Cuba in a speech to the UN Commission on Human Rights. Juan Antonio Fernández Palacios, Cuba's ambassador to the UN, took it hard. He gave Bildt, and his nation, a severe dressing down which has brought the two countries to the brink of diplomatic crisis.

Palacios responded with a tirade of invective against the Scandinavian country's own human-rights profile. "In Cuba, one does not persecute migrants nor does one try to carry out ethnic cleansing that just allows for retaining in the country those whose skin colour and hair colour would fit in better with the racial patterns of former Viking conquerors," he said, making reference to "the not-so-glorious days of Swedish imperialism, which filled with blood and pain their neighbouring countries".

Could he really mean Sweden? The country with one of the most equitable distributions of income in the world and one of the highest standards of living? A constitution protects its citizens from arbitrary arrest and provides for religious freedom. Prison conditions are good; and in spite of the heavy influence of the state in public life, Sweden scores high on economic freedom. According to Bildt, it is "one of the most open countries in Europe in terms of immigration". Furthermore, Sweden has been at peace for 200 years.

The imperialist past Palacios referred to seems to be a period of foreign expansion during the mid-17th century. By British standards, it was a relatively tame story of invasion and conquering, though it rankles with Norway which, under the treaties of Brömsebro and Roskilde, bore the brunt of Sweden's military exertions. Estonia has also experienced Swedish occupation. But, in a country that has been ruled by others for more years than it has been independent, Swedish rule is remembered with fondness.

Palacios is known to be an inflammatory speaker, particularly at the Commission on Human Rights. When the Honduran government backed an anti-Cuban resolution from the US, Palacios's "heart ached" and he was "outraged at the shameful role of the government of Honduras". During a session on the crisis in Darfur, he surprised many by paying tribute "to the tireless efforts of the government of Sudan . . . and its permanent commitment to co-operate with the UN human-rights mechanisms". He did not mention Sudan's role in the funding, arming and recruiting of ethnic militia groups in Darfur. When the UN discussed Cuba's human rights in September last year, Palacios argued that America and the EU operated secret prisons, and that their global atrocities were well documented.

The Cuban diplomat's invective makes him an unlikely candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, which robs him of the opportunity to snub the memory of Sweden's most illustrious son, Alfred Nobel. Nobel, a pacifist, founded the prize-giving institution from a fortune made from dynamite. A premature obituary (Nobel was alive at the time) in a French paper recorded that he "became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before".

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom