Seasoned diplomat Björn Häggmark is on his debut mission as ambassador for Sweden, which has brought him to Phnom Penh and Cambodia, a country that has been encountering many challenges in recent years, while there are also some promising signs relating to its future.
H.E. Björn Häggmark, the new Swedish ambassador to Cambodia, presented his credential letter in November 2019. Then, into 2020, the arrival of Covid-19 has prevented him and his team to fully proceed with the plans for the year, given the restrictions.
In June, the Swedish Embassy was tasked by its government to implement changes in Sweden’s development cooperation with Cambodia.
Moving between continents
The Ambassador, who most recently worked at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, has already accomplished a long diplomatic career, stretching back to 1989.
His education included university studies in French and communication. He also took a Master in International Relations at a well-renowned university in Belgium. Following a brief career start in an advertising agency he was accepted to Sweden’s MFA, beginning with its internal training.
”I was early on eager to understand what happens outside Sweden, how this affects my country and how Sweden can cooperate with others. Diplomacy seemed to be a good way to combine useful work with a stimulating work environment,” Björn Häggmark explains his interest in a diplomatic career.
Then it was time to head out into the big world and his first foreign assignment: Bogota, Colombia. “It was great to get the opportunity to go out and try to learn and understand as much as possible about a foreign country on a continent I had never been to previously. It is also a fantastic platform to work in an embassy and be a diplomat and with the interest in Sweden that opens up doors – and to be there for quite a long time; three years. Even if one is not fully-fledged after such a time, and in such a complex country as Colombia, quite a few things one has grasped. It was a fantastic experience!” he remembers.
He then continued to Madrid, where his newly acquired Spanish language skills came in handy. “In Madrid I got more specialised tasks, not least regarding Sweden joining the EU, so it was a good school relating to EU topics. I have continued having such tasks since then too.”
Mr Häggmark has also worked at the MFA headquarters in Stockholm. During Sweden’s EU Presidency in 2001 he was seconded to the EU High Representative of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in Brussels.
“I worked five years in Strasbourg, at our representation to the Council of Europe, an organisation where the European Court of Human Rights is based.”
Björn has also worked at the Swedish mission in Kenya in charge of political affairs and promotion activities. One positive outcome during five years there, he says was when Kenya, supported partly by Sweden, approved a new constitution. It gave better conditions to get rid of some of the problems that had contributed to continued poverty and made it more difficult to stop corruption, and that had cemented ethnic fighting going back a long time ago.
Before coming to the next continent, Asia, he again worked at MFA, appointed head of Property Management Department.
Images of Cambodia
The Southeast-Asian country, he had never visited before. “I only had a few images from while growing up, when Cambodia was living through a very traumatic period with genocide and civil war. Then, I have the understanding that peace came, and a process for development but with large needs and widespread poverty, lack of resources, and few citizens with education and even less with higher education. And also that much has happened since the armed conflict ceased.”
“Enhancing knowledge and skills will be crucial for development in every country. I am glad that Sweden plays such an active role in strengthening education and research in Cambodia,” said the ambassador upon arrival, pointing to how education, research, vocational training and strive for innovation in a creative and open society can fulfil the potential of each individual.
The number of Cambodian students studying in Sweden has grown during the last decade; with round 20 Cambodian students obtaining a master’s degree in Sweden annually. “About eight Cambodians get scholarships from the Swedish Institute for university studies,” says Björn.
Swedish government cancels bilateral strategy
We have seen better times, than this Covid-19 era, but in the case of Cambodia the past has also been even worse, even if the present leaves much to yearn for.
Björn had also been looking forward to being involved in the Swedish bilateral development cooperation with Cambodia in three areas: human rights, democracy and the rule of law; education and employment; and climate change and sustainable use of natural resources. Between 2014-2019 Sweden provided over 120 million USD for development cooperation to Cambodia.
However, in June the Swedish Government decided that the cooperation will focus on initiatives for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, based on Sweden’s strategy for regional development cooperation in Asia and the Pacific, The strategy for bilateral cooperation was put to an end. The bilateral support to education, climate and environment will cease end of June 2021.
All continuing bilateral activities should contribute to the protection and promotion of human rights, which is closely interlinked to democracy and the rule of law.
The democratic space, respect for human rights, including freedom of speech, and the possibility for civil society and the media to operate freely have been severely restricted in Cambodia in recent years, stated Sweden’s government. And thus it decided it was necessary to focus the cooperation on creating better conditions for a different, more democratic development in Cambodia.
“The democratic space in Cambodia has been severely restricted in recent years. This has made it difficult to pursue broad and close cooperation. We will continue to support civil society, human rights defenders and democracy advocates in Cambodia. Sweden stands up for the principles of democracy and speaks out when they are undermined,” said Minister for International Development Cooperation Peter Eriksson.
“Democracy based on human rights and rule of law creates better conditions for development, peace and security, and creates inclusive societies where people can realise their potential,” adds the ambassador.
Development is the largest area of activities of the embassy in Phnom Penh, with the regional efforts being managed by the embassy in Bangkok.
“The task for our team here in Cambodia is now to carry through Sweden’s decision; to partly increase within the focus area, and to phase out in the two others. We must find the right actions to reach the goals expressed by the Swedish government, and in an orderly fashion wind up the support in the other two,” says the ambassador.
“For some of the programmes where Bangkok decides, Cambodia maybe included. This would be in addition to those where it already is part. I think there are good opportunities for that within climate and environment, and also within the regional human rights advocacy work being done and last but not least gender equality – an important part both in the regional as well as in our bilateral support for human rights and democracy in Cambodia.”
Where Sweden is today already a partner within civil society and among international organisations Björn says thatis becoming even more important going forward.
Serious and systematic violations of human rights
In addition, EU:s voice, as also that of Sweden, is critical about the Cambodian government’s direction, and has decided to withdraw part of the trade preferences granted to Cambodia under the European Union‘s Everything But Arms‘ (EBA) trade scheme, due to the serious and systematic violations of the human rights principles in international law. This came into effect on 12 August 2020.
The EU stated that it could no longer tolerate the duration, scale and impact of Cambodia’s violations of the rights to political participation and to the freedoms of expression and association. The respect for human rights is non-negotiable.
“Our aim is that the Cambodian authorities end human rights violations, and we will continue working with them in order to achieve that,” said EU Commissioner for Trade, Phil Hogan.
The EU is Cambodia’s largest trading partner, accounting for 45% of Cambodian exports in 2018. It is also the biggest donor of development aid in the world and also the biggest grant donor in Cambodia.
“At several occasions the EU reacted on measures, actions and the conditions and respect for human rights. And that the democratic space still has narrowed since the election in 2018 – which is one reason for the Swedish government’s decision regarding development cooperation with Cambodia in the coming years,” comments Björn.
“The EU is an important player here, with its significant aid through grants and loans. For Sweden it’s important how the EU reacts towards Cambodia. In the relations between Sweden, the EU and a third country we think about development aid and trade, but there are many other components in the tool box. The EU and Sweden can and want to use those,” he adds, referring to culture, education, addressing global challenges such as climate and environment and enhancing multilateral cooperation.
Business-wise, Cambodia is looking for opportunities to diversify the economy: “Cambodia is aiming for food production to be a larger contributor to the economy. It is also about digitalisation and diversifying the industry; expanding into electronics for example and reducing the dependence on garment, shoes and bags production. Also tourism is very important and there is a will to strengthen eco-tourism, so this is all very interesting!”
Due to Covid-19, the Embassy’s plans for trade promotion with Business Sweden were put on hold but the intention is to renew this effort as soon as possible.
Consular assistance to Swedes is an important part of the Embassy’s work. The difficulties caused by the Covid-19 crisis has increased the demand for assistance.
“My team and I take the consular matters very seriously. There is no simple solution that applies to all situations, so we need to look into each case individually. To have an insurance and be in touch with relatives and friends can solve many problems”, says Björn.