Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

Swedish Ambassador Jan Eliasson.

Jan Eliasson has had a long and illustrious career in Swedish politics and diplomacy. For the past four years he has served as Sweden’s Ambassador to the United States. Prior to assuming this position, he was his country’s deputy secretary of state for six years, a key position in formulating and implementing Swedish foreign policy. From 1988-1992, Eliasson was also Sweden’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Sometimes jovially referred to by his family and friends as “James Bond” for his charm, elegance and rugged good looks, Eliasson is brilliant, serious and dedicated to strengthening the role of the United Nations, as well as improving the lot of man. Ambassador Jan Eliasson graciously agreed to sit down with Washington Life’s Editor in Chief, Nancy Bagley to discuss foreign affairs and his time in Washington.

Washington Life: You went to high school in the Midwest and seem to have a great love for the American people. What do you enjoy most about living in Washington?
Ambassador Jan Eliasson: I feel so much at home in America generally, having graduated from an American high school in the Midwest. I also lived here during very dramatic periods of United States’ political life. I was first secretary in Washington during the Vietnam War and the Watergate crisis in the early 1970s. I lived in New York for six years, and since 2000, my wife Kerstin and I have been in this exciting city. The political energy that you find in Washington is like a drug. It gets into your veins. I really enjoy meeting the mix of people in the administration, Congress, think tanks, media, business and the diplomatic community. This type of life fascinates me.

WL: Between 1980-1986 you assisted Prime Minister Olof Palme in mediating the Iran/Iraq war, and after his assassination you became his special representative. During that time, you discovered the use of chemical weapons by Iraq against the Iranians and reported it to the U.N. Little was done then…why do you think that was?
JE: After the Iranian hostage situation, Iran was considered by the international community to be a greater evil than Saddam Hussein. The Arab world was fearful of the export of the revolution. It was evident that the Iraqis first used chemical weapons on the Iranians, who were upset that the Security Council did not ask for the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Iran. Tension was high, but it was a disappointment that the Iraqi use of chemical weapons in 1983-84 did not cause a stronger reaction, because it was clearly a serious violation of international law.

WL: After 9/11, world opinion and support was overwhelmingly with the United States. Why do you think that changed when we focused our attention on Iraq?
JE: Many in Europe and the world felt we should have continued the U.N. road and waited for a U.N. resolution. It was a diplomatic failure that we did not act with a united front against such an obvious tyrant, dictator and violator of international and human rights law as Saddam Hussein. In the fall of 2002, there was a period of great hope in the international community, but the build-up of military forces and stronger rhetoric heightened the tension, and members of the Security Council made it clear that they would veto the resolution. Hans Blix wasn’t given a chance to finish his work, which might have determined whether Saddam was defying the United Nations, as was the case [in his invasion of] Kuwait. Surely a unified front in the international community would have led to a legally-binding international resolution.

WL: But it had already taken a long time for the U.N. and Security Council to act against Saddam.
JE: The problem was that the moral dimension disappeared. I regret that the United Nations could not refer to serious violations of human rights as reason [enough] for a Security Council resolution. Instead one had to use the issue of weapons of mass destruction, and for that you needed to have inspections which were very technical in nature.

WL: If you could write the U.N. resolution yourselfwith regard to human rights violations, how would you define it?
JE: We can and should act when we enter situations that could turn into genocide. When it comes to serious violations of human rights, there is not yet an effective mechanism to respond. It is seen by many developing countries as interference in their internal affairs. There is a need to change that perspective and talk about the right of protection. We should look at security from the point of view of the individual and not only from that of the state. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go.

WL: Do you know if the U.S. or the world was ever in any real immediate threat from Iraq before the U.S. invasion?
JE: Most of us believed there was an immediate threat, or that we were close to an immediate threat.

WL: More so than from North Korea, or other countries?
JE: No, but there was an international mechanism, several U.N. resolutions in place which required Iraq to cooperate. We had the inspections that were based on binding resolutions.

WL: Did you ever have any real knowledge that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, before the U.S. invaded Iraq?
JE: Very few experts believed there was any connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq.

WL: Weren’t there also indications that there was very little if any connection between Al Qaeda and Iran as well?
JE: I don’t know about that.

WL: Iran had been funding the Northern Alliance, which was the enemy of Al Qaeda. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that Iran was Al Qaeda’s enemy.
JE: I want to be cautious with this because there is an intelligence area which I am not privy to.

WL: You have been to Iran many times, yet few Americans have traveled there. Many Americans may think of the government, and thereby, the people of Iran, as part of the axis of evil. What is your impression of the people?
JE: I helped mediate the Iran-Iraq conflict between 1980 and 1992, so for twelve years I was constantly working with Iran and Iraq. I also visited Iran in the 1990s when I was Deputy Secretary of State of Sweden. I am very impressed by the potential of that nation, both in terms of resources and in terms of the people. I think the country could be a great asset to international security if it develops in the right direction, and if the outside world carries on policies which encourage that process. I have no illusions about some of the present leadership. But there are very strong elements within the Iranian society, which are very promising.

WL: How did the Iranian press receive you?
JE: I gave speeches and spoke freely about human rights at the University of Tehran. I even got questions about Salman Rushdie, and my answers were relatively well-recorded in the press the following day. There are few countries in the region where that would happen. I think Iran in the future could be a very positive factor both for the region and internationally. But the situation right now is troublesome. There is frustration in Europe as well about the nuclear issue and although the human rights situation is probably better than in the 1980s, it is also complicating the picture.

WL: You have great faith and belief in the relevance of the U.N. and the need to find global solutions to problems. Are we in a crisis with regard to the U.N.? If so, what can be done about it?
JE: There is a deep paradox in today’s international situation. On the one hand, practically all issues have a global dimension: the environment, refugee problems, and diseases such as AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. Trade, investments, and the media are becoming more and more global. There’s a tremendous surge of internationalism, but the democratic mechanisms that we have in place are based on the nation state. We desperately need a strong international structure because our problems in reality are global and we can not get anything better than the United Nations. We are at a very difficult juncture in time. If we choose to build security looking inward and not looking outward, I think we are making an historic mistake. The United Nations is what the member states make of it. I think it is not only in the interest of the small and medium sized countries to support the United Nations, but also in the interest of the larger countries like the U.S.

WL: You have said the U.N. Security Council should be a negotiating body, by developing a veto-free culture. What are the obstacles and how do we achieve this?
JE: There are so many areas where you can easily develop the United Nations into a stronger organization. Refugee issues and the environment are obvious areas. When it comes to the issue of war and peace, the Security Council is the key factor. Personally, I think that the veto-right should be used only in exceptional cases. If we develop a veto-free culture we would have to develop a negotiation culture inside the Security Council and consistently strive for consensus.

WL: The U.S. has refused to sign or adhere to a number of international treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Child Convention. What is your understanding of why the U.S. is having disputes with each of these treaties, and does Sweden, and perhaps many other countries in the world think these issues are problems?
JE: I regret that we do not all recognize the long-term advantages of adhering to these conventions. A wellfunctioning international system is also in the interest of the U.S. It is crucial to have the United States on board. For instance, the Kyoto Protocol will not turn into a valid treaty until a certain number of countries have adhered to it. Right now we are waiting for Russia to sign it and if the U.S. would adhere to it, then you can imagine what a positive impact it would have. When it comes to the International Criminal Court, I think it is very important for all of us to send the message that we must bring the war criminals to trial as soon as possible. Evidently, this is a very sensitive issue for America.

WL: Is it sensitive because certain American politicians might be put on trial in an international criminal court?
JE: I don’t want to go into that.

WL: For years, many U.S. politicians have been ignoring scientific research regarding global warming, arguing that there is no evidence of the problem or that it is not a man-made environmental problem. Recently, 4,000 of the nation’s top scientists, including 48 Nobel Prize winners, put their names on a full-page newspaper ad lambasting the Bush administration for its anti-science policy and for skewing research to promote a political agenda. Recently there have been reports that the ice in Antarctica is melting [and that icebergs the size of Rhode Island have broken off] at such a rate that the fisherman can’t fish because they are falling through the ice. Do you think global warming is an urgent matter that needs to be addressed?
JE: Certainly we think the problem is a real and pressing one, although I can not put it in terms of years. I also think that even if the disaster is not immediately looming, we need to apply cautionary principles to avert a potentially disastrous global situation. The right thing to do, therefore, is to take this problem very seriously. By doing so, we will also reduce the use of energy, develop new consumption patterns, preserve nature, and finally do something substantial for the next generations. Since I believe there is a real environmental global danger, we should act as soon as possible.

WL: The world has sat by idly and watched as genocide was occurring in Rwanda, Cambodia, and even Iraq. Millions of people were ethnically cleansed which you have said could easily happen again. What do you think the world can do to prevent these kinds of atrocities in the future?
JE: We have to have an effective early-warning system. The media plays an important role because even the most hardcore tyrants don’t like bad publicity. I think we should send and sponsor fact-finding missions into areas by the U.N., NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and the others. We need international eyes and ears in the conflict areas before the situations get critical. We should also offer the message of peaceful settlements to disputes. Chapter Six of the U.N. Charter, which is the bible for Swedish mediation efforts, calls for specific pacific settlements of disputes. We could also use sanctions, preferably smart, targeted sanctions, not sanctions that hit the whole population and allow for the dictator to place blame for misery elsewhere. There should be sanctions that stop the flow of dictators’ money, and stop their relatives from traveling to Paris or London, for example. Saddam Hussein used the sanctions to his advantage.

WL: Do you think there is a difference in the way the U.S. media covers the news vs. the Swedish or European press as a whole? And if so, can you give examples?
JE: Yes, I think there is a difference. I have had visitors to Washington who have been struck by the difference in coverage of the Middle East, both of the Iraq and the Israel/Palestine issue. I would hope that the press would faithfully mirror the realities in the world. I think people can understand those realities, seen from different directions. While it would be unacceptable not to condemn the Palestinian suicide bombers, it is also necessary to point out the plight of the Palestinians. You risk demonizing if you only show one side of a situation.

WL: What are your greatest failures and successes of your career?
JE: I will start with success, otherwise I’ll get too depressed. There are three things that come to mind. When I was Under Secretary General at the United Nations in the early 1990s, there was a drought after three years of no rain in Southern Africa. Eleven million people were in desperate need and at risk of famine and disease. We mobilized $700 million and opened up the ports in South Africa, which at the time were under sanctions. We had an exception made, and food and drilling equipment for water were shipped at great speed with no corruption. We saved hundreds of thousands of lives. It was never heard about because the disaster did not occur. Another good thing was the opening of humanitarian corridors in Southern Sudan in 1993, where many thousands of people were in danger of starving to death because of a civil war. We could not get a cease-fire, but by changing the semantics and asking for a humanitarian corridor instead, we were able to get 31 landing fields opened and the people were reached with food and medicine. In Sweden, I am most proud of the work my government did to develop an action program of prevention together with Anna Lindh, our former foreign minister who was assassinated in September 2003. Realistically, an action program in Sweden alone does not have an impact. But during our [Sweden’s] presidency of the European Union, we turned that program into a European Union program of prevention. This was in fact useful in the Macedonia situation in the spring of 2001 when civil war was avoided with the help of the plan. It was also a perfect example of European /American cooperation. And I think our program was the theoretical background for that action. So I am very proud that I took a year off after my time at the U.N. to develop those ideas. I won’t prolong this list because it would sound like bragging on Sweden’s behalf.

WL: But you have so much to brag about. But okay, what are your greatest regrets or failures?
JE: I still have great sadness looking back at the situation in Somalia. We came in too late. I will never forget those refugee camps, in the fall of 1992, where the adults and children were dying in front of me. They were in such poor shape by the time they got to the camps. Several thousand people died. That’s where I possibly got my mental energy for prevention, because I felt it was such a humiliation and shame that we woke up too late. I came in like a fireman working day and night shifts, but the house had already burned down. I was not involved in Rwanda because I had left the U.N. by that time. But that was an even bigger tragedy because 800,000 people were slaughtered in 90 days. Another regret was the Balkan situation. Europe should have taken a stronger position in the beginning by acting more decisively, with more diplomatic skill. It is a tragedy to have allowed such a brutal war in the European continent so soon after the Holocaust and WWII. But it strengthened my conviction that Europe must develop a common security and foreign policy.

WL: Let’s change the subject, do you have any hobbies?
JE: Tennis, tending to our farmhouse on the island of Gotland in Sweden. And I collect magnifying glasses. My father and grandfather had bad eyes, so I thought I would prepare myself for that. I read a lot, and want to read and write for a long time.

WL: Your wife Kerstin is now serving as Deputy Minister of Education and Science in Sweden. How are you surviving in Washington without her?
JE: It is not easy. I am very proud of my wife, and I am very happy that a modern diplomatic service makes it possible for spouses to have their own careers. It was a personal sacrifice for both of us to decide to do cross Atlantic commuting. We are very happy that she can perform her role in Sweden, and I can hopefully continue to perform my role here. There are few capitals where it’s more important to be a team than in Washington. So it is of course a handicap for me, but I do my best. In Washington, you have to be active both professionally and socially, which is why we diplomats actually work harder than most people believe. You have to be very good on the substance and work with very skilled counterparts in the State Department, White House, Congress, the think tank community, and so forth. And at the same time, you cannot sit in your office and read papers. You have to meet people. Personal relations mean so much. I enjoy this Washington life tremendously, as long as it lasts.

WL: What do you wish to accomplish before your return to Sweden?
JE: Apart from dealing with daily crises that fall in my lap, and the improvement of a strong transatlantic relationship which I believe in fervently, I am intrigued by the importance of science and research, inspired by my wife and perhaps by the fact that Sweden is the country of the Nobel Prizes. Another area of interest is Swedish-Americans. Close to four million Swedish-Americans live here and if you count the families to which 3.9 million Swedish-Americans are connected, you might end up with up to 10 million people, which is more than Sweden’s population. Many of those Swedish-Americans are connected by the traditions of Midsummer, such as dancing around the Maypole, eating Swedish salmon, drinking Swedish drinks, singing Swedish songs, mother’s meatballs, and all that. But the next generation of Swedish Americans should be connected to modern Sweden and vice versa. We have common interest in Swedish music, design, architecture, etc., and that could strengthen the transatlantic relationship in a time when Europe and the U.S. may be drifting apart. The more we show that the U.S and Europe have a common heritage and a common destiny, the more we may be reminded that we have common interests and common values. And I would say that the quality of the European/American relationship will affect the quality of the situation in the entire world.

WL: The House of Sweden and the new Swedish Embassy will be completed in the next few years. Can you talk a little about that project?
JE: We are very proud and happy to be the first to build an embassy on the Potomac. I am a former Navy officer and so it is very exciting to be on the water. With the terrorist threat, embassies tend to be fortresses today. We have seen violence in my own country. But we still want to be open and transparent and not be provoked by violence from terrorists. Having our embassy on the water is perhaps a risk, but it’s important to send a message.

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