Kuwait City, Asharq Al-Awsat – In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Swedish State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Frank Belfrage discusses the upcoming Iraq Compact meeting to be hosted by Sweden, the issues of the Iraq war and Iraqi refugees.
The interview proceeded as follows:
Q) Sweden has announced that it will host the Iraq Compact meeting on May 29, 2008; how did this decision come about?
A) It started back in late summer or early autumn when the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt decided to go to Baghdad to see [what was happening] for himself at [Iraqi Foreign Minister] Hoshyar Zebari’s invitation. This visit coincided with the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner’s visit [to Baghdad]. Both countries and governments felt that it is important that Europe and the United Nations show increased commitment [towards Iraq] and increase their profile. This was the idea; we will not look backwards, we will look ahead.
We want to see development, reconciliation and peaceful developments in Iraq. At the beginning of April, the UN Secretary General [Ban Ki Moon] and the Iraqi Prime Minister [Nouri] al Maliki asked us if we would be prepared to host the conference, which will review the Sharm Al Sheikh meeting that took place one year ago, and set the framework for progress and development [in Iraq]. We thought about it and of course the challenge is huge ─ we had six weeks notice for an international meeting that would be attended by a number of delegations, the UN Secretary General, Prime Minister al Maliki, and foreign ministers. But we decided that this is something important; we wanted to show our commitment and support for the development in Iraq and we also realized that the timing was apt since there has been the new UN Security Resolution 1770 that followed the Sharm Al Sheikh [meeting]. Moreover, we have a very dynamic special representative for the UN Secretary General in Iraq Staffan di Mistura, who is half Italian and half Swedish incidentally, who is doing a very remarkable job.
This meeting coincides with our efforts to increase the role of the United Nations in Iraq, while we feel that there has been progress there and security is improving. We see that there are a number of converging factors that show that it is possible that our participation could contribute to strengthening the process towards reconciliation.
Nevertheless, this depends on a number of factors such as a continued inclusive approach by the Iraqi government in order for us to see a real reconciliation process developing, and that there is a budget and development plan to spread the wealth to all parts of Iraq as well as a commitment from the World Bank and the UN to help Iraq find its path to development. This is all possible but we need to see that progress is being made. It is easier said than done, but we feel that it can be accomplished and the Swedish government wants to be helpful in this process. It is for all these reasons that we said that Sweden would be happy to host the meeting.
Q) There has been more involvement in Iraq from Sweden, France and Europe as a whole after five years of war. Do you feel that Europe has moved on from the divisions that surfaced as a result of the decision to go to war?
A) I would say yes; that is why I said that we are not looking back but looking forward. We are where we are and we have to all show commitment, engagement and solidarity ─ we have to look ahead.
Q) The Bush Administration will leave office at the end of this year; in your opinion, to what extent will the end of the administration help others to work more closely with Iraq?
A) It is a difficult question to answer. I feel that regardless of the end of the [Bush] administration and who wins the next presidential elections, an American interest and commitment [towards Iraq] will remain.
It is quite clear that in terms of security, we will be moving from the situation of multi-force engagement towards a bilateral agreement between Iraq and the United States. But of course, a change of administration always triggers a number of questions in terms of a change in policy; we see that in all governments. A change in government is a starting point for development in policy and we will see what will happen.
Q) How important was your participation in the Third Expanded Ministerial Conference of the Neighbouring Countries of Iraq that was held in Kuwait recently? Did you gain any pledges of support from the delegations?
A) The meeting was very important for Sweden and we appreciate greatly the invitation extended to us by the government of Kuwait and the co-hosts, the Iraqi government and the UN. We met with a number of actors to prepare for the meeting. What struck me was that the debate [in Kuwait] showed a growing convergence of views on the road ahead for Iraq and that is very encouraging.
Q) Will you have an input in deciding who will be invited to the Iraq Compact meeting?
A) Iraq and the UN will send the invites and they are sent to member states of the UN. However, we are delighted to have contact with all the delegations that will be coming to Sweden.
Q) How many countries have confirmed attendance?
A) We do not know yet but in Sharm Al Sheikh there were around 80 delegations.
Q) What specifically do you hope to achieve from the Iraq Compact meeting?
A) I think that the specifics will [depend] on the international community feeling convinced that there is real progress in Iraq; politically in terms of reconciliation, economically in terms of the spread of wealth, employment, infrastructure, electricity, and progress in reference to the hydrocarbons legislation and the provincial elections [scheduled to take place] on October 1 . We also hope that the UN can present its Human Development plans so we can see what Iraq and the UN are planning together and see concrete projects.
We are providing the framework and want to be helpful, but at the end of the day, it is the Iraqi government that owns the project ─ the Compact ─ together with the UN. They are in the driving seat.
Q) Are you optimistic that the hydrocarbon law will be passed before the meeting?
A) Yes, but I am not sure if everything will be ready by the end of May. However I do see progress and there is reason to be optimistic.
Q) What are Sweden’s national interests in stabilizing Iraq?
A) We live in a globalised and interdependent world. What is happening in Iraq, and in the region, affects us all. There is the security dimension, an economic-energy dimension and a number of economic issues. Nowadays, the world is not separated by walls; we are extremely integrated. It is in our own self-interest to be helpful and move towards reconciliation, peace, prosperity and development. We are also very keen on the human rights issue. Peaceful development in Iraq will help the human rights situation in Iraq – this is something we feel very strongly about.
Q) But why do you feel that now is the appropriate time to become more involved in Iraq?
A) There are a number of factors. The UN Security Resolution was important; we are strong believers in international public law.
There is also a growing convergence amongst the partners that we have to work collectively. There is a growing realization that there are no military solutions. It takes time but there has to be a political solution. This opportunity [for us] has come about now; it could have been 6 months ago or in 6 months time but it just so happened that the UN Secretary General asked us now.
Q) Sweden has also helped Iraq in terms of accepting Iraqi refugees and has taken in 18,500 in the last year alone. More refugees have entered Sweden than any other parts of Europe and the US. What affect has this had on Sweden’s relations with Iraq?
A) It is a very important issue because there are 150,000 Iraqis in Sweden. This creates links and bonds between the two countries. As for our policy towards refugees, this goes back a long time to our history of openness, solidarity, and the need for a humanitarian approach.
Whenever there has been a crisis in the world, the borders of Sweden have always opened up ─ this was the case in the 1970s when people would come [to Sweden] from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. We have had refugees from former Yugoslavia during the Balkan wars, others coming from Latin America during the revolutions and now people coming from Iraq [to Sweden]. This goes back to Swedish traditions; we feel that this is our duty. It sounds a little naïve but this is how we feel and Swedish public opinion is very much behind this policy.
We hoped to see more burden-sharing on the international level. We have taken in quite a few [refugees] and we were happy to do so but we felt that many other countries should have shouldered more of the responsibility.
But of course, now that we are hopefully moving towards a more peaceful and conciliatory environment, the flow of refugees will slow down and quite a few of them who found refuge in Sweden will long to return home and will go back and contribute to the reconstruction of their country. Iraq is a rich country and anyone going back will have a bright future.
Q) Is there now more recognition of the refugee issue and the need for burden-sharing?
A) Yes, there is growing recognition but not to a large extent.
There is a small town in Sweden called Sِdertنlje (82,000 inhabitants) which has a large population of Iraqi citizens. We were surprised when only a fortnight ago the Mayor of Sِdertنlje was asked to attend a hearing at the (American) Congress. Congress wanted to hear about what was taking place, how it worked and how the experience went. The Mayor explained everything but also took the opportunity to raise the issue of burden-sharing. The town of Sِdertنlje has taken in more refugees from Iraq than the US and Canada put together. A third of Sِdertنlje’s population is now Iraqi.