Apologies but no resignations over tsunami response

Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson has apologised for his government's response to last year’s South Asian tsunami disaster, in which over 500 Swedes died.

But despite what one political commentator called “the strongest criticism of a government in modern times”, Persson restated that there would be no resignations.

In the official report into how the Swedish government handled the catastrophe, both Persson and Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds were held personally responsible for the fact that there was no mechanism in place for dealing with a major crisis.

The commission said that “confidence in the Swedish state as the highest guarantor of safety and security” had been damaged. But Persson made clear at a press conference on Thursday afternoon, and then again on national television in the evening, that there was no reason for any ministers or senior civil servants involved to lose their jobs.

“I don’t believe firing anyone would soothe the suffering of a single individual,” said Persson.

Persson said instead that it is more important for the people in their jobs to learn from the mistakes so that they will be more prepared in future.

“I have been pointed out as ultimately responsible and there is no doubt about that – I have responsibility and I take responsibility,” said the Prime Minister.

“To take responsibility in this situation means to make sure the government office’s failings are put right, to make sure we have an organisation which meets its requirements. Of course we have learned and of course we will develop our organisation.”

But commentators, opposition politicians, survivors and relatives of victims have not been calmed by that notion.

“This is the end of Göran Persson as a prime minister. Several other senior Social Democrats selected by him should also be removed from their posts,” said the leader of the Moderate Party, Fredrik Reinfeldt.

Reinfeldt added that “in any respectable democracy this kind of criticism would have led to resignations”.

The Moderates’ leader said that Göran Persson’s worst sin was not the failure of initiative to help those caught up in the disaster on December 26th last year, but that nothing had been done to improve crisis preparedness within the government.

The leader of the Liberal Party, Lars Leijonborg, put the report in perspective.

“This is the most devastating criticism a government has ever had in a similar situation in modern times,” he said.

He added that the opposition parties were considering bringing a vote of confidence against the government, a move his Liberal Party colleague Carl B Hamilton supported.

“If the commission’s criticism isn’t a reason, then when should you have a vote of confidence?” he said.

Brigadier Bo Pellnäs, who was a member of the commission, was asked by reporters how a country which had had both a prime minister and a foreign minister murdered could be so unprepared for catastrophes.

“Our rose-tinted view ought to have been punctured by this, and the Estonia catastrophe ought to have led to our having better crisis leadership last Boxing Day,” he said.

“But we’re still living in some sort of gentle world where nothing bad can affect us in any way. Especially not on a Boxing Day.”

The key failings

The main criticisms in the official report of the Swedish reaction to the tsunami catastrophe:

  • No crisis unit in the Government Offices, despite years of demands for one.
  • Slow reaction within the Government Offices.
  • Lack of leadership at the highest and middle levels. No senior staff came to work on the first day.
  • Passivity from the politicians and senior civil servants responsible. Nobody actively sought to establish what had happened.
  • Incoming calls were not used as a source of information. They were seen as a disturbance which caused the switchboard to collapse.
  • Lack of contact between ministers.
  • Lack of information to leaders from staff.
  • Delayed rescue of Swedes, partly because of territorial disputes within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Insufficient rescue efforts.
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