Eliasson: I knew nothing about Iraq payoffs

Swedish foreign minister Jan Eliasson has said it would be regrettable if the Swedish government had prioritized Swedish business interests over acting to stop corruption in the United Nations' Oil-for-Food program. His comments came after it emerged that Sweden knew of illegal payments from companies to the Iraqi regime, but doing nothing to stop them.

“I don’t know whether business-promotion interests played a role here,” Eliasson, who was Swedish ambassador in Washington at the time, said in an interview with Swedish Radio.

Eliasson said he did not know that the Swedish Foreign Ministry had told the Swedish delegation to the UN in New York that Swedish business interests could be damaged if Sweden openly acted against the system of illegal payments to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

“I don’t recognize the text you are reading to me, but it is not a text that I would approve,” he said.

Eliasson claims that he knew nothing about the illegal payments before the Oil-for-Food program had ended. This despite the fact that the Foreign Ministry had informed the Embassy in Washington about the corruption.

“It is possible that embassies are informed – that is routine – but hundreds of reports come in every week, and the [Swedish] organization that would be most expected to act would be the delegation to the UN,” he said.

The foreign minister said he thought that overall Sweden had acted properly.

“We did, after all, send the information on to the organization that had responsibility for the whole program.

The government knew that companies were paying illegal fees in connection with the Oil-for-Food program. An investigation has been launched into 14 Swedish companies, which are suspected of breaking UN sanctions.

“As I see it, it’s a serious crime, the sanctions were there for a

reason… It can lead to four years in prison,” Swedish prosecutor Nils-Erik Schultz told Swedish Radio.

The Swedish government was sent information from the embassy in Amman, in which it was claimed that Iraq was demanding commission of 10 percent on every contract signed with foreign companies, money that was to be paid into a special account.

“The Foreign Ministry received this information at the end of 2000 or the beginning of 2001 and we sent it on to the UN pretty much straight away so that it could be taken up by the sanctions committee, which was responsible for this, and which included members of the UN Security Council,” Foreign ministry legal affairs director Anders Kruse sadi.

“It became clear that this was something that most people on the sanctions committee knew about and they didn’t think anything should be done about it,” he added.

“I have no inside knowledge of this. The interest of the sanctions committee was lukewarm to say the least. But the government told them what we had heard, so it is not true that we didn’t do anything. We informed the UN because they should know about it, and it turned out that they knew already,” Kruse said.

In Sweden, the Christian Democrats are now demanding that the Parliamentary Committee on the Constitution investigates the government’s actions.

The UN Oil-for-Food program started in 1996 and was scrapped in 2003. It allowed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to sell oil under UN supervision, in return for which it was allowed to buy food, medicine and other essential supplies.