October 26, 2011

Swedish Foreign Minister Haunted by War Crimes Allegations

The arrest of two Swedish journalists in Ethiopia has put allegedly unethical, or even criminal activities by oil companies in the spotlight. It has also further complicated an ongoing debate about Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt’s previous involvement in the oil industry in Africa, and whether or not he should be investigated for complicity in crimes against humanity.

On July 1, two Swedish freelance journalists traveling with rebel forces in the restive Ogaden area were arrested during a firefight with Ethiopian government forces. Working on a story for renowned magazine, Filter, 29-year-old photographer Johan Persson and 30-year-old reporter Martin Schibbye were slightly injured and taken into custody. Their troubles, however, had only just begun.

Residents of the Ogaden area, originally part of Somalia, have fought for independence from Ethiopia since the late ’70s. Today, the area is off limits to foreigners, and the Swedes were in the area illegally. The Ethiopian government has accused them of colluding with the rebels and they are currently on trial in the capital, Addis Ababa.

Schibbye and Persson have pleaded guilty to illegal entry into Ethiopia, but deny any involvement in the conflict. Since the Ogaden separatist group ONLF is considered a terrorist organization by the Ethiopian government, the Swedes are now to stand trial for terrorism, and are faced with the prospect of decades in an Ethiopian prison.

Bildt’s oil interests

The events have also added fuel to the debate over Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt’s involvement in oil company Lundin Petroleum. Between 2000 and 2006, Bildt was a member of the Lundin Board of Directors and, during that time, the company may have been involved in crimes against humanity and war crimes, according to a report from ECOS (European Coalition on Oil in Sudan).

Between 1997 and 2003 Lundin Petroleum was active in the area, now recognized as South Sudan but which was then torn apart by civil war between the central government in Khartoum and rebel forces. During this period, the government used similar genocidal tactics to those used in the Darfur area, driving the population away in order to secure oil resources. These they then exploited together with Lundin.

According to the report “Unpaid Debt,” some 12,000 civilians were killed and up to 200,000 displaced by attacks from horseback militia and regular forces. Other atrocities such as rape, pillage, arson, enslavement, torture, and forced underage recruitment also took place.

Lundin and other international oil companies should have been well aware of the situation, but they continued to work with the government and even provided access to a strategic road and bridge that may have helped government forces carry out their attacks against civilians. In this way, they may be complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity, the report concludes. It also states that the companies involved should be investigated, and that they should contribute to the estimated $300 million in damages to the many victims of these crimes.

Bildt has denied any knowledge of the atrocities, and said in an interview in Veckans Affarer magazine in February 2011, that the ECOS report exaggerated the number of people in the area by a factor of two or three. A Swedish criminal investigation was launched in June 2010 as a result of the ECOS report, but Bildt was not among the people recently called to the first round of questionings.

Clash of interests

Bildt, who is also a former prime minister of Sweden, has had to deal with war crimes in his earlier work as a EU representative and U.N. special representative in the Balkans, making the allegations against him especially embarrassing.

With the case of the two detained journalists, however, a new layer has been added to the affair. The journalists, it turned out, were going to Ogaden to investigate Lundin Petroleum and its subsidiaries’ business there, and could therefore potentially have unearthed information that would be damaging to Bildt.

Bildt has shaken off this potential clash of interest in his typically confident manner, arguing that Lundin itself had no business in Ethiopia during his time with the company and ignoring calls for his resignation among the opposition. But as long as the media spotlight is on the detained reporters and the investigation against Lundin is ongoing, it seems likely that the story will continue to haunt him and the conservative Swedish government.

The trial against Persson and Schibbye opened on Oct. 18 and was adjourned on Oct. 20. It will resume on Nov. 1, and may take several months. If convicted of terrorism, the Swedes may face up to 40 years in prison. Bildt has said that if they are indeed convicted and sentenced to long prison terms, the Swedish government will ask the Ethiopian government, which receives substantial foreign aid from Sweden, for a pardon.

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