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UN: After Genoa, Pressures On International Groups To Move Meetings

The Italian government created controversy this week by suggesting the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization move a planned summit later this year from Rome to Africa. The government is hoping to avoid a repeat of last month's debacle in Genoa, where Italian police clashed with anti-globalization protesters, killing one and injuring hundreds of others. But in seeking to relocate the summit, the government appears to be caving in to protesters and admitting they cannot be stopped. RFE/RL correspondent Mark Baker reports the move could set a difficult precedent for future international gatherings.

Prague, 8 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The UN's Food and Agricultural Organization has invited more than 180 heads of state to a World Food Summit in Rome in November -- a high-profile event that typically draws from 5,000 to 10,000 people.

But this week, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- fearing a repeat of the violence that plagued last month's G-7 plus Russia summit in Genoa -- suggested the FAO consider moving the summit out of Italy. He said by hosting the Genoa summit, Italy had already "done enough" to support international gatherings. Members of Berlusconi's cabinet even suggested moving the FAO gathering to Africa, where they said local populations "better understand" world hunger.

The suggestion caught the Rome-based FAO off-guard.

Erwin Northoff of the FAO's press office says his organization has not received a formal request from the Italian government to move the summit. He points to the difficulties of changing the location and says any decision to move the summit would have to be made by member governments.

Northoff tells RFE/RL, "For the time being, we are continuing as we did in the past and we are expecting that the summit will take place here in Rome."

Italian officials are also coming under pressure to postpone or cancel a meeting of NATO defense ministers scheduled for next month in the southern city of Naples.

Anti-globalization activists have already threatened to disrupt the Naples meeting. The leader (Francesco Caruso) of the "No Global" movement is quoted by an Italian newspaper ("La Stampa") this week as saying, "We are ready to fight [and] this time we will not be pacifists."

NATO spokeswoman Ariane Quentier says that any decision to move the meeting would have to be made first by Italian authorities. She says NATO has not received any official request from Rome.

"For the time being, we've had no requests whatsoever from the Italian government to do anything about this meeting that is scheduled in Naples, and we haven't been asked to change any of the plans. But the Ministry of Defense of Italy has said that the point is going to be discussed tomorrow (9 August) by the ministers [in the Italian government]."

After the carnage of Genoa, the reluctance of the Italians to host international gatherings is understandable.

The shooting death of 23-year-old Carlo Giuliani, the first anti-globalization protester to die at the hands of police since demonstrations began in 1999, prompted an international outcry that the police acted improperly.

Moreover, in spite of the millions of dollars spent to protect Genoa, large chunks of the city were destroyed in the riots. Residents of both Naples and Rome now know that the police cannot protect them or their property.

But moving the meetings risks sending an unfortunate message both to violent demonstrators and to international organizations such as the World Trade Organization, World Bank, and European Union, whose conferences have been targets of violence in the past.

To demonstrators, the message is that their violence has succeeded in disrupting the meetings.

To international organizations, it says some democratic nations are now wary of hosting summits and that organizations should look further afield for meeting sites.

Karel Lannoo of the Center for European Policy Studies says moving meetings does not makes sense. He points out that violent demonstrators can easily cross frontiers anywhere in the world:

"If somebody wants to derail a certain event from taking place, that can be fairly easily done. It's not difficult."

But more importantly, he says it defeats the purpose of holding large gatherings in the first place. He says international organizations must hold their meetings in highly public and accessible areas -- places where they can easily convey their decisions to a wider public and where legitimate protesters can voice their opposition.

"I don't think [moving summits to remote locations] is an answer. I don't think so. Let's say [within] an EU context, with all of these European Council summits, where else you could hold them? Unless somewhere in a hotel close to an airport, or on a military base. But that's not an answer. These people have to communicate and have to be able to be somewhere in a place where they can hold press conferences, and so on."

Josep Bosch of the World Trade Organization says one repercussion of the Italian move is that his organization, at least, will probably choose to hold more of its meetings in developing countries.

"Three-quarters of our members are from developing countries, so there is a bigger possibility now that it will be done in a developing country."

The WTO became the first major target of the anti-globalization protesters in Seattle in 1999. For its next ministerial meeting, set for later this year, the organization has chosen Doha in Qatar, a relatively difficult destination for protesters.

But Bosch says Qatar was picked not because of its relative remoteness, but because officials there had lobbied for the meeting and the facilities were large enough to accommodate the delegates.

For many, the obvious solution is not to move meetings, but to control the reckless and violent demonstrators.

One possible solution may come from a German proposal to create a European corps of riot police that could protect high-level meetings. German Interior Minister Otto Schily is expected to put the matter on the agenda when he meets his EU counterparts next month in Belgium.

Italy's Interior Minister, Claudio Scajola, is reported to support the move, but talks are still at an early stage.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.