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UN: FAO Considering Moving Summit From Rome To Avoid Genoa Repeat

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is said to be giving serious consideration to an Italian government request to move its upcoming World Food Summit out of the center of Rome. The government fears the summit could attract thousands of protesters like July's G-7 plus Russia summit in Genoa. But by making the request, is the Italian government simply giving in to extremism? RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 4 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Italy remains at the center of a controversy that began with the summit in Genoa of the G-7 leading industrialized democracies plus Russia. On that occasion thousands of anti-globalization demonstrators clashed with police in the streets, leaving one protester dead and the city center heavily damaged. The Italian police have since come in for scathing criticism of their handling of events, with allegations of heavy-handedness, including the mistreatment of prisoners.

Now the situation appears to have taken a turn in the opposite direction. The government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has asked the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to move its upcoming Rome summit out of that city altogether. The government fears for Rome's ancient monuments and art treasures if there are large-scale street clashes during the 5 to 9 November summit.

FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf has agreed to consider moving to some other location inside Italy, and an FAO spokesman told RFE/RL that a final decision on that will be made in the next few days.

This is being seen in some circles as giving in to pressure from the streets. For several years now, key meetings of international bodies like the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization have come under pressure from massive protests, and even European Union summits have lately been besieged by demonstrators.

Forcing a major summit to flee from its original venue would thus appear to some to be a victory for the radical wings of the anti-poverty and anti-globalization protest groups. However, senior analyst Nicholas Whyte of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels does not necessarily see it that way. He says:

"I think we are seeing a shift in dynamics. What I would point to is that at the same time as the international community is obviously taking steps to make itself less vulnerable -- which I think in terms of cost and cutting down of extravagance at some of the conferences is probably a good idea. [At the same time] I also detect a greater willingness to take on a dialogue with the anti-globalization people, and I think that will lead to a general improvement anyway."

The FAO itself is playing down the likelihood of large-scale troubles in November. Nick Parsons, media relations chief at the FAO headquarters in Rome, told RFE/RL:

"Most of the demonstrators and many of them in Italy have already said they support the FAO in its fight against hunger in the world and its fight and efforts to make globalization a process that is shared by poor countries as well as wealthy ones, so we do not particularly expect demonstrations against FAO."

Parson's supposition that the turnout of demonstrators would not be large receives some support from an unexpected quarter, namely from Susan George, the Paris-based deputy head of the leading anti-globalization group Attac. She told RFE/RL that she would not expect many protesters from abroad to go to Italy because the FAO was not sufficiently important. She is dismissive of both the government's action and the FAO:

"Probably what this means is that Berlusconi has had enough with the backlash from Genoa, and he simply does not want more protests on Italian soil; [anyway] the FAO is not a very important target, it has never really done anything against hunger and I would say that its policies have probably contributed to hunger because it has been a big supporter of the 'green revolution' which has dispossessed hundreds of thousands if not millions of small peasants."

Parsons defends his organization from criticism that it has been ineffective, leveled by such activists as George. He says:

"It [the FAO] is a catalytic tool, with a budget of $650 million every two years, it cannot make a colossal difference of itself, but it can be a catalyst to assist governments in fighting hunger in their own countries. FAO is never going to impose solutions, but it can assist."

George goes on to condemn the harsh police actions in Genoa, but she also acknowledges a problem with the violent minority of anti-globalization demonstrators:

"I very much hope that we [in the protest mainstream] will become so numerous that we can absorb them [the violent ones], so that they will not be able to carry out the tactics that they appear to think are productive, because I think their tactics are extremely counterproductive."

Back in Rome, Berlusconi's wish to move the summit out of the city has drawn sharp criticism from the center-left opposition, which has said the government should stand by Italy's international commitments. The opposition is also angry at remarks by ministers that demonstrations would not be allowed in the Italian capital even if the summit is moved elsewhere. They say a ban on demonstrations would be contrary to the Italian Constitution.