Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

9th September 2001

World hunger talks starved of venue

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NEW YORK - The street riots that marred the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in Seattle in 1999, and the violent demonstrations that rocked the Group of Eight summit meeting in Genoa last July, have cast a shadow over the upcoming World Food Summit in Rome in November.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has ruled out Rome as a venue for the UN summit fearing a repeat of the demonstrations in Genoa which resulted in the death of a demonstration and more than 200 injuries.

Scheduled to take place November 5-9 at the headquarters of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome, the food summit has dragged the UN into a dispute with the Italian government.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week reiterated the FAO's legitimate right to hold the summit in Rome despite Berlusconi's opposition.

Rome is not only headquarters to FAO but also to the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

Annan has said that not only does he support the convening of the conference in Rome but that he has also confirmed his attendance.

"So far, no UN conference has been attacked by violent demonstrators," he said. "UN conferences have not been subjected to that."

The Secretary-General also pointed out that the United Nations last year hosted 150 world leaders, including kings, during the Millennium Summit in New York. "It went on very peacefully."

Last week, Berlusconi told reporters that "international summits can no longer be held in urban surroundings."

The Italians have suggested that the venue be shifted to an yet unnamed African country. FAO is expecting over 150 world leaders to attend the summit.

The Mayor of Rome Walter Veltroni was quoted as saying that ceding Rome would establish a principle that no summit meeting of this kind could ever be held in a Western city.

Alluding to the fact that all UN capitals New York, Vienna, Paris, Nairobi, Geneva and Rome have written agreements with agencies housed in those cities, Veltroni said these cities have to abide by those agreements.

"It's like saying that the United Nations cannot have its General Assembly session in New York," he added.

In an interview with an Italian newspaper last month, Italian Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero said the hypothesis of moving the FAO summit arose even before the violence in Genoa.

Pointing out that it was based on "logic", Ruggiero said: "If we are going to talk about world hunger, why are we doing this in the West, and not in one of those countries which are suffering from the drama of malnutrition?"

Ruggiero, a former head of the WTO, also said that events in Genoa demonstrated "how attacks by a violent fringe turned the summit into a media event in which law and order was the focal point, and no attention was given to the discussions of the leaders."

Meanwhile, the United Nations will break new ground next week when it plays host to a major global conference on children which is expected to be dominated by child delegates.

Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), says that it may seem like common sense to invite young people to a conference completely dedicated to their well being.

"But this is a radical change for such high-level meetings," she admits, adding that children will be literally rubbing elbows with presidents and prime ministers.

"These children will have a chance to voice their concerns and influence the debate," Bellamy notes.

Formally called the UN Special Session on Children, the conference is scheduled to take place Sep.19-21. At least 75 heads of state and heads of government are expected to participate.

As of last week, more than 300 children under the age of 18 were registered as government delegates from countries such as Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Cuba, Egypt, Finland, Indonesia, Iran, Laos, New Zealand, Qatar, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Thailand and Vietnam.

Although President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is billed to address the Special Session, and also hold a UN press conference, no children have so far been named to the Sri Lankan delegation.

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