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“Somalia at the point of no return”, says Terzi (Avvenire)

The question had to be asked, even if Giulio Terzi has chosen for days not to speak in public about the issue, except at yesterday’s [22 February 2012] hearing before the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee. A question that concerns the case of the two sailors arrested in India, accused of killing two fishermen from Kerala, whom they mistook for pirates. It’s impossible not to make the connection, however, since the Foreign Minister is taking part today in the London Conference on Somalia.

Is the Kerala case really so complex?

“We’re making every effort. We’ve activated all possible channels to work pragmatically towards a solution. I decided to send Under-Secretary De Mistura to New Delhi and from there he’ll be moving on to the State of Kerala any time now. I spoke yesterday to the parents of one of the two sailors and reassured them of the government’s utter determination, and indeed my own, to resolve this case quickly. On Tuesday [28 February] I’ll be going to New Delhi myself, in response to a government invitation I received a few weeks ago. But if the question hasn’t been resolved by then it will be added to the agenda for those discussions”.

Another case linked to an Italian ship, the Savina Caylyn, seized in the Gulf of Aden, has recently been resolved.

“Protecting our military, and indeed all Italian nationals, abroad is an absolute priority. As in the cases of kidnappings of Italian crews or citizens working around the world for voluntary organisations. We’ve gained considerable experience in this area, with positive outcomes. As in the last three months, for example. But Kerala is a case apart, because India is claiming jurisdiction in light of the nationality of the victims, even though the incident took place in the high seas and our position is that Italy has jurisdiction, since that is precisely what international law envisages”.

In Somalia, too, the diplomatic situation is pretty thorny. The end of the transition government should be declared in London today, after 8 years of quarrels, domestic warfare, and massacres. And with a government and a president whose powers are restricted to just a few districts in Mogadishu, whose legitimacy is propped up by foreign military and a parliament in exile. It’s a bitter state of affairs. Do you really think this 20-year-long black hole can be filled?

“When Italy was in the UN Security Council, in the mid-’90s, each time we tried to bring the Somalia dossier to the Council’s attention (the memory of the tragic end of the American mission was still fresh) we came up against opposition from a whole range of countries. To the extent that we renamed Somalia ‘The forgotten country’: a black hole in the UN’s geopolitics vis-à-vis East Africa. We couldn’t accept this state of affairs and worked to ensure that the Somali question was moved back up the agenda. I think that establishing and maintaining that priority has been, as it was back then, a success for Italian diplomacy. Sadly, however, it wasn’t enough to find a way out of a crisis that has become endemic”.

And what results might emerge from London?

I found reasons to feel encouraged by the meeting, a fortnight ago here in Rome, with the Somali Prime Minister, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali. I found him determined to follow the Garaowe principle [ed. note: the conference two months ago in Puntland, which established the Somali road map]. This leads me to believe that the country has now moved on to the constituent stage. The Premier assured me that they will set up a new Assembly which, rather than being just the algebraic sum of the clans, factions and warlords, will be open to more representative elements of Somali society. I think the transition has come to an end”.

Are they convinced of that too?

“They seem to be. Anyway, the document produced by the London conference will clarify this matter: we’re now at a point of no return. This will be an opportunity for the Somalis taking part to take stock of the situation. A new horizon is opening up, a horizon, however, that will require commitments to be implemented rapidly. The positive impression I got from the new prime minister gives us grounds, I believe, to extend him a ‘credit line’. This conference will be useful precisely because it shows everyone that the establishment of a system that is reasonably democratic and representative of Somali society as a whole is a point of no return. I use the term ‘reasonably’ because, as we have seen in many parts of the world, when we move on to the elections stage, there are difficulties that need to be addressed”.

But the al-Shabaab rebels, whose seat at the London Conference will be conspicuously empty, will need to be taken into account. Could a situation like the one in Afghanistan take shape?

“First of all, it’s very important to open a dialogue with the leaders in the region: Eritrea, Yemen and all the countries of the Horn of Africa. We need to create a positive contribution from Ethiopia and Kenya, and Egypt and Sudan too. The question of involving the Shabaab rebels in a scenario of stability in Somalia, it is true, resembles the hard-fought dialogue process between the government in Kabul and the Taliban insurgency. But there, we know, there are countries who strongly resist this course of action. And the countries taking part in the Conference differ in their attitudes to al-Shabaab. Some feel that engaging in some form of dialogue would be useful, at least with the less Jihadist elements. But a large group of countries is extremely concerned about opening up to them in this way”.

Who are they?

“Well, they include some of the countries most active on the anti-terrorism front. Maybe they also know more than others about the Jihadist presence on the Shabaab side. I believe that this declared alliance between al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda, which has been reiterated only recently, is something the Jihadists themselves want, their aim being to create further complications. I don’t know if any clear line on the dialogue will emerge from London. But we hope to see their hold eroded: once they start to lose terrain physically, on the military front, we know that the Somali clans will change their position easily. This isn’t an irreversible insurgency”.

Somalia, however, above all means famine…

“The third pillar of the conference, certainly not in order of priority, is development. The London event is also a step on the way to the development conference scheduled to take place in Istanbul. So we will see a succession of meetings focusing on development, famine and the sustainability of the Somali economy that will need to take shape. Famine is an important issue for us, in spite of the serious shortfalls we’re experiencing in cooperation and development funding. We certainly can’t deny it, indeed I’d underline this aspect: the funding available for our bilateral aid effort has plummeted over the last four or five years. But Somalia has always been a destination for Italian aid, both in emergency situations and in terms of food aid. We are engaged on this front and with aid to promote human rights and to support the condition of women. Most notably with respect to certain particularly tragic situations determined by local traditions, such as female genital mutilation”.

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