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Terzi: “Here’s how we’ll bring them home”

“Our line hasn’t changed. We’ve been firm with India since the outset, while seeking at all times not to raise the temperature of the discussion. We don’t want to compromise a situation that’s already very difficult. But the proceeding against the Italians is illegal. They’re military personnel engaged in combating piracy, a very serious threat which the international community and the UN are fighting”. The Foreign Minister, Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, defends the Government’s strategy on the crisis triggered by the arrest of the two riflemen. And he is promising “new steps” to bring the servicemen home.

The impression we’re getting is that once the servicemen were actually arrested the Foreign Ministry line changed, and the pressure on India was stepped up. Is that the case?

“Look, we’ve followed a very determined and responsible line from the moment this incident took place at sea. The strategy is to maintain a relationship with the Indian authorities that is very firm in upholding principles that for our country, as for any other member state of the United Nations, are inalienable. These principles are: sovereignty, which must safeguard organs of the state operating abroad, such as the small military force on board the Enrica Lexie; jurisdiction of the national flag in international waters; and the principle of collaboration in combating piracy.

We have called on these three principles from the outset and have shown great firmness with the Indian authorities. Then, as the situation dragged on, we raised the issue and sought support from other countries and the international institutions of which we are a member. That is the action we have pursued since the incident took place, using a tone designed to avoid heightening the tension unnecessarily with the Indian authorities. Their collaboration is essential if we are to ensure that the two servicemen, and the others still on board the ship, which cannot leave the port, receive the proper treatment”.

But prudence didn’t prevent them from being transferred to prison.

“We continue to follow this line of communication with India, and to seek to avoid a complete split. Because we need to protect our men in every way possible. They’re in prison, albeit one where they are safeguarded by the guarantees that we managed, with great effort, to obtain. And that means that other steps and other types of intervention are needed. We’re taking those steps and making those interventions both through public communication and through diplomatic action, including at a confidential level to obtain certain immediate objectives. The environment in which we are acting is, and we knew this from the outset, most definitely not in our favour. For political reasons, because there’s a local election under way. And because the State of Kerala has certain cultural and political complexities that can easily lead it to adopt a sharp tone in its dealings with westerners. And because, from a more general point of view, India’s international stance is increasingly that of a major power unwilling to submit to external interference”.

Has the balance of strength changed?

“We have never viewed these matters in terms of a balance of strength between ourselves and the emerging countries. The fact remains, however, that this is a country where national feeling and a wide-ranging assertiveness in foreign policy are becoming increasingly evident. You can see it, for example, in many questions regarding the sanctions against Iran. Very often, at the United Nations General Assembly, India’s vote reflects not the interests of the Western and European countries, but those of a modern ‘third-world’ view.

To achieve any result we need to be aware of the context. The legal proceedings, as they are currently developing, and the evidence, especially the ballistic evidence, don’t allow for a calm and considered judgement. We can see that lack of serenity in the public’s violent reactions and accusations. This worries us greatly, a point that I have made – clearly and frankly – to the Indian Ambassador. Indeed, I’ve made it clear at all levels in our contacts. We dispute India’s jurisdiction…”

Do you consider the court proceedings to be illegal?

“The proceedings are based on erroneous assumptions. Since there is no jurisdiction, there are no grounds for a trial to take place. If, however, the Indians proceed regardless, we must demand that they act in a manner appropriate to a great country and a great democracy that respects the rule of law, a country that can rightly boast that it observes all the international principles. We are concerned that the tense climate that has been created, the flames also fanned by political authorities, does not bode well”.

Will you now be stepping up the pressure?

“The Government in its entirety is continuing to cooperate in this affair. It’s very important that the Government’s action is supported by civil society, by the Italian political community. It is important, too, that our two non-commissioned officers and their families feel that the country is supporting them in every way possible and is determined to bring them back home”.

But if the diplomatic route fails, are there legal steps that Italy could take?

“Relations between states are regulated by diplomatic activity. If that were to fail, it would mean that the problem cannot be resolved. Legal routes do exist but they are complex and very long, more so than I believe to be tolerable. So what we need are negotiations, with the support of an international community that upholds those same fundamental principles, starting with the protection of military personnel deployed abroad. This principle concerns over 120 United Nations countries and it concerns the Indians, who have about 10,000 men engaged in peace operations”.

Staying with this week’s news, the US Republicans’ “Super-Tuesday” saw Mitt Romney, considered to be the inevitable candidate, take the lead. Has he any chance of beating Obama?

“This Super-Tuesday was an important stage in the campaign because it showed that Romney is once again the man to beat, with victories in six states. Of course, the race is still on and at some point there will be a critical threshold of votes at the primaries for the Republican convention. To start with, the Republican strategy was to base the campaign entirely on President Obama’s inability to bring about economic recovery. But the economic figures are improving, and continuing to do so”.

The President, along with the rest of the international community, also has to address the atomic crisis in Iran and the Syrian revolt. Will Israel be forced to intervene?

“I listened very closely to President Obama’s speech. It seems to me that he was clarifying the line he is taking, while staying consistent with the initial path followed. There’s a possibility of serious negotiations – even though, to date, we’ve been disappointed time and time again. Pressure needs to be exerted through sanctions, measures which affect the Iranian economy and have the greatest impact on the current leadership and on the continuation of the nuclear programme”.

Will sanctions also work against the Syrian regime, or in this case is the situation even more complicated?

“There’s a feeling that Assad’s regime really is at the end of the road and that the most likely solution is a change following the lines set out in the plan proposed by the Arab League”.