Whatever happened to Emma Bonino? A lifetime out in the field – or rather, on the ground, battling on the side of the victims of adversity, women, the persecuted, the “cleansed”, refugees, even at the cost of being taken prisoner by the Taliban or being arrested, or else of violating air embargoes or risking her life from Sudan to Afghanistan; then on to Cairo to cultivate her knowledge of Arabic, ever in the forefront whether in institutions or in the trenches. And now, at this most important moment of truth, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, with a mission to restore the prestige of a ministry run aground in the case of the marines in India and gradually losing its footing: puff! and she’s gone; desaparecida, missing, invisible. Where’s Emma the fighter who, arriving from Brussels that night in 1999 at the border between Macedonia and Kosovo as European Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs, ripped up the protocol and slogged through the mud past the border checkpoint to meet with thousands of Albanian refugees, human shields displaced by ethnic cleansing? Where is the Bonino of the struggle for a free Tibet? Today, as head of the foreign ministry, she appears ephemeral. On her table a heap of pressing and unresolved dossiers ranging from the Arab Spring – with the Syrian civil war, the chaos in Libya (Cyrenaica has just declared independence, Premier Ali Zeidan has been abducted and released) and Egypt – to the marines in India, who Emma had been confident would be released by Christmas, but where things now seem to be taking longer. And then from a somewhat blurry defence of human rights, for which she fought fiercely, to the incident of a mother and her child, Ms. Shalabayeva, taken from a house between Ostia and Rome and swiftly deported to Kazakhstan, wife of an opponent of Kazakh President Nursultan Nuzarbayev. Again: anyone seen Emma? Who knows what she’s done as minister to prevent the departure of the death boats from Libya; to address growth in a Germanised Europe? The mantra of her colleagues and friends is that she has no wish to stand out, to do things the way others do, go on talk shows and defend in words what she is doing in silence. But it’s true, Emma has rather vanished. Politics is visibility. It’s the Radical syndrome: rebellion, courage – even physical – to revolt, but once installed in institutions it’s time to roll up one’s sleeves and labour in silence. The heroism of non-communication. Even on this Bonino maintains her path and shrugs it off. But what has she done and what has she not done?
The marines. Emma is going to be judged in the end on the outcome of the case of two Italian marine sharpshooters accused of killing two fishermen they had taken for pirates in Indian waters. The Prime Minister’s office is in the driver’s seat, with envoy Staffan De Mistura representing the Premier, but Bonino was exposed in a tweet saying the marines could be innocent or guilty and that it will be up to the Indian courts to decide. Big mistake, which exacerbated the families’ impatience and drew criticism from those reprimanding Italy for not defending its troops abroad. Emma did not post that comment, and yet she is not the type to shift blame to her underlings. Overall, this Emma – who once won the campaign for abortion, fought for the “refuseniks” (Soviet Jews banned from emigrating), marched against Wojciech Jaruzelski in Poland and got herself arrested and expelled, violated the air embargo in South Sudan, resolved the Canada-Spain fishing crisis, handled the mad cow emergency in Europe and, in 2000, contributed to having a 7-year prison sentence for Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim annulled – is the same Emma who now finds herself up against the iron curtain of an India that now wants to bring in four of the two marines fellows for questioning, and maybe even arrest them. Impasse, impasse.
Syria. On the Syrian crisis Bonino got it right, but she’s not boasting about it. It seemed back in August that the U.S. and France were about to launch a strike on Syria. She not only came out against arming the rebels but also against the intervention, which would have compromised the possibility for peace as well as dialogue with Iran’s new “neo-reformist” President Hassan Rohani (on Bonino’s instructions Italy was the first to send a government emissary to Teheran to establish contacts). She was in favour of Geneva 2 negotiations (the path later taken by the G20) and proposed the dismantling of Syrian chemical weapons with the Damascus accord, placing Italian expertise at the disposition of the UN Joint Operational Planning Team. Italy’s no to the raid was not to be taken for granted, given the Radical Party’s and Bonino’s well known stance on “Amerika”.
Libya and Egypt. The European foreign ministers met on 21 August on Italy’s suggestion, and Bonino’s personal contacts were useful to Catherine Ashton in keeping a channel open with the Egyptian opposition. But things are going from bad to worse in Libya; boatloads of refugees are setting sail because there are no controls; Cyrenaica has split off; and the Italo-Libyan police and army training programme can’t manage to get off the ground.
The Shalabayeva case. This has been the incident that has most tormented Bonino, given her humanitarian history. In reality, it seems that the minister had immediately warned both President Enrico Letta and Minister Angelino Alfano of the consequences of the “deportation” of Shalabayeva, in spoken and written form. The foreign ministry is now monitoring the woman’s health and freedom of movement from afar, but its image has been marred.
Growth. A good, and little publicised, outcome has been the signing of Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) contracts in Baku, Azerbaijan for a total value of 200 billion USD, with the involvement of ENEL and prospects for the release of Libyan gas; then there is the Destinazione Italia project for attracting foreign investments, and the diplomacy of the 2015 Milan EXPO, with 140 participating countries that include the U.S. and UK.
Human rights. It was Bonino who prevented the withdrawal by African countries from the International Criminal Court in solidarity with Kenya. In addition, our interministerial committee on human rights has been reinstated after having been eliminated by the spending review.
Protection of Italian nationals. Good news with the Syrian release of journalist Domenico Quirico, and a ray of hope for Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’Oglio, also being held in Syria; and efforts continue on behalf of Christian Alessandro of Greenpeace being detained in Russia. There are 3,103 Italians in prisons around the world; a total of 7,000 to be assisted, 330 cases of illegal abduction of minors, half of which have been resolved.
Appointments. Another area in which Bonino has pushed is that of international organisation appointments; it’s been that international Radical know-how that has helped, and one of the outcomes is that Italy has been admitted as an observer to the Arctic Council.
Bonino’s verve at times clashes with the more cautious and bureaucratic attitude of some ambassadors. But in the end Emma’s obstinacy makes its inroads. Pity to have lost that belligerent, militant edge, that DNA fit for Joan D’Arc – but, in any case, the real stock-taking will be done when it’s over.