Western leaders expressed outrage yesterday as Robert Mugabe flew into Rome in defiance of an EU travel ban to attend a United Nations world food summit while millions of people are starving under his brutal rule in Zimbabwe, according to Times Online.
A spokesman for Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, said: “We think it is particularly unfortunate that he has decided to attend this meeting given what he has done in relation to contributing to difficulties on food supply in Zimbabwe.”
Douglas Alexander, the International Development Secretary, who will represent Britain at the summit, said: “We don’t see Robert Mugabe as gaining any legitimacy or credibility from attending this meeting when four million of his own people are now relying on food aid as a direct consequence of his profound misrule of the country.” A Downing Street spokesman said that Mr Alexander “will not have any engagement or interaction” with Mr Mugabe.
Stephen Smith, the Australian Foreign Minister, said it was obscene that “someone who has presided over the starvation of his people” was attending the three-day conference, organised by the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which opens today.
Lord Malloch-Brown, the British Foreign Minister, said: “This is like Pol Pot going to a human rights conference.”
Mr Mugabe is staying at the five-star Ambasciatori Palace Hotel on the Via Veneto, the elegant street that provided the backdrop for Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita. A deluxe suite at the hotel costs ¤900 a night. The Art Deco hotel, built in 1905, offers “gourmet buffets” and a “refined catering service”.
Yesterday Mr Mugabe swept out of the hotel accompanied by his wife Grace and Rugare Gumbo, the Agriculture Minister. Guarded by an entourage of 15, he refused to speak to reporters, but staff at the hotel confirmed that he was staying there.
Italy has provided high security for the summit, but there was no evidence yesterday of any special arrangements for Mr Mugabe. On past foreign trips Mrs Mugabe joined other leaders’ wives shopping at high-fashion boutiques. Yesterday shops were closed for the annual public holiday celebrating the founding of Italy’s postwar republic, but they reopen today.
Mr Mugabe, 84, is subject to a travel ban to the European Union because of sanctions imposed after his rigged re-election in 2002 but Italian officials said that they had had no choice but to allow him to attend UN meetings in Rome, as he did in 2002 and 2005. The trip is Mr Mugabe’s first foreign visit since he lost the first round of presidential elections on March 29 to Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader. He refused to concede defeat and mounted a campaign of violence against the opposition. A run-off poll is due at the end of this month.
Zimbabwe, once the bread basket of southern Africa, is facing acute food shortages and the UN has issued a warning that near-drought in parts of the country could damage the maize harvest. Agriculture has collapsed since Mr Mugabe embarked on “land reforms” involving the expropriation of thousands of white-owned farms, which critics say he has handed over to his associates. Mr Mugabe, who will address the summit, is expected to blame his country’s crisis on sanctions imposed by the US and the EU.
Three years ago Mr Mugabe attended the FAO’s 60th anniversary celebrations, when he called President Bush and the Prime Minister then, Tony Blair, “international terrorists”, comparing them to Hitler and Mussolini as “the two unholy men of our millennium”.
Left-wing and Jewish groups also protested yesterday against the arrival in Rome of President Ahmadinejad of Iran, who denies that the Holocaust occurred and has vowed to wipe Israel off the map.
The summit has been called to find a solution to rising global food prices, which have sparked riots in the developing world.
Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, is expected to issue a plea to leaders to suspend trade restrictions, agricultural taxes and price controls, which have pushed food prices to record levels. According to the FAO, 22 countries, led by Eritrea, Haiti and Liberia, are on the brink of famine.
Travel ban loophole
— Italy can claim that its hands were tied over allowing Mr Mugabe to visit Rome. Under the terms of the Food and Agriculture Headquarters Agreement signed by Italy in 1950, it appears that, as host to the UN organisation, Rome is obliged to allow official representatives to attend. Mr Mugabe is subject to an EU travel ban but that too has a get-out clause for outlawed individuals, enabling them to attend international conferences.