Saturday, December 22, 2012

Misplaced nationalism

This morning two young men arrived at Ciampino Airport, the only passengers on a special government flight. They were welcomed by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence, the Chief of General Staff of the Italian Navy and the President of the Region of Latium. They also had a welcome telephone call from Prime Minister Mario Monti. This afternoon, they were received by President Napolitano who gave a grandfatherly embrace.

They are Massimiliano Latorre e Salvatore Girone, marine NCOs who have been held in India for the last ten months, accused of killing two fishermen who they mistook for pirates trying to attack the tanker that Latorre and Girone were deployed on as guards. They have been granted a fortnight’s parole for Christmas before returning to Kerala to face trial.

There is nothing surprising that Italian diplomats did their best to secure the parole; one of government’s primary duties is to protect its nationals if they are under threat abroad and to look after the interests of nationals accused of crimes.

It is extremely surprising and disturbing that the two marines have been granted such high honour and recognition. No one denies that the fisherman were killed and that they were killed by the marines but exactly how is not clear.

The precise circumstances of the shooting have not been accepted by all parties but a lot of evidence has been gathered both by the Indian court and journalists and no doubt more will be presented as the trial proceeds.

So it is very inappropriate to treat the two men as returning heroes and does not help either Italo-Indian relations or the fight against piracy in the Arabian Sea.

Italy has experience of foreign soldiers accidentally killing Italians. There have been two incidents in the recent past in which Italians have been killed by US military personnel. In the first, in 1998, a Marine plane cut a skilift cable killing 20 people. In the other, an Italian secret service officer, Nicola Calipari was killed at a Baghdad road block by a National Guardsman, Mario Lozano. In the first case, the pilots were tried by an American court martial because of the Status of Forces Agreement between the US and Italy. They were acquitted of involuntary manslaughter. In the second, an internal US Army investigation cleared Lozano of any wrongdoing. Both episodes left Italians feeling that justice had not been done and in Italian terms, it had not.

But the Americans were never given a public welcome when they came home, not even from junior officers, let alone the Secretaries of State, Defence and the President. If they had, most Italians would have been extremely indignant as are many Indians commenting on the story.

As well as the welcome from the authorities, (including the outgoing Latium regional president, Renata Polverini electioneering already for the February elections), MP Ignazio La Russa has offered to have them stand as candidates in his brand new right wing movement which has just split from Berlusconi’s PdL and is in need of publicity.

Months ago, the two marines were used as pawns in Indian election games, now they have become part of the Italian game. Italian and European diplomacy can do better than return to out-dated nationalistic stereotypes.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speech will be given by Paul Ginsborg

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