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Emma Bonino - Biography


Emma Bonino


During the last legislature, Emma Bonino served as Vice President of the Italian Senate. Until April 2008 she served as Minister for for International Trade and European Affairs and before she was member of the European Parliament. Since 2001, she has gone back and forth between the EU offices and Cairo since December 2001. She has regularly carried out the work connected to her parliamentary mandate, yet in Cairo was able to attend lessons in the Arabic language, so that today she can follow the Al-Jazeera broadcasts and read the main Middle East daily papers. Since March 2003 she has managed the Arab press review for Radio Radicale, a unique initiative on the Italian information scene. Thus she became one of the most authoritative experts and commentators on problems in the area, having read them with the eyes of an activist who endeavours for democracy to be installed in those regions, avoiding both unilateralism (though necessary) of “preventive wars” and the explosion of a very dangerous “war of civilisations”. It is from this viewpoint and with this urgency that in January 2004, with the NGO “No Peace Without Justice” and in collaboration with the Yemen government, she dove into organising the first regional inter-governmental conference on democracy, human rights and the role of the International Criminal Court ever held in the Arab world. Emma Bonino had already travelled to Yemen in 2003: the legislative elections were taking place, and she told President Ali Abdullah Saleh that she was worried because the women’s participation in the campaign was significantly lower than in the 1993 campaign. But the seed had been sown: more than 850 Arab and western personalities, 37 ministers, about a hundred members of parliament and exponents of the civilised society of 25 Arab and African countries were able to discuss topics never faced before in a meeting of this type and level. Among those present were the Secretary General of the Arab League Amr Moussa, the Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations for Political Affairs Danilo Turk, the General Director for External Relations of the European Commission Eneko Landaburu, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Luis Moreno Ocampo, the Secretary General of the Islamic Conference Organisation Abdelouahed Belkeziz, and prominent representatives of non governmental associations and organisations. The Conference was held under the auspices of the European Union, with contributions from the European Commission and from the governments of Canada, France, Germany, Ireland (EU turn President), Italy, Holland, United Kingdom, Switzerland and the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), and concluded with the “Sana’a Declaration” signed by all the delegations present. Emma Bonino and the Transnational Radical Party had even more ambitious projects. In November 2002, Emma Bonino, representing the Italian government, participated in Seoul in the second ministerial conference of the “Community of Democracies”, an informal union of states which, on the basis of a document adopted by the “Convening Group”, had the goal of working to create “World Organisation of Democracies”, in order to reinforce civil and political liberties in the world. In the crisis of supranational institutions (the UN in the front row) a strategy was needed to give democracies the strength to stand up to the assault of fundamentalisms, terrorism, and the return to the nationalisms of the past century. It was a difficult undertaking, but day by day it proved ever more necessary. Most of the attention of the Radicals and Emma Bonino herself will certainly be aimed at it, starting from the European Parliament. In an exemplary manner, Emma went to Ecuador from September to November 2002, leading a mission of observers that the European Union had sent to monitor the presidential, legislative and administrative elections. Emma Bonino’s commitment dates far back. In 1976 (for the first time in its twenty years of political history the Radical Party presented their own lists for the Italian legislative elections) she was elected deputy, along with Marco Pannella, Adele Faccio and Mauro Mellini. She was only 28 years old. It was during the days of the battles for civil rights and Emma had collaborated with the CISA – the Centre for information, sterilisation and abortion founded by Adele Faccio – where clandestine clinics, using the Karman method, helped women who were unable to pay for the “golden spoon” or fly abroad in order to abort. In June 1975, after a period of inaction, Emma Bonino turned herself over to the hands of justice for procured abortion and the campaign was the priority of the Radical Party which already the year before had won the referendum to introduce divorce in Italy. Since then her presence in the Italian Parliament has been nearly uninterrupted, and marked by initiatives, not just on a parliamentary level, which brought her strong political and human credit. Thus, during a March 1999 assembly of the Radicals for “liberal revolution and the United States of Europe” she could accept a surprising candidature to the Presidency of the Republic. In the European elections in June of that year she was the list leader of the “Lista Bonino”, which obtained 8.5% of votes and seven deputies. She was elected political secretary of the Radical Party in 1993. While her “Italian” activity expanded and developed in various sectors (energy policy, information policy, justice policy, etc.), in 1979 - “International Year of the Child” – a UNICEF report was published with blood-chilling estimates that within the year 40 million people – of which 40% children – would die. Marco Pannella began the campaign against “extermination by hunger in the southern part of the world”, asking governments for special intervention on the most urgent, necessary situations. Emma Bonino was immediately involved in the initiative. Thus began the Radical parliament member’s work in “international” politics. In April 1981, along with 113 Nobel signatories to the Radical appeal against extermination by hunger, she founded the International Food and Disarmament association to coordinate international activities on this front. In February 1986, she became its secretary and launched the Manifest of Heads of State in defence of the “right to life” and the “life of right”. During an official encounter, Marco Pannella illustrated to Pope John Paul II the initiatives that had been undertaken. In the same year she promoted an international campaign for the defence of human rights in Eastern Europe, in particular in favour of the “refuzniks”, the Soviet Jews who were denied the right to emigrate to Israel. In January 1987, she demonstrated in Warsaw against the Jaruzelski dictatorship, in favour of Solidarnosc. She was arrested and expelled. In May 1991, the Italian Chamber of Deputies approved a motion signed first by Emma Bonino committing the government to prevent the proliferation of conventional weapons and in particular landmines. In November 1993, Emma Bonino handed the Secretary General of the United Nations Boutros Ghali 25,000 signatures collected worldwide in the appeal for setting up a special court to try crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. In June of the following year the Dalai Lama visited Italy: thanks to the Radicals he was received by head offices of State. It was a stage in Emma Bonino’s commitment for the rights and freedom of the Tibet people and for democracy in China. Her international activity obtained new possibilities for expression when, in January 1995, the Italian government appointed her European Commissioner for humanitarian aid, consumer policy and fishing. It was the first time a Radical held a position with executive political functions. Two days from taking office, she flew to the former Yugoslavia, denouncing Europe’s impotence and the UN’s disinterest with respect to the chronic state of the Balkan war and the ethnical cleansing going on. After the fall of Srebrenitza she went to Tuzla, where thousands of refugees were flocking: only women and children. The alarm is sounded – which will turn into dramatic reality – about the risk that the Srebrenitza men were being massacred by Mladic’s troops: “We are facing genocide; more than 4,000 people are unaccounted for, there is no news of 8,000 people. They have disappeared”. From Europe she keeps looking towards Africa. Refugee camps stretching as far as the eye can see in the Goma region of Zaire (2 million Rwanda Hutus) are the tragic inheritance of an ethnic conflict culminated in the 1994 genocide. Emma Bonino went to the region in March 1995 to support the refugees’ right to humanitarian aid and to stress Europe’s financial commitment. The following year she represented the European Union in the Europe/USA joint humanitarian mission in the Great Lakes region; the Americans were represented by Brian Atwood, in charge of the US agency for cooperation, USAID. The analysis by the two major donors of humanitarian aid converged: the crisis was no longer sustainable and required an urgent political intervention by the UN or the major powers. Unfortunately the chancelleries didn’t listen to the appeal. During the same trip, Emma Vonino visited Somalia, a country at the extreme limit and again in the hands of the warlords (near Kisimayo, Bonino’s humanitarian convoy came under the fire of Aidid’s warriors), and southern Sudan, violating the air embargo imposed by the Khartoum regime, in order to revive the humanitarian aid directed at victims of a “forgotten” crisis. Subsequently Emma Bonino met with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, on a visit to Brussels to find a solution, at least momentary, for the Rwanda refugees. She returned to the tormented Great Lakes region in November 1996 and January 1997, while an offensive was going on in Zaire piloted from Rwanda and Uganda to knock out Mobutu’s regime. Among the military objectives was the removal of the refugee camps: it would be a huge Hutu hunt, taking place in the tropical forests without witnesses. Emma defended these refugees’ rights to humanitarian aid, searched for signs of them and found about two hundred thousand in the improvised Tingi-Tingi camp. She says it is “a people who don’t exist”. During a humanitarian mission in February 1999 in Guinea Bissau, theatre of armed clashes since June 1998 between Nino Vieira’s government and a rebel “junta” led by General Mené, the two opponents accepted to meet – for the first time in Bissau – in the presence of Emma Bonino. This was a step towards the definitive assent to a peace plan blocked for months. Subsequently she took a helicopter to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone besieged by rebels, where she met President Kabbah. She visited the Connaught hospital which received hundreds of civilians of all ages mutilated by the machetes of the Revolutionary United Front rebels. “Today, Sierra Leone,” she said upon her return to Europe, “is a living monument to the stupidity of man’s violence. It is the frontier of new barbarian acts, against which there is no other antidote than humanitarian reasoning and solidarity.” The quadrants are various, the chances for intervention are various, but always priority. For Emma Bonino it is the commitment to promoting civil rights and liberty, without which – as she often repeats in assonance with Amartya Sen – there is no possibility or hope even of economic development. During a humanitarian mission to Cuba in May 1995, she met Fidel Castro and, before the European diplomatic corps, put to him the serious problem of respect for human rights, above all those of the regime’s opponents. Upon her departure, Castro liberated six political prisoners who had been the object of an international campaign promoted by Emma Bonino when she was the Secretary of the Transnational Radical Party. On the anniversary of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, in March 1996, she participated in the first European march for Tibetan freedom organised by the Transnational Radical Party. In August, during an official mission in Burma, she semi-secretly paid a visit to the historical leader of Burma’s opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize 1991. She also went to Thailand to take stock of the situation of the Karen refugees at risk of expulsion, and to Cambodia for the problem of landmines that infest the country. That same month she met with Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi and discussed the civil rights situation in Asia. An ambitious project took off: sustaining the growth of democracy in the world through legal actions penalising the use of violence and the most serious anti-democratic practices. In 1998 No Peace Without Justice and the Radical Party organised various conferences where Emma Bonino participated actively (Paris, Malta, Montevideo, Atlanta, Rome, New York, Dakar), to stimulate the interest of United Nations countries toward setting up a criminal court with international jurisdiction on war crimes. In June a special diplomatic conference was finally called, to be held in Rome. Representing the European Commission, Emma Bonino took on a role of political impulse and mediation. In spite of resistance and difficulties up to the last hour, on 17 July 1998, 120 countries approved the Statute of the International Court on War Crimes. The next day, she celebrated the success of the conference at the Capitol with Kofi Annan, UN General Secretary. Again on the topic of development of democracy, in July 2003 she organised in Rome, at the Palazzo Giustiniani, a round table on the role of the international community in promoting democracy and the state of right, with the participation of, among others, the former prime minister of Sudal Sadek el Mahdi, the former prime minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina, the former French minister of health Bernard Kouchner, Saad Eddin Ibrahim – Egyptian democratic intellectual – and the president of the committee for human rights of the Shura Council (the high chamber of Yemen parliament) Mohamed Al-Tayeb. In October 1998, she received from the hands of Prince Felipe de Borbone the prestigious “Prince of Asturias” award, and dedicated it to the leader of Burma’s opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi. She requested and obtained sharing the award with a group of women active in the field of human rights. Thus she ended up on the award stage with Fatiha Boudiaf, widow of the Algerian president assassinated in 1992; Olayinka Koso-Thomas, Nigerian and fighting for more than 15 years for the abolition of female mutilation; Graca Machel, President of the UN Commission for the defence of child war victims; Rigoberta Menchù, Nobel Peace Prize 1992; Fatana Ishaq Gailani, founder of the Council of Afghan Women; and Somali Mam, President of the Cambodian Association fighting child prostitution. Contacts were reinforced with many of them in following years on aims linked to the campaigns against female genital mutilation, the rights of Afghan women and the fight against child prostitution. As European Commissioner, Emma Bonino has had to tackle complex situations. In February 1995, an argument exploded between Canada and the EU about regulations on halibut fishing. A Spanish fishing boat in international waters is threatened by cannon fire from the Canadian Navy. The Fishing Commissioner defines the event “an act of international piracy”. Even though the diplomatic clash is violent, in April Emma Bonino succeeds in reaching an agreement with the Canadians after tough negotiations. A few weeks later Morocco interrupts fishing agreements with the EU. After negotiations carried out in the most delicate phases directly with King Hassan II, in November a new agreement was signed. In February 1997, Emma Bonino was appointed “European Personality 1996”, one year after Helmut Kohl, by a jury chaired by Jacques Delors, in recognition of her humanitarian courage and her faith in the future of European integration. In March, the “mad cow” epidemic places the Brussels Commission in serious difficulty. President Jacques Santer decides to entrust Emma Bonino with managing the crisis and assigns her the competence in food safety matters. Emma Bonino negotiates severe measures with the United Kingdom for control of the disease, avoids censure by the European Parliament and gradually establishes consumer trust again for meat consumption. The Middle East enters in her sphere of interest, where threatening clouds are gathering, including Iraq’s default in respecting international and UN warnings and sanctions. During a humanitarian mission to Iraq in August 1997, she visited Iraqi Kurdistan (she was not authorised to go to the southern part of the country). She met with representatives of the Baghdad government, among them the Vice Premier Tarek-Aziz, reminding him that the harm done to the population by 30 years of dictatorship greatly exceeds that caused by 6 years of “western” embargo. In September, she organised a mission to Afghanistan to check on the progress of the projects of the Commission’s humanitarian office and in Kabul is held hostage by the Talebans for four hours. Upon her return to Europe, she denounced the regime of terror that reigns in that tormented country, stressing in particular the condition of women and the policy of religious repression. She promoted the international campaign “A Flower for the Women of Kabul”, which was to crown the 8th of March the following year. When the Taleban regime fell, while an international conference was going on in Bonn to assign a provisional government to liberated Afghanistan, she launched with the Transnational Radical Party a campaign in favour of women being present in the new government. More than six thousand members of parliament, ministers, personalities and citizens from over one hundred countries took part in the day of fasting planned for December 1, 2001. It was the first global satyagraha of Radical history. Two women are elected to the interim executive and one of its representatives, Soraya Rahim, minister for women’s affairs, spoke at the 18th Congress of the Transnational Radical Party (Geneva, 4-7 April 2002). In December 1997, Emma Bonino represented the European Commission at the Ottawa Conference for signing the treaty banning landmines: the “weapons of cowards”. During her humanitarian missions, in Iraq as in Afghanistan, in Cambodia as in Bosnia, she had met hundreds of victims of mines. As early as 1994, as speaker at the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chamber of Deputies, she obtained the Italian Parliament’s unilateral decision for a total ban on landmines. In March 1999, to put an end to the ethnic repression of the Belgrade troops in Kosovo, NATO began a series of dissuasive bombings. Ethnic Albanian refugees were counted in the hundreds of thousands. Emma Bonino and Javier Solana, Secretary General of NATO, met in the NATO headquarters in view of Emma Bonino’s humanitarian mission in the region, aimed at starting up functional coordination between those responsible for military operations and those involved in the humanitarian effort. Emma Bonino visited the border stations in Albania and Macedonia where the Kosovar people were flocking: “A mass deportation of human beings with no identity, who look towards a future that seems to be a dark chasm”, she said upon her return. She set to work to intensify the European Union’s humanitarian effort and promote coordination among international interventions. On 27 December, as we have already said, she went to Cairo. In the European Parliament she was a member of the Foreign Commission and Sub-Commission for the Mashrek countries and Gulf states. In May 2002, she went with a parliamentary delegation to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, stressing the political need (Europe’s as well) to invest as much as possible so that the young Yemenite parliamentary democracy can make progress, reinforcing the structures of the state of right it chose. In June she returned to Kabul for the inauguration of the Loya Jirga – the first Afghan legislative assembly – to participate upon invitation of the country’s feminists in an international conference titled “March of Women for Afghanistan”, and ratify an “Afghan paper of women’s rights” to be proposed at the meeting of the tribe chiefs. From the beginning she followed the legal events of the Egyptian democratic intellectual Saad Eddin Ibrahim, arrested on 26 June 2000 and accused of four crimes, among them fraud and corruption. He was condemned to seven years in prison for having “prejudiced the state image”, among other things. The sentence was annulled in February 2003, thanks to the international campaign Emma Bonino participated in, obtaining the support of the European Parliament. Emma Bonino has paid particular attention in recent years to the new aspects of “women’s affairs”. She began her citizen’s commitment with the themes of divorce and abortion, so this return was natural even in a different context: the international one. According to the WHO estimates, 130 women and young girls in the world have been the victims of the cruel practice of female genital mutilation, and every year two million of them risk being subjected to it. In June 2000 the European Radical deputies presented a proposal for a resolution of report, and in November of that year they organised a “Day of Knowledge”. Thanks to a lucky and very useful encounter of political synergy with AIDOS, the Association of Italian Women for Development presided by Daniela Colombo, active for years in this sector, on 10 December 2001, an international conference began a “Stop FGM” campaign in the European Parliament – supporting the battle of African women who have been struggling for more than 20 years, with much determination yet just as much lack of synergetic possibilities and international visibility. From 21 to 23 June 2003 StopFGM organised an international conference in Cairo on the guidelines of a legislation that set out the basis for the total eradication of this shameful practice. Participants were the representatives of the governments of the 28 countries concerned, the two top Egyptian religious authorities, Imam Tantawi and the representative of the Coptic Church. Also present was Suzanne Mubarak. The urgencies of international policy and the new structures of the post-Saddam Middle East, still being defined, induced her to return to Iraq seven years after her previous visit. Accompanied by the Radical Euro-deputies Gianfranco Dell’Alba and Marco Cappato, the visit took place from 21 to 24 March 2004, in coincidence with the first anniversary of the war. The first stop was Nassiriya, where the Italian military contingent was stationed. She met the Governor of the Dhi Qar province, Sabri al Rumadyah, and a large delegation of local women. In the two following days, the Radical delegation moved on to Baghdad for a meeting with Ambassador Paul Bremer, American proconsul in Iraq, who illustrated the more delicate passages of the transition of powers to a provisional Iraqi government, and for meetings with the Iraqi institutional representatives (members of the Interim Governing Council and ministers of the provisional government), of every ethnic group (Shia, Sunni, Kurd, Turcoman…), including Adnan Pachachi, likely future Head of State and Raja Khuzai, who, when the new constitutional text was being drawn up, did his utmost to see the rejection of proposals inspired by ethnic-religious fundamentalism. The delegation also met with representatives of civilian society, amongst them the president of one of the associations most committed to women’s rights, Widad Kareem. The message that emerged from all the meetings was one: “we don’t like being occupied but we don’t want you to leave either”. The need that emerged was not to abandon the Iraqis to their fate after 25 years of dictatorship, to recompose a framework based on a multilateral alternative, to ensure the minimum basic security so that the economy could take off again, to guarantee a rapid but sustainable passage of powers, to stem terrorism in the name of the “indivisibility” of worldwide security. On their way home, the Radical delegation stopped in Kuwait City where it met with the women’s associations – in a country where women can’t even vote – to present and agree on actions to support and promote liberal democracy, starting from the principles already subscribed to by dozens of Arab governments with the “Sana’a Declaration”.

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