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The International Herald Tribune - June 3, 2008 The participation of the presidents of Zimbabwe and Iran in a U.N. summit in Rome to combat hunger triggered outrage Monday, a day before world leaders meet to map strategy in the face of skyrocketing food prices that are causing civil unrest and widening malnutrition. Australia's foreign minister decried as "obscene" Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's participation. The longtime African leader has presided over the virtual transformation of his country from former breadbasket to agricultural basket case. The Dutch ministry for overseas development pledged to "ignore" Mugabe during the three-day summit, which begins Tuesday at the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, asked about the presence of the Zimbabwean and Iranian leaders, told reporters in Rome that the two were welcome to attend the summit, but that U.S. delegates would not be meeting with them. Jewish leaders and a panoply of Italian political and activist groups denounced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's attendance at the meeting. On Monday, Ahmadinejad repeated his call for the destruction of Israel, which is also participating in the meeting. He was scheduled to give a news conference at the summit Tuesday afternoon. "It is deplorable that a leader like him, who is failing both his own people and the international community, is allowed to hijack the agenda of this important FAO conference," said Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress. Italian opposition party Radicals, Jewish and other pro-Israel groups were among those involved in a "We're Hungry for Freedom" protest planned for downtown Rome Tuesday night. The Radicals said they wanted summit participants to realize that "really effective solutions to the food drama do not exist in the absence of freedom and democracy." The three-day summit will grapple with both acute emergencies caused by soaring food prices across the globe as well as how to help small farmers in poor countries produce enough food over the longer term. "For years, falling food prices and rising production lulled the world into complacency," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Monday said in a speech at the headquarters of another Rome-based U.N. food agency, IFAD, which works to help small farmers. "Governments put off hard decisions and overlooked the need to invest in agriculture. Today we are literally paying the price," Ban said. Experts say diversion of crops from food to make biofuels and climate change are factors in the price hikes. But long-standing policies such as generous subsidies by governments of wealthy nations for their own farmers, as well as taxes on food exports or imports, all combine to make small farmers struggle even more, the experts say. A summit draft document being worked on by member nations did not address the subsidies, FAO Deputy Director-General Jim Butler said in an interview with The Associated Press last week. A task force put in place by Ban would be evaluating long-term policies, Butler said. "We're seeing various countries limit exports" in response to the food crisis, Butler said. "We're seeing various countries put additional taxes on exports on their agricultural production," measures which in the long run could be "incorrect." Emma Bonino, an Italian senator and opposition leader, said she was worried that the visit by "dictators would suffocate the reason why the summit is convening: the world food crisis." "Robert Mugabe turning up to a conference dealing with food security or food issues is, in my view, frankly, obscene," Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith told reporters in Perth. "President Mugabe is personally responsible for the absurdly high food prices and grinding poverty in Zimbabwe," a Dutch development minister, Bert Koenders, said in a statement. Dutch delegates at the summit will "ignore him and do all we can to tackle the food crisis with concrete measures." Mugabe did not answer reporters' questions as he left a hotel and got into a car. EU sanctions against Mugabe because of Zimbabwe's poor human rights record forbid him from setting foot in the bloc's 27 nations. FAO spokesman Nick Parsons said, however, that the sanctions have no bearing on Mugabe's participation in the summit because the United Nations is the forum for the meeting. "Just as (Cuban) President (Fidel) Castro used to regularly travel to the United States to attend U.N. General Assembly" sessions, Mugabe is free to attend the Rome summit, Parsons said. Mugabe was allowed to attend an EU-Africa summit in Lisbon, Portugal, in December after other African leaders made clear they would stay away unless he was allowed to attend. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stayed home in protest. Brown spokesman Michael Ellam said Britain's international development secretary, Douglas Alexander, would attend the summit in Rome but would not hold talks with Mugabe. "We think it's particularly unfortunate that he's decided to attend this meeting, given what he's done in relation to contributing difficulties on food supply in Zimbabwe," Ellam said. Zimbabwean Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga said it was important for Zimbabwe to be represented because Mugabe "will be the president for the next five years."

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