Ambassador Mario Boffo to the Yemen Times:”We are very happy that Yemen has chosen the democratic way” [Archives:2006/956/Reportage]

June 19 2006

Interviewed by: Nadia Al-Sakkaf
Mario Boffo has been the Italian Ambassador to Yemen and Djibouti since October 2005. Before he came to Yemen, Boffo worked as chief of the Protocol Department at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs between 2002 and 2005. He represented Italy at the NATO office in Brussels between 1994 and 1998. During his diplomatic career he worked at the Italian embassies in various countries such as the Democratic Repulic of the Congo, Spain, and Canada.

Boffo started his career at the diplomatic institute at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he worked for one year in 1978. Boffo was born in Naples on 9 June 1953. He is married and has two children.

YT: Earlier this month, Italy celebrated the 60th anniversary of the its National Day, what is important about this event? We noticed that it was not a holiday originally, and we learned that some political parties oppose the celebration of this day and call for a federation system, could you tell us about that?

The second of June 1946 was the day when Italy went through a big referendum to choose between a monarchy and a republican state, and Italy chose the republic. If there is anything to say about this celebration it is that we are proud. We are proud of the achievements our country. After the destruction of the Second World War, we reconstructed the country, and we contributed to the construction of many international institutions such as the United Nations, the NATO and the European Union. Italy has progressed in many aspects, in our civil society, our economy and our participation in the international sphere.

As for your comment on opposing the celebration, I want to say that all Italians are proud and happy to celebrate the national day. The debate is not about the celebration of the national day, but it is on the celebration with a military parade. Some parties call for the celebration with the parade and say that the parade does not mean war, it is a part of the identity of any country and this year we had the military parade like every year and people attended. Perhaps 50 years ago it was decided to mark this day as a holiday, before that it was a civil celebration but people went to work. But regardless of the differences: military parade or not, holiday or not, nobody in Italy is against the celebration of the Italian national day.

YT: Would celebrating this national day be seen as contradicting to the advancement towards a more united Europe? Shouldn't the concentration now be EU's days instead of individual national days?

I think that any Italian agrees with the celebration with some differences between the political parties as to the details like I explained to you earlier. Our celebration of the national day is very important to maintain our national identity. The world is going towards big aggregations; some of these entities are already states like the United States, China, and India tc. Europe is a reality but it is not yet states neither a very integrated unity. We have integration in many aspects, in economy and trade, one currency: the euro, and now we are working towards a military and defence integration. But I think that the right way for Italy and any of the European country is to improve the integration not in a state or a federation style because the European experience is different from a normal federation. Each of our countries has its own traditions and its own history. We can't merge the countries in the sense that the national identity of the countries disappears. We have to preserve the culture and individual identities of the European countries within the EU, and this is in fact richness for Europe. We have to create a political unity with a unique diplomacy and so on. This is the target and of course there are some difficulties, sometimes this process is fast like the creation of the euro, sometimes it is slow but we are heading there.

YT: Italy wants to play the role of mediator between Europe and Africa. Will this affect Italian interests in the Middle East?

Italy is spontaneously very close to Middle East and to African countries, because the history and the location of Italy as a Mediterranean country have made it close to Europe but in the same time close to the Middle East and to Northern Africa and from that to Southern Africa. In our foreign policies we always try to be a bridge between different countries. And while we participate in the construction of Europe being one of the main European countries as we are one of founders, we don't forget that we are also a Mediterranean country with historical and practical as well as current relations with the African and Arab countries. One of the reasons we are close to Yemen is that we are at the south part of Europe, which is an important location, and Yemen is a very important part of the Middle East.

Our interest in Africa would not affect our relations with the Middle East, because Italy is a great country and we are present in every corner of the world. We do not play part only in regional politics but we have a say in the international politics. If we pay attention to Africa for example that does not mean we neglect the Middle East, because we want to have a wide network in economic and political relations. Now with the new government we have separate secretary of states for Africa and the Middle East, so you see our interest and our attention is undivided, and we want to devote the same attention to all.

YT: Today, Italy and Yemen celebrate 80 years of close relations. Could you comment about this?

This is a special year: we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the official establishment of bilateral relations between our Countries, which took place in 1926. At that time Italy was a regional power and headed for settling closer relations with Yemen as a friendly country as well as a political partner. Our desire was to create a political frame in order to valorise relations that were in place even before the independence of Yemen, on the basis of shared interests in the area.

Eighty years later, Italy is still present in the region and looks at Yemen as a friendly country and as a partner, both for the bilateral relation and for the political dialogue on the main international issues. In this anniversary we are not confining ourselves to celebrations: we are working together even more intensively. This has been leading us to achieve outstanding outcomes in the fields of security, environment conservation, medical cooperation, institutional building support and cultural cooperation.

Italy and Yemen have identity springing both from their ancient civilizations, whose influence is still well routed in their respective cultures. Among others, this is the basic reason of the long lasting friendship between our peoples. Italy had relations with Yemen also at the time of Roman Empire and, in the past century, well before 1926. In 1926 our countries had the historic opportunity to establish a normal diplomatic relationship. Italy was absolutely the first country to sign with Yemen an international treaty and in so doing, to start a relationship, which is still vital with excellent results.

Many of these successes have been made possible by the joint cooperation of the Italian and Yemeni members of the Yemeni-Italian Friendship Association, to whom I would like to renew the expression of my gratitude.

YT:What are the Italian programmes in Yemen and with special reflection on development projects especially outside Sana'a

This year we are specially implementing some security projects with Yemen: the construction of a Vessel Traffic Management System (VTS) for coastal security. This project is funded by Italy with 20 million euros. This is besides the execution of the bilateral agreement for Fighting International Crime and Terrorism and the cooperation between Ministries of Interior and the Coastal Guards.

We have also given further motivations to the Socotra project (Italy funds it with more than half of the budget). The aim of this project is to preserve that very special environment, while promoting a sustainable development. We are still very active in the medical cooperation, with strategic interventions: restoration of health centers in five governatorates and activation of a “Blood bank” for managing this very important medical structure. In the field of culture and cultural heritage we follow with our traditional projects (excavations in Baraqish and Tamna) but we are also developing our cooperation with a number of intervention aiming at contributing still more substance and consistency to the Italian presence in Yemen in this sector.

We have not yet precise tourism programs. Anyway, Italian tourism here is a strong reality, we think it will continue with no concerns about the security of Yemen. We trust Yemeni Government with its strengthened measures undertaken to prevent possible kidnaps.

YT: Last year the Arabo-Italian chamber of commerce visited Yemen in order to examine potential investment opportunities. What resulted?

At the end of June we will receive the visit of the Italian Minister of International Trade, Mrs. Emma Bonino. We will study all possible forms of bilateral cooperation and interventions to increase Italian economic actions in Yemen. This visit shall be the starting point of a more global action, targeting the growth of the bilateral trade and above all of the Italian investments here.

YT: What about the twining between Tuscany and Sana'a?

We are also working on a number of cooperation initiatives, managed by regions or other non-state actors (for example, we work in close contact with the Italian – Yemeni Friendship Association). In this framework, we will also work to implement the twinning agreement between Sana'a and Tuscany.

YT: What is Italy's view on democracy in Yemen?

We are very happy because Yemen has chosen the democratic way because this is a value per say and it is good for the economic development and security. There is a link between democracy, security and economy that one cannot break. You will see that in most of the developed parts of the world are democratic countries, are well developed and they are quite safe. It is very important that Yemen understood that. Of course it is a process and yet to be proved and so on. Also we participate frankly with Yemen, sometimes with criticism sometimes with encouragement and we know that there are a lot of things to be improved. But we are happy that Yemen has chosen this way. And we are very proud to have Yemen as partners in this Dialogue Assistance for Democracy (DAD), which is an initiative by the G8 and a part of the dialogue between the G8 and the Middle East. Yemen and Italy and Turkey are the three countries who are organising a number of initiatives and workshops and so on. We had some events in Italy, some in Turkey and now on the 25th and 26th of June a concluding conference will take place in Sana'a. This exercise is very important because it puts together government institutions and non-state actors dialoguing, exchanging experiences. The main themes of this are freedom of speech, women and democracy in general. We are very proud that you are participating in this initiative because not only you are following your own process in democracy but also you can explain your experience to other countries. “No Peace without Justice” is the NGO working with the government on this initiative and we met with them previously and will meet again and provide our contribution to this.

YT:What about elections in Italy? Will Berlusconi eventually step down?

After the elections in April, Italy has a new Government. This will never change the traditional friendship between my country and Middle East Countries. Obviously, also Yemen will remain among our special partners, and we are planning a number of Italian visits here to strengthen and improve our relations.

YT: What is the Italian government's stance towards the Danish Cartoons and is there anything being done today to help the religious dialogue in Italy between the various religions?

Italy dealt with the Danish cartoon question with a lot of respect for Islam and for the concerned countries. We want the religious dialogue to go on with mutual respect and that the relations between Islamic and western countries becomes better. A lot of Islamic people live in Italy, with a good level of integration.

YT: Finally, what are your impressions about Yemen? And, any wordsto the Yemeni people on the occasion of the Italian national day.

In Yemen, I felt comfortable since my first days. Yemeni people are very kind, both at authorities level and at ordinary people level. Italy is a loved and esteemed country, here. On the occasion of the Italian National Day, and in the very special occurrence of the 80th Italy – Yemen anniversary, I would like to share with Yemeni authorities and people the sense of both celebrations, as a further sign of friendship and cooperation. My experience here as Ambassador of Italy is great. For us Yemen has a very important position, we have with this country a historic relationship which goes back to 1926. Actually, I happened to arrive in Yemen on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of our relationship, which is a further motivation for me: we want fill this year of celebration with concrete supplementary results of our partnership.