Shock cancellation of key Unesco conference on Venice

08/12/2011

Shock cancellation of key Unesco conference on Venice


Venice. A blatant example of political interference in the work of Unesco took place in the last days of Silvio Berlusconi’s government. A highly important international conference, “The Future of Venice and its Lagoon in the Context of Global Change”, was cancelled less than a fortnight before it was due to take place in Venice from 13 to 15 November because a senator felt that he had not been sufficiently consulted.

The 66 speakers were to address the serious ecological, socio-economic, governance, conservation and cultural problems the city faces in what the Swiss director of the Unesco office in Venice, Engelbert Ruoss, hoped would be “ a neutral forum”. Key topics were to be the public announcement of the predictions of sea-level rise in the lagoon for this century (at least 50cm, but possibly as high as 100cm), and an analysis of the splintered institutional responsibility for the city’s and lagoon’s management that has made concerted and enlightened policy-making a near impossibility.

The cancellation occurred because Renato Brunetta, then minister for public administration and a policy-maker for Venice, did not feel the conference gave enough space to his views, so he complained to the Italian ambassador to Unesco. He referred the matter to the minister of foreign affairs, Franco Frattini, who lent on the director-general of Unesco, Irina Bokova.

The mayor of Venice, Giorgio Orsoni, reacted by meeting with Unesco’s deputy director-general, Getachew Engida, and obtaining a guarantee, announced 18 November, that the conference would be rescheduled very soon. Orsoni also emphasised how important it was for Unesco to continue with an effective office in Venice, a statement in reaction to rumours that it might be transferred to the Balkans in 2015.

The conference had been eagerly awaited by concerned Venetians, scientists and the private committees of various nations that have worked for the safeguarding of Venice since the great flood of 1966, because it would not only have summed up obvious problems and proposed solutions, but would also have consolidated the return of Unesco to a role in looking after the city.

While Unesco has an office in Venice, put at its disposal by the Italian government, it gave up playing a direct part in its safeguarding (apart from administering the funds donated by the private committees) in 1987, declaring that the campaign launched for Venice after the flood “had generally met its objectives”. Instead, it assumed a scientific role, with a particular involvement in eastern and central Europe.

In 1987, Venice was added to the Unesco World Heritage list, which put the Italian government under the obligation to draw up a management plan for the city. But when Ruoss took over as director in Venice in 2006, he discovered not only that such a plan did not exist, but that the consequences of short-term policies, stop-go funding, political wrangling, special interest lobbying and general lack of respect for the city (for example, the vast advertisements on the Doge’s Palace) were obvious. He took action, and since then, the town council has been working on the management plan with the support and advice of his office. The postponed conference was to have been the last stage in the plan’s formulation.

A petition for it to be convoked again as soon as possible was signed by hundreds of members of the public.

Anna Somers Cocks

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