The leaders of Zimbabwe and Venezuela today denounced US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair as “unholy men”, and blamed the US and other developed countries for world hunger, pollution and war.
President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez turned their speeches at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation into tirades, with the African leader describing Blair and Bush as “two unholy men of our millennium".
Chavez accused what he called “the North American empire” of threatening “all life on the planet” through pollution and climate-change problems, while Mugabe compared Bush and Blair, for their alliance in the war in Iraq, to Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini, who were Second World War allies.
US representatives at the UN organisation’s gathering in Rome said Mugabe and Chavez made “a mockery” of the occasion with their scathing remarks.
The gathering, a day after the United Nations marked World Food Day, commemorated the organisation’s 60th anniversary.
The verbal attacks by Chavez and Mugabe drew cheers and applause from many of the delegates. The organisation has 188 members.
“These leaders chose to politicise an event that was meant to be about feeding the hungry people of the world,” Tony Hall, the US ambassador to UN food agencies, told The Associated Press.
“Mugabe, especially, should not have been invited,” Hall said. “He would be the last person, I think, an organisation should invite to talk about hunger.”
A defiant Mugabe defended the land reforms blamed for ruining the country’s agriculture-based economy and contributing to widespread famine there.
The European Union has imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe’s political elite that include travel restrictions. But an agreement between Italy and the UN agency allows all delegations to go to the organisation’s headquarters, FAO spokesman Nick Parsons said.
Despite the restrictions, Mugabe has been allowed to do some travel in the countries that imposed the sanctions, including UN General Assembly sessions in New York.
The seizure of white-owned commercial farms over the past five years and prolonged drought have crippled Zimbabwe’s agriculture-based economy. About 4 million Zimbabweans are in urgent need of food aid in what was once a regional breadbasket, according to UN estimates.
Recent constitutional changes in Zimbabwe will prevent white owners of confiscated farms from recovering their land and could be used to strip critics of their passports and the right to travel.
Mugabe defended the land reforms as “redressing the past gross imbalances in land ownership which were institutionalised by British colonialism.”
“Countries such as the US and Britain have taken it upon themselves to decide for us in the developing world, even to interfere in our domestic affairs and to bring about what they call regime change,” he said.
Chavez praised Mugabe’s land reform, saying the African leader had been “demonised” and that similar reforms were being enacted in his own country.
The Venezuelan leader used his speech to rail against woes that he blamed on rich countries – including climate change, agricultural trade barriers and debt interest payments by developing nations. He called for wealthy nations to cancel debt, or give poor countries a grace period of at least a year on the interest payments.
Both leaders spoke for about half an hour, much longer than other speakers.
Following the ceremony, Chavez left for Milan, where he attended a closed-door soccer match between Inter Milan and Venezuela.
The Italian team organised the friendly game in honour of Chavez’s visit to Italy. The president kicked off the match at a near empty San Siro stadium in Milan, the ANSA news agency reported.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva appealed to rich countries to put hunger on their political agendas. He also suggested poor countries should stamp out the corruption that often diverts aid.
“The poor countries must give an example of honesty, of ethics, so that we truly deserve the solidarity from millions and millions of people who would like to contribute but sometimes are not sure their money will go where it should go,” the Brazilian leader said.
The UN agency said it had signed a deal with Brazil to run food programmes for schoolchildren in developing countries around the world.