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An American in Malta | Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley

A career diplomat, Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley is the new United States ambassador to Malta, but also the first foreign service officer to be assigned to Malta since 1985, reflecting America’s renewed focus on Malta.

Karl Stagno-Navarra
14 May 2012, 12:00am
US ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley
US ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley
She loves gospel, jazz and classical dance. This is another side of a radiant, smiling mother-of-two and career-diplomat. In just over a week, she's been in Malta after officially presenting her credentials to President George Abela as President Barack Obama's permanent envoy on the island, US ambassador Gina Abercomie-Winstanley has taken it upon herself to be "an American among the Maltese," and has taken the initiative to learn the Maltese language.

Greeting me with a merhba at her official residence in Lija, Abercombie-Winstanley carries the aura of a high-profile diplomat, loaded with experience with postings in hotspots like Baghdad, Jakarta, Cairo and Jeddah.

She is the first ever-foreign officer assigned to Malta since 1985, confirming the State Department's focus on Malta, owing to the island's proximity to Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, where popular revolutions have recently changed the North African geo-political landscape.

During her recent stopover to Malta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lauded the island-nation as a "regional authority," praising the role it played during the Libyan uprising.

Malta is not new to Abercombie-Winstanley - she has "personal connections" to the island. Her father-in-law made many stops on the island as a naval officer during World War II, while her sister studied nursing at St Luke's Hospital.

Now, Abercombie-Winstanley will work from within her brand new multi-million embassy-compound in Ta' Qali. Her agenda is full.

Iran, human trafficking, enhancing commercial ties with the US are among her top priorities.

But there are also a number of other 'peripheral' but albeit very important other items, and a Status of Forces Agreement is one of them.

A SOFA determines what privileges, facilities and immunities will apply to military forces when they are present on Maltese territory but does not necessarily imply hosting a military base.

"We would love to have a SOFA agreement with Malta," Abercombie-Winstanley replies to my direct question, as I refer to last summer's controversy which was fuelled by US embassy cables revealed by Wikileaks.

Ambassador - I ask again - so you are still interested in reaching an agreement with Malta on this?

"Certainly, but this is a decision to be taken entirely by government and the Maltese people," she says, adding that in the wake of Malta's rejoining NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme, and the Labour Party's acceptance of this membership, "such an agreement is considered important by the US".

Describing embassy cables as 'mere notes', Abercombie-Winstanley insists that cables "are not US policy" and should be understood within their context: "normal diplomatic talk".

But in truth, the cables are revealing and a source of information on discussions held, diplomats opinions, information, political concerns.

Foreign Minister Tonio Borg is actually described by US Embassy cables as having been "a sceptic" of the US proposal for a SOFA, but later seemingly dropped his opposition - according to a conversation between former US ambassador Douglas Kmiec and the Prime Minister's chief-of-staff Edgar Galea Curmi.

Galea Curmi told Kmiec that Lawrence Gonzi was "ready to go forward" on a United States request to consider a SOFA, two years after rejoining the Partnership for Peace. "What remained to be determined was what parameters the SOFA needed, and how Malta could meet US "expectations", Kmiec paraphrased Galea-Curmi as saying.

Informal discussions on the matter were stopped 12 months ago, shortly before Abercombie-Winstanley's predecessor had resigned his post in the wake of a reprimand by a State Department audit.

SOFA agreements are in force in many countries, but Malta wanted to secure an agreement which would safeguard its own national interests, property and citizens.

Last September, Borg explained that SOFA had nothing to do with establishing a military base, "but simply a wish by the US to secure jurisdiction over their servicemen while in Malta on visiting ships". The issue is - and remains - a matter for which few US military ships visit the Grand Harbour.

Borg remains adamant however, that: "Malta should not cede any jurisdiction over incidents relating to Maltese nationals or involving damage done to property in Malta."

Meanwhile, Ambassador Abercombie-Winstanley augurs that an agreement be "ideally reached".

Turning to Iran, Abercombie-Winstanley is all ears.

Addressing the US Senate's foreign relations committee in Washington before her nomination to serve in Malta was approved, Abercombie-Winstanley pledged to make "big wins" with the Maltese government in addressing issues related to the registering of Iranian ships.

During her hearing, Abercombie-Winstanley was sharp, prepared and specific in her answers, so I ask her: what exactly did she mean by 'big wins'?

"Well, we aim to see the Maltese government continue to take decisive steps in pursuing its decided policy of de-flagging the entire Iranian fleet," she says, adding her satisfaction at Malta's constant support in enforcing UN sanctions with regards to Iranian cargo.

A total of 48 Iran-linked ships have sailed under the Maltese flag since between 2008 and 2011, and was home to 24 shell companies that helped conceal Iran's ownership of the vessels.

In pressing its case on Iran, the US Treasury imposed a series of sanctions against Iranian individuals and their Malta-based companies.

Malta has also been identified among a host of nations which reportedly holds Iran's money, while a US cable in 2009 - also revealed by Wikileaks - said that a senior Maltese finance ministry official had informed the American embassy of an Iranian approach to Malta's ambassador in France to express interest in "investing several billions of euro" in Malta.

But did the US ever have suspicions of nuclear proliferation by IRISL through Malta Freeport? And did it sign a Double Tax Agreement Treaty with Malta on condition that the island accedes to PSI shipboarding treaty and other requests, such as pressure on IRISL?

"Oh absolutely not. We work very well with Malta, and as Florida senator Marco Rubio made it clear before the senate committee, your country is an important US ally in the Mediterranean."

And regarding suspicions?

"We can never stop having suspicions. We must remain vigilant, and this will remain our primary objective," she says.

Echoing Rubio, Abercombie-Winstanley insists that the US considers its relationship with Malta as "important" and added that she will continue to work together with the Maltese government to address key issues, such as Iran.

In response to a question by Senator Rubio, who expressed concern at Malta's capabilities of addressing matters related to human trafficking, Abercombie-Winstanley said that "the Maltese have had trouble with identifying victims and we have been working with them to help them do so as well as ensuring that they do not hold victims responsible or charge them for crimes directly related to them having been trafficked".

While perhaps not a common issue raised at such a high level, human trafficking is a major concern for the US, which keeps its eyes wide open on it, to the extent that the US Department of State placed the island on its Tier 2 'Watch List' along with - among others - Russia, Afghanistan and Belarus.

The Watch List signifies that such countries do not comply with US norms and while they are making significant efforts to do so, there is little or no evidence that these efforts are proving effective.

Between 2004 and 2007, a United Nations report had shown that 18 female victims were identified in Malta, eight of whom were trafficked for sexual exploitation.

The red-flag raised by the US was met with meek response from Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici - who issued a draft trafficking action plan, while previously declaring that he does not consider that there is widespread human trafficking activity in Malta - announced last week in parliament that the police force have set up a 'special team' headed by an inspector to counter human trafficking.

For ambassador Abercombie-Winstanley, human trafficking is a "big deal".

She was and remains very well briefed about the issue in Malta, and expressed satisfaction with a recent court judgement, which sentenced a man to 10 years imprisonment for human trafficking.

"This first successful prosecution shows Malta is moving in the right direction," she says, adding that she will continue in her endeavours to secure better protection against human trafficking.

Back to politics, Abercombie-Winstanley describes Malta as a valued European partner, serving as a bridge between the West and the Middle East.

She considers Malta's strategic location in the Mediterranean as important to both global security and international commerce.

The ambassador declares her "strong intent" to increase trade between Malta and the US.

The latest figures show how some US$230 million were exported from the US to Malta during the first three months of the year.

Abercombie-Winstanley claims to see "plenty of potential" to see business and trade flourish between the two countries.

"I will explore all avenues, and work to increase the business between Malta and the US," she says.

On migration, the US has been the most generous with Malta in helping alleviate the burden of migrants on the island.

Last month, some 48 migrants left Malta to resettle in the US.

It brought the total of beneficiaries of international protection resettled to the United States from Malta since 2007 to 847.

Since 2005, 1,444 refugees and beneficiaries of international protection were reallocated to various developed countries, but when put into context, the US has set the example by far in assisting Malta to alleviate its heavy burden.

"We will continue to work with Malta in this respect, in line with the number parameters we could help with as approved by the US senate," she explains, adding that the US government will also continue to assist the Maltese nation in enhancing its border patrol capabilities, not only for migration but also for external security.

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I am looking for Gina because we went to school together. If she see's this please find me on Facebook under Mary Sean Young. I would love to hear from you! Mary Sean Young
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Nanette Carbone
Gina, you know what to do with your SOFA. NO IMMUNITY for your MURDERERS soldiers, airmen and sailors. How about explaining these sales to the Bahrain dictatorship? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18039035 US resumes some Bahrain arms sales for 'external defence' http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,15945561,00.html US to resume military sales to protest-torn Bahrain