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Analytical Studies

Personal Assessment of the Role of Civil Society
at the 2001 Genoa G8 Summit

(Revised version)

Peter I. Hajnal
Research Associate, Centre for International Studies
University of Toronto
2 August 2001

The scene at Genoa – peaceful demonstrations and violent protest

Civil-society groups had looked forward to greater opportunity and better prospects for success at Genoa than they had at the Okinawa summit of 2000.  The reasons for this relative optimism included lessons learned in the intervening period, the perceived receptivity of the Italian host government to concerns and programmes of civil society, and the significantly stronger NGO (nongovernmental organization) tradition and presence in Italy as compared with Japan.

A wide spectrum of civil society was present in Genoa.  Media reports and many academic writings routinely lump these groups together as “antiglobalization” protesters.  In fact, the protest is generally aimed at the kind of globalization that is seen to be controlled by the most powerful states and by large multinational corporations.  And many groups, far from being against all forms of globalization, want better globalization, with its economic and social benefits extended to all, especially to people in developing countries.  Moreover, the worldwide network of NGOs and civil-society coalitions is itself an important aspect of globalization.

It was unfortunate for responsible NGOs and coalitions (the vast majority of protesters, estimated to number anywhere from 70,000 to 200,000) as well as for the G8 leaders and the general environment of this summit that “uncivil society” (a relatively small group of thugs and extreme anarchists) was able to wreak havoc on the streets of the old Northern Italian port city of Genoa.  Out of concern for security, the local hosts of the G8 had designated a red zone–maximum security zone–accessible 18 through 22 July only to local residents and those authorized to be in the immediate area of summit events; this red zone was surrounded by tall wire fences with massive police guard at each gate allowing access into the red zone.  In addition, a yellow zone, a larger area surrounding the central red zone, was designated in which all public demonstrations were prohibited.  Other security measures included closing the area of the port of Genoa to navigation, and closing Genoa's airport and main railroad stations.

Some groups of protesters challenged the legality of these restricted zones on Italian constitutional grounds, but mainstream groups were willing to confine their demonstrations to officially approved areas.  Only minor breaches of the security fence around the red zone occurred, and these were promptly repaired by police.  Elsewhere, provocations and violent confrontations with Italian security personnel led to the tragic death of Carlo Giuliani, a 23-year-old Italian anarchist (the first death since violent demonstrations around high-level meetings started in Seattle in late 1999), some 230 injuries on both sides, 280 arrests, and property damage estimated at up to $40 million. There were accusations that the police used excessive force, targeted peaceful demonstrators as well as journalists, and perhaps even provoked some of the violence.

G8 leaders and most NGO groups alike deplored the clashes.  In a special statement issued on 21 July (the first official document of the Genoa G8 summit), the leaders recognized and praised the role of peaceful protest and argument, but condemned unequivocally the violence and anarchy perpetrated by a small minority.  And the final communiqué of 22 July reaffirmed the right of peaceful protesters to have their voices heard and deplored the violence and vandalism of those who seek to disrupt discussion and dialogue.

Civil society groups, on their part, condemned the violence in equally strong terms.  Oxfam said in a press release issued on 20 July that “violent disruption of international meetings doesn't help reach a solution, and it certainly doesn't help the poor.  It drowns out the voice of many thousands of peaceful and serious people arguing for AIDS treatment and deeper debt relief.”  The Drop the Debt campaign added: “The people who started trouble here … are not real protestors. … We condemn the violence.  It is morally unacceptable and it simply gives the G8 an excuse to do nothing about the urgent crisis of debt and poverty.”  Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) put its condemnation in even stronger terms: “We take a sharp distance from every kind of violence and from those that in one way or another have chosen to manipulate these days in Genoa and created an atmosphere of violence and aggression – be it from the side of the radical demonstrators or the side of the police”.

Predictably, the media paid disproportionate attention to the violence, and several G8 leaders expressed frustration with the comparatively scant coverage of their deliberations.  What was more important, however, was the peaceful but vigorous action and productive networking by civil-society groups.

Gathering points for civil society

Although the Italian government did not set up an NGO centre similar to the one the Japanese government had established in Okinawa in 2000, the Genoa Social Forum (GSF), an umbrella organization of some 700 NGOs, had several gathering points in the city: an operative centre cum press office on the Via Cesare Battisti, a “convergence point” near the Piazzale Kennedy, a public forum site at the Punta Vagno, and a facility at the Armando Diaz elementary school near the Piazza Tommaseo.  The many activities of the GSF included a public forum held 16 to 22 July entitled “Another World Is Possible”, an international demonstration of migrants on 19 July, actions of “peaceful civil disobedience”, and an international mass demonstration planned for 21 July but affected by anarchist violence and police crackdown.   The “convergence point” was a staging area for marches and demonstrations, the place for tents for backpacking demonstrators from out of town, and the venue for various events including a dramatic exhibition in a large van dubbed “Fly Trap” and organized by MSF to highlight the nature, consequences and needed solutions of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other devastating infectious diseases that affect developing countries particularly severely. 

Other centres, too, served multiple functions: temporary lodging for demonstrators, internet and telephone access for NGOs, press conferences, and distribution of campaign literature.  It was the school that Italian police raided during the night of 21 July without a warrant, smashing computers, confiscating computer disks, and arresting about 90 people including members of the violent anarchist “Black Bloc” or “Tute Nere” (to be distinguished from the generally nonviolent and relatively transparent “Tute Bianche” or White Overalls).  Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Interior Minister Claudio Scajola promised investigations into the violence.  Berlusconi pledged that the investigations would not lead to a cover-up of alleged police brutality.

NGO goals and campaigns for Genoa

A whole spectrum of issues was represented in Genoa by a variety of NGO groups, ranging from the environment to women's rights.  This assessment focuses on just three issues: debt, health, and education.

The dire consequences of unsustainable debt burdens on developing countries continued to be a major campaign objective for Drop the Debt and Jubilee Plus, the two successor organizations of the Jubilee 2000 coalition (Jubilee Movement International for Economic and Social Justice, see below, is another incarnation, as Drop the Debt planned to end its operations after the Genoa summit).  But new linkages emerged: these two groups added other issues to their long-standing concern with debt, notably education and HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.  This led to the formation of new alliances with organizations (for example, MSF) fighting against such diseases and with those promoting universal education (for example, Oxfam).  Civil-society members of this new alliance stress the point that developing countries need deeper debt relief in order to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic more successfully and to benefit from better educational opportunities.

This was an interesting convergence of ideas, with some parallel developments on the part of the G8.  A few weeks before the Genoa summit, the Italian presidency of the G8 released a document entitled Beyond Debt Relief, setting forth the elements of an international strategy needed to stimulate growth and eradicate poverty in the poorest of the developing countries.  The G7 finance ministers, in their report to the leaders, Debt Relief and Beyond, revisited these themes.  It is important to note, however, that civil-society goals in these areas far exceed G8 declarations and commitments.

Dialogue

Several NGO groups had met local authorities in Genoa ahead of the summit.  For example, the Drop the Debt coalition sent representatives in June to discuss plans for peaceful protest during the summit.  And on June 28 Italian Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero and Interior Minister Scajola met with protesters and promised that the Genoa summit would address some of their key concerns and would include representatives from poorer countries, adding that there would be special sessions during the Summit that would be open to representatives from non-G8 countries.  Calling the meeting “an open G8”, Ruggiero said the world's most industrialized nations would discuss hot topics championed by critics of globalization like reducing debt and fighting against poverty and AIDS.

Consultations with Italian and other G8 government leaders and ministers took place on several occasions during the summit.  In a news conference on 20 July, Bono, Bob Geldof and Lorenzo Jovanotti, pop music stars and strong supporters of the Drop the Debt campaign, talked of a series of meetings they had with the Italian, British, German, Canadian, European Union and Russian leaders, as well as with George W. Bush's security advisor Condoleezza Rice.  Bono, Geldof and Jovanotti found the Millennium Action Plan for Africa encouraging, and they welcomed the debt-forgiveness commitments of Canada and Italy as particularly praiseworthy.  Nonetheless, they added that even some countries whose debt had been cancelled were finding themselves having to continue to pay their rich creditors.  The artists welcomed the opportunity that such meetings provided for asking the leaders hard questions such as “Is an African life not worth the same as a European life?” and they took advantage of being able to talk directly to the major shareholders of the IMF with the power to do something about debt.  These widely popular musicians were articulate, powerful symbols of what is best in civil-society aspirations and goals.

This kind of dialogue, along with their outreach meetings with African leaders and with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and administrative heads of other international organizations, is no less important for the leaders of the G8 themselves.  But in order to be meaningful, the dialogue must not consist of empty words and promises, of which the world has heard too much.  A representative of MSF expressed disappointment at what she saw as just that kind of inadequate dialogue at Genoa, in contrast with the more upbeat assessment of Bono, Geldof and Jovanotti.

Accountability and implementation of G8 promises will be the true test.  And civil society is well placed to hold the leaders accountable.

NGOs and civil society reflected in G8 documents

The G7 Statement of 20 July, in the section on launching a new trade negotiation round, states that “[t]he WTO should continue to respond to the legitimate expectations of civil society, and ensure that the new Round supports sustainable development” (paragraph 8).   The final G8 Communiqué of 22 July makes several references to NGOs and civil society.  It undertakes to “promote innovative solutions based on a broad partnership with civil society and the private sector” (Paragraph 2).  Under “A Strategic Approach to Poverty Reduction”, it promises to help (in unspecified ways) developing countries promote active involvement of civil society and NGOs (Paragraph 6).  On the launching (with the UN) of the global fund to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, the Communiqué states that local partners, “including NGOs and international agencies, will be instrumental in the successful operation of the Fund” (Paragraph 16).  In welcoming Russia's proposal to convene a global conference on climate change in 2003, the Communiqué emphasizes the participation in the conference of “governments, business and science as well as representatives of civil society” (Paragraph 26).  Referring to another future conference, the 2001 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, it commits the G8 to “work in partnership with developing countries for an inclusive preparatory process with civil society on a forward looking and substantial agenda with action-oriented results” (Paragraph 28).  On food security, the G8 promises to “support the crucial role international organizations and NGOs play in relief operations” in Sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia, and acknowledges civil society as an important stakeholder in food safety issues in general (Paragraph 21). 

Other official documents related to the Genoa summit mention NGOs and civil society.  The excellent report submitted to the G8 leaders by the Digital Opportunity Task Force (established by the 2000 Okinawa G8 summit), the Italian Presidency Document Beyond Debt Relief, the Conclusions of the meeting of the pre-summit meeting of the G8 foreign ministers (Rome, 18-19 July), and the report Strengthening the International Financial System and the Multilateral Development Banks issued by the pre-summit meeting of the G7 finance ministers (Rome, 7 July) include a number of such references.  Again, the actual implementation of these undertakings will need to be carefully monitored.

Civil society evaluation of the Genoa summit

Civil society passed a rather negative verdict on the Genoa summit.  Drop the Debt welcomed the global health fund as a good beginning but asserted on 20 July that “the G8's failure to resolve the debt crisis means that they are giving [with] one hand and taking with the other. … [In] six weeks …, Africa will have paid back in debt repayments every penny of the $1.5 billion announced today for the health trust fund”.  On 21 July, Jubilee Movement International for Economic and Social Justice (JMI, another successor to the Jubilee 2000 coalition as the temporary campaigning organization Drop the Debt was winding up its operations), expressed disappointment at “the failure of the richest nations to once again tackle the global debt crisis that is worsening the impoverishment of over 2 billion people in severely indebted                  countries”.  JMI acknowledged that the number of countries eligible for debt relief under the HIPC initiative had increased from 9 to 23 between the Okinawa and Genoa summits, but criticized the G7 for congratulating itself on progress, pointing out that “most of these countries [were] approaching unsustainable levels of debt again”.  JMI disputed the G7 claim of $53 billion in debt relief, contrasting this with the World Bank's June 2001 figure of $34 billion.

MSF, in a statement issued on 21 July, criticized the global health fund, noting that pledges of $1.2 billion are “nowhere near what is required …, [they] are shamefully low. Governments call upon multinationals and the private sector to contribute. Among these are the pharmaceutical companies whose pricing policies are a fundamental part of the problem.”  MSF pointed out that the health fund contained “no clear statement regarding who makes the decisions, on what the funds are to be spent, and no policy to ensure that the fund will be used to purchase medicines at the lowest possible cost”.   What is needed is “a flexible interpretation of the WTO agreements on intellectual property; promotion of the production and use of generic medicines; a tiered pricing system to ensure that medicines in developing countries are affordable; [and] public investment in research and development for neglected diseases”.  The initial health fund pledges fell far short of the annual funding of 8 to 10 billion dollars asked for by Kofi Annan, and it was unclear how much of the 1.2 billion was actually new money.  And yet, the initiative as such and the fact that this is now of concern both to the UN and the G8 are undoubtedly important, as Sir Nicholas Bayne observes elsewhere on this website (www.g7.utoronto.ca/g7/evaluations/2001genoa/assess_summit_bayne.html).

Oxfam was equally critical of the Genoa summit's record on debt and the health fund but had a slightly more positive reaction on education.  It stated in its press release of 22 July: “The G8 did nothing meaningful on debt relief, and announced a global AIDS fund that still needs much more resources and does nothing about the cost of drugs in poor countries.  It's unacceptable that these promises remain unmet.  But the leaders laid groundwork for an ambitious agenda next year on Africa and education.  The G8 agreed to work with poor countries on a detailed plan to get every child in every poor country into school, the kind of initiative that, if fulfilled, would restore a sense of legitimacy and purpose to these summits.  Education breaks the cycle of poverty, and is essential in building democracy and fighting AIDS.  Last year the G8 promised a global plan for education.  In Genoa they said how to accomplish it.  By this time next year, we'll know if they will pay their share.  The world can't afford another unmet promise”.

On energy, a joint statement issued on 22 July by WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature, formerly World Wildlife Fund), Greenpeace and ECA (Export Credit Agencies) Watch condemned the G8 leaders for refusing to adopt the action plan proposed by the Renewable Energy Task Force that had been set up by the G8 itself in Okinawa a year earlier.  The statement added: “By rejecting its own findings, the G8 are actively denying people in the developing world access to clean reliable energy”. 

A final, significant concern was expressed by Drop the Debt about the shifting priorities or the G8:  “This year the G8's big idea is to fight disease in the poorest countries.  But most people are sick to death of G8 initiatives that never quite get delivered.  In 1999, it was debt.  Last year, it was computers.  This year it is health.  Next year, we know it will be education.  Every unfinished initiative is another blow to the credibility of the G8.  They were half way there with debt – this summit is on its way to being a tragic missed opportunity.”  The G8 would do well to reflect on this perception of shifting attention to and away from crucial issues and policy initiatives; civil society, on its part, could temper its criticism by recognizing that the G7/G8 has been able to deal with several issues simultaneously and has achieved results by an iterative process (see Nicholas Bayne, especially his Hanging in There: The G7 and G8 Summit in Maturity and Renewal, Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2000, pp. 200-201), a case in point being the conclusion of the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations—it took several years of G7 deliberation to achieve success.  Perhaps there is some hope of an increase of G8 commitment and real, even if not immediate, release of more substantial funding to combat the scourge of AIDS and other infectious diseases.  Of course, civil society must (and undoubtedly will) continue to exert pressure to bring this about.

Conclusions

 

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