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Civil Society and the 2008 G8 Hokkaido Summit

Peter Hajnal[1], University of Toronto
10 June 2009

Civil society, as usual around G8 summits, was very active before and at the time of the 2008 Hokkaido Summit. Action took several forms, and the 2008 Japan G8 Summit NGO Forum had a coordinating role in many of these.[2] The Forum had three units: on poverty and development; the environment; and peace and human rights.


Consultations with sherpas were held under the aegis of the NGO Forum in late April and there was dialogue in the framework of the broader G8 system, for example around the environment ministers’ meeting. As well, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda consulted a very small number of domestic NGOs in May, and met with representatives of ten international and domestic NGOs on June 18th. These two strands of dialogue (a larger forum plus limited, closed consultation with selected NGO representatives) have played themselves out around several summits, particularly in recent years. The quality of these dialogues has varied: the 2006 St. Petersburg Civil G8 process attained a higher level; the 2007 dialogue in Germany was less well prepared, conducted and financed. The 2008 consultation fell somewhere between the previous two in quality. Part of the problem in Japan was that the many invited officials from outside of the G8, on top of the standard G8 preparations and conduct of the summit, kept the host government very busy, with not enough time left for interaction with NGOs. The general impression was that the Japanese government chose the NGO Forum as the preferred partner for dialogue and other interaction.

NGO centres can provide space and facilities to civil society for debate and other events and for dialogue with G8 officials. Government attitudes and receptivity to this have varied. For example, the Japanese summit hosts in 2000 financed a well-equipped NGO centre in Okinawa. In 2008 the government provided NGO workspace, including a separate conference room, in a hotel in Hokkaido. NGO representatives with press accreditation, including those from the South, were also present in the International Media Centre in Rutsusu, conducting interviews and media briefings, networking with media personnel and other NGOs, and preparing press releases and reports. But for those NGO representatives who lacked press accreditation, the relative distance of the NGO workspace from the official media centre was a cause of frustration, as was the resultant difficulty in communicating with officials and even with NGOs who were accredited at the media centre.

There were only a few official press briefings during the summit. One positive result of this was that NGOs had more media attention to voice their concerns and demands.

Another factor limited the scope of civil society action in Hokkaido. Many NGO representatives who intended to travel to Japan were unable to do so due to the Japanese government’s refusal to grant a sufficient number of visas, particularly to anti-globalization activists. And even those civil society groups whose way was clear to go to Japan faced the problem of scarce resources that could be freed for this purpose.

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Alternative Summits

The well-established tradition of alternative summits was followed in Japan by convening a three-day “People’s Summit” at Lake Toya, some distance from the site of the G8 leaders’ meeting, on 6-8 July. It issued the “Sapporo Declaration: Global Voices to End Poverty”, calling for fulfilment of G8 commitments, particularly on debt cancellation, the food crisis, climate change, and health threats. It called for greater participation of civil society in decision-making and policy processes.[3] It is not clear whether or not this important declaration actually reached the “official G8”. The alternative summit also revealed divisions within civil society; nonetheless, as with other summit-related civil society action, it contributed to the development and solidarity of Japanese and international civil society.

There was another alternative summit, a meeting of senior religious leaders from 25 countries, in Hokkaido on 2-3 July, preceding the G8 summit. They urged G8 governments to take more action on violent conflict and climate change. This call to action was delivered to Prime Minister Fukuda.[4] Around the same time but far away, a “poor people’s summit” (an annual event convened in Mali since 2002) met once again in Katibougou in Mali, exhorting the G8 to keep its promises.[5]

A new kind of civil society actor appeared in 2008 with a four-day Indigenous Peoples’ Summit in Sapporo, Hokkaido, ahead of the G8 summit — the first such event in summit history. Indigenous groups from five continents and the Pacific participated. The conference adopted the Nibutani Declaration that details various concerns of indigenous peoples: violations of indigenous rights; adverse impact of climate change; the food crisis and hunger; adverse effects of extractive industries; loss of indigenous language and culture. The indigenous summit addressed 22 proposals to the G8 to work for remedying these problems. It also produced an 11-point proposal to the indigenous peoples themselves, on implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and on strengthening solidarity with one another and with the NGO world.[6]

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Street demonstrations have regularly involved civil society groups that wish to engage with the official G8 as well as groups that prefer not to engage. The demonstrations in Sapporo were peaceful and relatively small, estimates varying between 2,000 and 5,000. There was massive police presence, and riot police, without apparent cause, arrested three or four people, including a photographer from Reuters.

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Evaluation and Monitoring

These are another important G8-related function of civil society groups. A good example is the work of the DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa) group; they have undertaken this since 2006. In 2008, DATA’s third report assessed key commitments of G8 governments on development assistance, debt, trade, health, education, water and sanitation, governance, peace and security; DATA also examined progress by African governments in complying with their commitments related to the Millennium Development Goals. These studies noted progress on debt relief, HIV/AIDS and malaria, but found that G8 countries were off track in most other areas.[7] In a similar vein, WWF again issued “G8 Climate Scorecards”, examining the climate performance of the G8 countries and also supplying background information covering China, Brazil, India, Mexico and South Africa. It concluded that three G8 countries (US, Canada and Russia) failed the test; Italy and Japan were in the mid-range; and Germany, France and the UK were furthest on track.[8]

On another issue, Transparency International has focused on the G8’s role in fighting corruption. Ahead of the Hokkaido summit, this NGO issued a detailed assessment of each G8 country’s record on fighting corruption.[9] The fact that the summit released its own Accountability Report on anti-corruption commitments and promised to update its reporting annually, reflected the G8’s own growing concern with self-monitoring, and perhaps was another indicator of civil society impact.

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Other Action

A Model Youth G8 met in Yokohama before the summit. It was an international gathering of youth, mostly students who discussed issues of climate change, financial instability, labour standards, terrorism and the Millennium Development Goals. They played the roles of G8 leaders, ministers and sherpas, acting as national representatives.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) called on G8 leaders to take action to save those most vulnerable as a consequence of the food crisis.[10] Other civil society organizations submitted an anti-poverty petition (the “Tanabata Petition”) carrying over a million names; it was handed to the Japanese Prime Minister at the June meeting with civil society leaders.

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G8 Acknowledgement of Civil Society

Official G8 documents and leaders’ press conferences are indicators of civil society impact on the G8. Prime Minister Fukuda in his final press conference at Hokkaido called for partnership of civil society, governments and the private sector to address global challenges. Other documents of the Hokkaido summit, too, were presented in a multi-stakeholder context with explicit references to civil society; for example, the Chair’s Summary, the Leaders’ Declaration, and the Leaders’ Statement on Global Food Security.[11]

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Civil Society’s Views on the Hokkaido Summit

To illustrate civil society’s rather negative take on the Hokkaido summit, here are some examples of post-summit press releases and campaign articles. The Global Campaign against Poverty (GCAP) expressed concern at “how out of touch the G8 seemed to be on the main issues related to ending poverty.”[12] Oxfam, in a similar vein, claimed that the summit “failed to tackle the grievous problems facing the world that are hitting poor people first and hardest… . [Therefore] “leadership must now be shown at key UN meetings on poverty in September and on climate in December.”[13]

Greenpeace’s take was: “Never do today what you can keep putting off until tomorrow” and “Acknowledge the problem, and hopefully it’ll go away.”[14] Walden Bello deconstructed the G8 declaration on environment and climate change, raising some valid points; for example the lack of a firm baseline for emission cutback targets.[15] Archbishop Njongo Ndungane, writing for African Monitor, focused on expectations of meaningful G8 action on the food crisis, oil prices, and climate change, concluding that while G8 countries had demonstrated progress on fulfilling commitments on health and anticorruption, but that the G8 fell short on development assistance to Africa, improving food security and better progress on the Millennium Development Goals.[16]

For more in-depth civil society evaluations of G8 performance, see the section Evaluation and Monitoring above. Being detailed studies, those assess the previous G8 record, rather than express an immediate reaction to the latest — in this case, 2008 Hokkaido — summit.

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Was It Worth It?

It is a continuing dilemma for civil society whether to invest scarce resources in organizing and conducting activities around G8 summits when the G8 is increasingly seen as losing relevance in today’s world; when these summits are often held at remote, secluded locations; when governments sometimes choose to engage fruitfully but at other times are reluctant to do so; when promises are made but only occasionally fulfilled, sometimes partly fulfilled, and sometimes completely forgotten.

On the one hand, participating in these activities — mobilization, developing positions, pushing for consultations, staging demonstrations and alternative summits, and so forth — is resource-intensive and, arguably, takes away energy from more fruitful engagement with other international conferences and diplomatic processes that are proliferating. On the other hand, the G8 summits often provide unparalleled opportunities for engaging, discussing with and pressing to influence leaders of at least some of the world’s most powerful countries and for garnering concentrated media attention. As well, mobilizing around these summits brings together local and international civil society, and, regardless of summit-related success or failure, these occasions promote NGO solidarity and networking. The strategic choice is for civil society organizations to make.

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[1] I wish to thank civil society and academic friends and colleagues, including those in the G8 Research Group, for sharing their insight and observations.

[2] See the Forum’s website:


[4] World Conference of Religions for Peace, World Religious Leaders Urge G8 to Take Action. 3 July 2008.

[5] Maliweb, “Au Mali, le ‘Sommet des pauvres’ exhorte le G8 à tenir ses promesses.” 7 July 2008.

[6] Indigenous Peoples Summit in Ainu Mosir, Nibutani Declaration of the 2008 Indigenous Peoples Summit in Ainu Mosir. 4 July 2008.

[7] DATA and ONE. The Data Report 2008: Keep the G8 Promise to

[8] World Wide Fund for Nature, G8 Climate Scorecards: Climate Performance of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom and United States of America, [and] Background Information for China, Brazil, India, Mexico and South

[9] Transparency International, Time for Accountability: 2008 G8 Progress Report; An Assessment of G8 Action on Anti-Corruption Commitments.

[10] Médecins Sans Frontières, G8 Leaders Must Take Action to Save Most Vulnerable in Food Crisis. 3 July 2008.

[11] For the text of summit documents, see the Japanese government’s Hokkaido summit website and the website of the G8 Research Group at

[12] Global Campaign against Poverty, G8 Fiddles while World Burns. 9 July 2008.

[13] Oxfam, Pressure Piled on the UN now as G8 Leaders Fail to Rise to the Challenge of a World in Crisis. 8 July 2008.

[14] Greenpeace, G8 — Environment Nil!

[15] Walden Bello. “The Anti-Climate Summit.” Foreign Policy in Focus

[16] Njongo Ndungane, “G8 Summit 2008: All Talk, Zero Walk”. 16 July 2008. E-CIVICUS 398

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