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A Meeting of Meaningful Advance:
The 2013 G8 Foreign Ministers' London Meeting

John Kirton, director, G8 Research Group
April 15, 2013

The G8 foreign ministers met in London, England, on April 10-11, 2013, both to prepare the political-security agenda for the Lough Erne Summit to come in June and to deal with several issues on their own. Attending were British foreign secretary and host William Hague, recently appointed U.S. secretary of state John Kerry of the United States and Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida, veterans Guido Westerwelle of Germany, John Baird of Canada, Sergei Lavrov of Russia, Catherine Ashton of the European Union and Laurent Fabius of France and Italian president Mario Monti. Just prior to the G8 meeting, the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, France and the United States met for lunch with members of the opposition Syria National Council (SNC), which had recently been named by the Arab League as the government of Syria. Several bilateral meetings between individual G8 foreign ministers were also held.

The G8 gathering, starting with a dinner on Wednesday evening and running through the next day, featured an unusually broad and ambitious agenda. It was led by the current threats from Syria, North Korea and Iran, on which the ministers focused at their opening dinner on the first day. The agenda included five priorities set by the United Kingdom host: the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) as the personal priority of Hague; Somalia, in an effort to get the international financial institutions involved in a supportive way; cyberspace and security; the Deauville Partnership with Arab Countries in Transition; and Burma, in order to advance a UK-initiated effort to stimulate international investment. The agenda extended to conflict in the Sahara-Sahel, Algeria and Mali, terrorism, the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, African security in countries such as the Central African Republic and the Congo, Somalia, the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Afghanistan, the conventional arms trade, drug abuse and climate change.

In the end, the G8 foreign ministers' meeting was one of meaningful advance. The ministers made several important political security issues somewhat better, and made none worse. They did best on advancing the UK host's five pre-set priorities, which flowed directly from the G8's foundational mission of globally promoting, open democracy, individual liberty and social advance. They inched forward on the most intractable issues of the day, notably with unified determination on North Korea and convergence on Iran, but far less so on Syria, an intractable issue that would require the authority of leaders at the summit itself to advance. And on the rest of the broad agenda they showed that the G8 continued to support the major advances toward democratization in Africa and beyond, in part by building the economic and social foundations on which democracy and human rights depend. At the same time, they explicitly worked in support of the United Nations and the full global community represented there.

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The Current Central Conflicts

The ministers began by addressing the current central conflicts, where deadly violence, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and their potential and actual use were at stake.

Syria

On Syria, which dominated G8 discussions on the first day, the challenge was to bring the UK and France — which wished to provide more support and arms to the Syrian opposition and stiffen UN sanctions against the embattled Assad regime — closer to Russia and, to some extent Germany, which stood opposed. The US and EU have been providing non-lethal aid and distributing food and medical supplies to the Free Syrian Army but not giving arms. Yet despite these differences, there was a substantial basis of consensus on which to build. All G8 members agreed on the need to implement the Geneva communiqué issued by the UN's Action Group for Syria in June 2012 and thus to stop the violence, begin negotiations among the Syrian parties to its civil war, and provide major humanitarian relief for the families of the 70,000 already killed and the millions of Syrians now displaced. Just before the meeting Russia declared that it did not support any party to the conflict, signalling a possible shift from its earlier support of the Assad regime. There were also grounds for agreeing on the need to insert a UN mission, ready in nearby Cyprus, to investigate claims that chemical weapons had been used by the Assad regime at Homs and by the rebels in Aleppo.

After the opening dinner, Lavrov indicated that all agreed that a continuing conflict would only help extremists and terrorists in the region, a claim given by new credence by the announcement from al Qaeda on the eve of the meeting that it was working with one of the Syrian-armed opposition groups. Lavrov suggested that those G8 foreign ministers who met with SNC members would start negotiating with Assad without preconditions. Kerry said the US was considering stepping up support for the rebels, as President Barack Obama was moving to supply body armour and night-vision goggles, if not arms. Hague said Britain was committed to a political solution to the conflict but the UK and France seemed poised to end an EU embargo against supplying arms to the rebels when it expired at the end of May.

At the end of the meeting, including in the short and rather general passage in its vigorously negotiated communiqué, there was a clear, common desire to end the conflict. But there were few signs of any effective practical measures to implement the Geneva settlement, let alone take more dramatic steps to end a conflict already in its third year. While G8 members were inching toward rather than away from consensus, the issue of Syria would be left for the leaders themselves to decide in June, and to do so in way where the military and political position on the ground inside Syria at that time would probably induce Russia to adjust more to the other G8 members' view.

North Korea

On North Korea, also discussed at the opening dinner, unity rather than division dominated. In the lead-up to the meeting, North Korea had mounted a campaign of escalating threats against neighbouring, South Korea, Japan and the United States, starting with nearby Guam, including a promise of imminent nuclear attack.

In response all G8 members stood united on all the fundamental points: that North Korea must obey its UN and international obligations; that it should reduce and stop its threats; and that a firm deterrent response was required, including imposing UN-authorized sanctions and not evacuating its diplomatic personnel from G8 members with embassies in Pyongyang, as North Korea had advised. The only somewhat discordant note came from Lavrov, who, while saying he had "no differences" with the United States, suggested a stop to scary military manoeuvres by unnamed parties that would raise tensions and perhaps have the conflict spiral out of control.

In their communiqué passage on North Korea, G8 ministers "condemned in the strongest possible terms the continued development of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes." Indeed, they pledged to take "further significant measures in the event of a further launch or nuclear test by the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]." Such a display of determined deterrence was a sharp contrast to the past practice of rewarding North Korea for its aggressive behaviour by providing it with more aid. At the same time, the G8 offered to resume a dialogue with North Korea, an act of reassurance designed to damped any danger that the lack of communication could escalate the conflict into a war that no one wanted. Importantly, in its efforts the G8 stood united not only among its members but also with the UN as a whole, whose authority it repeatedly invoked and for whose resolutions it offered full support.

With this overwhelming unity the G8 sent a clear, single, strong and new message to North Korea and its new, young, untested leader to stop its escalating sequence of provocations. The outstanding challenge, as usual, was how to have the regime hear and correctly interpret the message and take the intended action, or simply wait the new escalatory sequence out in the hope that it would diminish as others often had before.

Iran

On Iran, with its continuing nuclear program that has brought it ever closer to a weapons capability, the challenge was how to respond to the failure of the latest session of the Six Party Talks, held the previous week. Russia admitted that the talks had seen no major shifts in Iran's position, but insisted that the dialogue held promise, and demanded a gradual, mutual approach through political dialogue rather than through more sanctions or the threat of military force. However, it joined its G8 partners in insisting on Iran's full implementation of the relevant resolutions on the UN Security Council and the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In their communiqué, G8 foreign ministers "expressed their deep concern regarding Iran's continuing nuclear and ballistic missile activities in violation of numerous UN Security Council and IAEA Board of Governors resolutions." While agreeing on the need for a negotiated solution, they noted that "talks cannot continue indefinitely" and asked for Iran to address the concerns of the international community "promptly." They further demanded that Iran uphold human rights, including the freedom of religion and the media, and stop arbitrary executions, torture and support for terrorism and terrorist groups.

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The Five Thematic Priorities

On the five thematic priorities the British host had set and prepared for the meeting, there was significant success.

Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict

On preventing sexual violence in conflict situations, an issue that has been labelled "the slave trade of our generation," the British host secured all that it had hoped to achieve. Ministers issued a separate, lengthy "Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict." In it they went well beyond the initial British emphasis on data gathering and prosecution, in response to concerns raise by non-governmental organizations about the complexity of the issue and the need for a comprehensive approach. The G8 ministers raised at least $36 million in new money to support the work, although much more will be needed to cope with the magnitude of the task. And they supported the work of both the UN and celebrities in this quest. Beyond this central initiative, the value and concerns of women and girls were addressed in many other parts of the main communiqué.

Somalia

On Somalia the British succeeded in their objective of getting the international financial institutions engaged. As the communique stated, "ministers agreed to provide high-level political support to the process of Somalia's re-engagement with the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the International Monetary Fund [IMF]." The very next day the IMF announced that it was recognizing Somalia's new government, after a 22-year rupture. Recognition would allow the IMF to provide policy advice and technical assistance, although not funding until Somalia cleared its $352 million in outstanding debts owed the IMF. G8 action was contingent on the Somali government living up to its obligations for accountability and transparency, in support of one of the three British priorities for the summit as a whole.

Cyber

On cyberspace and cyber security, ministers addressed an issue that US intelligence agencies had recently placed as the number-one security threat replacing the terrorist one, and about which Obama had recently spoken directly to Chinese president Xi Jinping. G8 ministers affirmed the importance of a "safe, open and accessible Internet" as an "essential tool" for "prosperity, freedom, democracy and human rights" as well as economic growth, innovation and social benefits. In doing so they brought the once skeptical American to fully support the work of the G8 that the French had pioneered as host of the 2011 G8 summit in Deauville.

The Deauville Partnership

On the Deauville Partnership, foreign ministers showed their determination to support the process of democratization and development in difficult regions where steady, long-term work as needed for the goals to be achieved. They focused on specific initiatives such as support for small and medium-sized enterprises and on mobilizing funds to produce the development that would help embed the democratic transformations in societies where opposition had appeared.

Burma/Myanmar

On Burma/Myanmar, ministers supported the ongoing democratic transformation through development assistance and investment, along with transparency and accountability. Again they worked at one with the UN, specifically where the UN Global Compact and Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were concerned.

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