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A non-summit in France

Print edition : Jul 04, 2003

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The summit of G-8 industrialised nations in Evian draws widespread criticism for not addressing the critical problems faced by the developing world.

in Evian

ORGANISING security for the Summit of the G-8 industrialised nations held from June 1 to 3 in Evian, France, was a headache the authorities in Switzerland could have done without. The French government chose Evian, a city located on the shores of Lake Geneva, diametrically opposite the Swiss Alpine city of Lausanne, to keep away anti-globalisation protesters. With road and rail links to Evian cut off and the city barricaded to resemble a high-tech fortress, the Summit venue could be reached only from Switzerland by boat or by helicopter.

That meant the Swiss authorities ended up spending about $40 million for security arrangements. What they got in return was about $15 million from the French along with an invitation to dinner for President Pascal Couchepin. Of course, that was before miscreants got down to rioting in downtown Geneva and Lausanne, smashing windows, hurling Molotov cocktails, looting and burning, and in the process blackening the image of genuine protesters. The damage ran into millions of dollars. No wonder the Swiss are calling it the most expensive dinner invitation in history.

Invitees to the summit, especially those from the developing world, would do well likewise to ponder the cost of it all. When all the self-congratulatory tom-tomming about being invited to dine at the table of the world's rich and powerful dies down, developing countries such as India, China, Brazil, Mexico and member-states of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) will find it difficult to answer simple questions like: Why were we there? And what did it amount to?

France, this year's host, had thoughtfully invited a few developing countries, for an enlarged dialogue that was to examine some of the most critical problems faced by the developing world - debt relief, punitive farm subsidies of Western countries, access to medicines, drinking water shortage, sanitation, the fight against poverty and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

The summit hardly addressed these issues. Ironically, the cost of holding what turned out to be one of the most vacuous, pointless non-summits in recent history was in the region of $420 million, a little over 15 per cent of the $2.7 billion that was pledged as development aid.

The summit itself was played out against a tense backdrop, that of strained ties between the United States and the three main opponents of the U.S.-led war against Iraq - France, Germany and Russia. The differences were barely papered over. With Washington shooting down many of the French proposals that could have made a fraction of a difference in North-South relations, the Summit, and by extension the developing world, was a direct victim of the Iraq war. President George Bush did not stay for dinner; he left early, underlining the fact that multilateral forums were really not his cup of tea. In a calculated snub, the Americans made sure that the summit hosted by the French ended on a subdued note with media attention shifting dramatically to the meetings in Aquaba relating to the Palestine peace process. As a result, Bush stole Jacques Chirac's thunder, the French President's closing press conference getting relatively minor media coverage. Although the Bush-Chirac handshake appeared cordial enough, it soon became clear that the U.S. President had not the slightest intention of either forgiving or forgetting the French opposition to the Iraq war. A proposal to stop dumping subsidised U.S. and European farm products in African markets was dropped from the agenda owing to U.S. pressure. The final document mentioned neither U.S. complaints about the European Union (E.U.) ban on genetically modified food imports, nor the disputes over the government support for farmers of the U.S. and E.U. member-states.

Bush opposed any relaxation on pharmaceutical patents, which means that developing countries that are in dire need of cheap medicines will have to pay the full price for patented drugs or go without them in the absence of cheap generic substitutes. Although the rich nations agreed to find a solution by allowing poor countries less expensive access to patented medicines to combat major epidemics in time for the trade liberalisation talks in Cancun, Mexico, next September, progress will depend on concessions made by the U.S. drug industry.

While water and sanitation just about received a mention, the governments from the South found themselves being hectored on the issue of corruption and good governance with warnings that development aid would be tied to audits and performance.

However, it was the final communiqu that came in for scathing criticism from several quarters. Mostly reflecting U.S. interests and positions, it could have been written in Washington well before the summit got under way. There were barely disguised threats to Iran and North Korea about their alleged plans to develop nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, which, according to a U.S. diplomat, "implicitly allows the use of force" - an interpretation forcefully contested by Chirac in his final press conference.

The failure by the world's leading industrial nations to resolve their differences on trade left the future of the talks on liberalisation in Cancun uncertain. Hopes that the summit would provide political impetus to break the deadlock in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations were dashed after it became evident that the rift between the U.S. and the E.U. over agriculture was too wide to bridge. Rather than risk a full-scale row, the summit pledged to complete the talks on schedule by the end of 2004 and made do with an innocuous, watered-down statement.

The round of trade talks launched in Doha in November 2001 has been stalled since the March-end deadline to establish a framework for agricultural negotiations could not be met. It was hoped this summit would provide some kind of a breakthrough.

But the summit statement made only a call for "further substantial opening of trade in all areas" with better market access for all WTO members, particularly poor countries, leaving the task of settling the disputes on agriculture, low-cost drugs for poor countries, liberalisation of trade in services and so on to the Trade Ministers' meeting in Cancun.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were scathing in their response to the statement. They pointed out that no figures were mentioned, commitments remained vague and ill-defined and earlier suggestions of doubling development aid had been dropped.

Barry Coates of the World Development Movement said: "The G-8 have repeatedly refused to end their abuse of the system through massive agricultural subsidies and barriers to exports of processed goods and textiles. Yet they are pushing developing countries to open up their markets. They are playing fast and loose with the multilateral trading system."

Ecologists from Friends of the Earth termed "undrinkable" an action plan that aimed to provide drinking water and sanitation to the world's poorest.

Leaders of the Third World also reacted sharply. Brazil's President Lula da Silva, who had come to the summit with a proposal to set up a fund to end world hunger, criticised the communiqu "This incoherence between words and deeds leads to scepticism and distrust," he said in an address to the International Labour Organisation.

While Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said that there had been "little giving, too late", his South African counterpart Thabo Mbeki said African nations were deeply unhappy at the pace of provision of relief.

A joint statement of African NGOs and trade unions said: "The outcome of the 2003 G-8 Summit reveals that the political will of the eight most powerful nations to meet their obligations to Africa has simply dried up."

While some NGOs expressed dismay and anger, others said they had expected this. Swedish human rights activist Eva Peterson said: "Evian spelt backwards is Nave. This city symbolises hypocrisy and surrender. Remember the international conference here in 1938. It was on the question of the large-scale expulsion of Jews from Nazi Germany. World leaders met, and like this time in Evian, did nothing. One has to be really nave to expect anything at all."

Phil Twyford of Oxfam said: "Not only are there no firm commitments, even their rhetoric is watered down compared with last year. Trade is missing in action."

Mdecins Sans Frontires (Doctors Without Borders), the Nobel Prize-winning French NGO, criticised what it called the deliberate sacrifice of solutions to increase access to essential medicines in favour of G-8 political and commercial interests. Jean-Herve Bradol, president of MSF in France, said: "Just to get a pat on the back from Bush, Chirac has sacrificed the right for millions of people to have access to medicines they need to survive. He abandoned his widely publicised commitment to improving access to life-saving medicines, and the rest of the G-8 are merrily going along for the ride."

PERHAPS the one silver lining in Evian lay not with the official summit but with the alternative Summit for Another World. Over 100,000 protesters gathered around the host city for the summit, organising counter-conferences and colourful demonstrations, which were for the most part peaceful.

It was not the genuine protesters who went on the rampage attacking police personnel, overturning cars, throwing Molotov cocktails and breaking shop windows. A police officer said: "The looting, the hooliganism, was done by lumpen elements. We call them "casseurs" in French. It means someone who is bent on violence. We know who these people are. This has become a way of life for them. They merge with largely peaceful crowds of genuine, democratic protesters and at a certain point, as if on a predetermined signal, they act. We have seen this happen again and again, in Genoa, Stockholm or Nice - whether for the G-8 or the European summits, it's the same elements. They're involved in football violence too."

Spread across three cities in France and Switzerland - Annemasse, Lausanne and Geneva - the meetings and conferences that marked the alternative summit were well attended. The speakers were experts on such diverse issues as international trade, global security, corruption and good governance, poverty, human rights and access to drugs and drinking water.

On June 1, there were over 150,000 people in the streets. They were not given an opportunity to meet the leaders and table their demands, questions and protests. G-8 leaders and visiting delegates from the Third World were safely ensconced in Evian behind barbed wire and massive barricades. The demonstrations were halted some 30 km from Evian, and the protesters dispersed. It was a sad commentary on the distance that separates the world's leadership from the people they are supposed to lead.

Perhaps the most telling comment came from a group of naked demonstrators who had daubed slogans on their backs and chests. About a hundred of them marched in downtown Geneva until they were chased away by baton-wielding police. "Bush Assassin," read one back. "Debt Relief," read another. "Africa Starving," read a third.

When questioned about the extreme form of protest, one of the demonstrators asked: "Don't you think the situation in poor countries is extreme enough to merit extreme action?"

Said another: "We want to tell our leaders the naked truth!"

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