With the G8 summit protests, held in Northern Ireland this week, being rather smaller than previous years I thought it important to look at the G8/G20, the protests they’ve inspired, and ask of this most recent protest: where was everyone?
In 1973, leaders from four of the world’s largest economies (France, Germany, UK, USA) created an unofficial forum to discuss issues of global importance, this was initially born out of the 1973 Oil Crisis. The addition of Japan (later in 1973), Italy (1975), Canada (1976) and Russia (1997) has given us the Group of Eight, or G8, as we know them today (the EU is represented within the group but not included in the number as it is not able to host/chair summits).
Criticism has been levelled against this grouping on a number of issues, not least because it no longer accurately represents the largest world economies: China, India and Brazil being notably absent. Although it should be said that there is a move in the direction to include five additional countries (Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa), who have on occasion attended summits as ‘guests’, as the G8+5.
Additional criticisms centre on the efficacy of the summits, and on how dedicated these world leaders really are to the issues they claim to champion. Despite a broad mandate, which includes issues such as climate change and global poverty, many feel little is being achieved (or indeed that the situation is worsening rather than improving). A recent example being the huge disparity in funds promised to tackle food security and the amount given to date: roughly ¼ of the $22 billion promised. More generally, it is argued that while these summits stimulate ‘discussion’, they rarely lead to actual affirmative action.
In 1999 the G20, a related but separate entity, was formed (out of its own complicated history) primarily to discuss issues of ‘international financial stability’ (arf arf). It is comprised of finance ministers from 20 major economies, this time counting the EU within its number. The initial summit meeting was held in the USA in 2008, partly in response to the financial crisis, and it immediately seemed to surpass the G8 in importance – unsurprising with levels of global attention focused on finance. The move to the G20 as the primary world economic council was formally announced the following year. Despite this, I feel the G8 retains huge symbolic value being attended by the heads of government/state (although, saying that, in recent years they have also attended G20 summits).
Members of the G8 and G20 countries meet in various forms throughout the year but it is their annual summits which are increasingly the focal point for protests, hardly surprising given their high-profile nature and the unique gathering of top officials from leading world economies they provide. Protests cover numerous issues, and since the financial crisis of 2007/8 we’ve seen a heightening of protest activity: the numbers who attend, the variety of issues raised, the widening demographic of protesters, and in the intensity of feeling displayed.
The G20 protests in London 2009, and Toronto 2010, are now infamous for their size and scope, and for the police presence and treatment of protesters.
London 2009 played host to hugely well-attended and varied protest events that spanned several days: from marches to occupations, alternative summits to climate camps. Protesters were inventive, but they were also very serious and very angry. Tens of thousands of people made their way to central London to express their distaste and distrust of the policies of governments who are supposed to be acting as their representatives. And they were met with the full force of the law for their troubles, resulting in kettles which contained thousands of people (later found by the high court to be an illegal action), arrests, violence, injuries, and of course, the death of Ian Tomlinson. Protests in Pittsburgh 2009 saw sound cannon being used for the first time on protesters in the USA, and protests in Toronto 2010 escalated into riots and resulted in over 1000 arrests. In Cannes 2011 12,000 police were deployed keeping protesters far from the summit’s venue, and helicopters circled the vicinity of the alternative summit. The cost of the security operation for the hosting nation in all these cases was extraordinary (an estimated $1 billion overall for Toronto, in part due to the 20,000 police deployed).
G8 summits, despite their waning importance, have continued to attract protests, albeit typically on a smaller scale. The potential for protest has inspired various anticipatory moves by the host state. For example, America hosted the G8 last year, and moved the summit’s location to Camp David, a far more remote location than was previously planned (the original location of Chicago being targeted for a large-scale occupation and protest). Before the location change Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago, brought in a number of special security measures, which were publicised as temporary but later confirmed as permanent. These include restrictions on parades and public activity, and increased surveillance.
39TH G8 SUMMIT
That brings us to 2013, and Northern Ireland, whose G8 summit this week attracted far fewer protesters than previous years, numbers ranging from 500-3000. Yes, 2009-11’s high-tide of energy may have ebbed in the UK for now but that is not to say that people are no longer angry. Austerity continues to tighten its chokehold on millions and inequalities are as blatant as ever, perhaps even more so. The environment is still low on governmental priorities, and many of those in developing nations promised support are still waiting.
So where was everyone?
A number of factors appear to be in play. Firstly, as previously stated the G8, and therefore their summits, hold less importance of late with many questioning the necessity of their existence altogether. But this can’t be the whole story, particularly as the topics of discussion are ones that instil such strong emotion and reaction, tax evasion and transparency for example. The location was of course a major factor, being intentionally remote; it no doubt takes a different type of activist to travel to rural NI than to roll out of bed and get the Circle line to Westminster.
Telling too is the fact that protesters were hugely outnumbered by police personnel. We’ve seen in recent years an ever multiplying police force at protests, with walls of riot police and strategically placed vans being an increasingly salient feature of any protest image, here and abroad. The UK allegedly spent £50m on this event, a figure I’m sure will cause everyone with a spare room in their council property to clench their fists. This money was spent on a variety of outrageously over-the-top security measures, including bringing over 8000 police for the event.
All of this is not to downplay the efforts of those who did travel to NI: up to 3000 did make the journey and, as we’ve come to love and expect, used a variety of props and activities to make their voices heard. Heard to those of us tuned in to these issues maybe, but the massive metal barrier (costing £4m) erected around the resort’s island made quite sure that none of David’s guests would have to listen. In fact, the only real incident the police had to deal with concerned a small breach of this security fence. This was dealt with in classic style: 50 riot police made sure the protesters turned back.
Add to all of this the heavy-handed, and often brutal, manner in which police have been deployed at protests in the UK over the past few years, the 2009 G20 summit protests and 2010 student protests being prime examples, along with the additional criminal measures brought in to deal with protesters, and it is hardly surprising that fewer people than expected have been willing to risk attendance. While this strategy did not stop protesters during the student protests coming out into the streets day after day, for now it may be having some impact.
In my opinion the number of protesters, a few hundred or few thousand, will not affect the decisions of the G8 leaders (a million people took to the streets of London in 2003 to protest the Iraq War), but it is the movements themselves that are affected and weakened through low turn-out at protests. The energy of protesters in their thousands in the streets, chanting, marching, being arrested, is passed on to like-minded people who see the images, and can cause those previously uninterested to stop and think. Strength is gained from solidarity and from knowing others ‘out there’ feel the same as you, and it this strength can motivate someone to act for the first time. Regular outpourings of dissent keep these energy levels up and form great opportunities for meeting, discussion and planning. Governmental strategies then, of huge police presence and the increasing criminalisation of dissent, not only weaken that particular protest but of the movement overall (which I’m sure is an intentional strategy).
Something else strikes me about the huge discrepancy between security measures and protest activity at this most recent summit: that our PM is scared of us. The extreme measures taken to ensure nothing untoward occurred while Cameron hosted (and tried to impress) powerful world leaders points to the fact that Cameron does not feel in control of the situation in the UK. Of course you cannot please everyone, but if a lot of people are very angry about a lot of things you are doing something wrong.
I for one am extremely interested to see what Russia’s G20 summit this September has in store, Russia itself no stranger to tough treatment of dissent.