At the end of the summit in Genoa of the G8 – the world's richest industrialised countries, plus Russia – the news could hardly be grimmer. One protester is dead.
At the end of the summit in Genoa of the G8 – the world's richest industrialised countries, plus Russia – the news could hardly be grimmer. One protester is dead. Hundreds have been injured. Millions of pounds worth of damage has been done, with burnt-out shops and cars all across the city. Parts of the Italian port look as though they have come through a civil war. It has been a singularly pointless outcome, all around.
Nobody has benefited – least of all the protesters. The clashes between demonstrators and police have been prominently reported all over the front pages; images of the violence have dominated television news bulletins all over the world. Some are no doubt proud to display their battle scars for all to see. The Italian police have rightly been criticised for their brutal tactics – even the Foreign Office minister Peter Hain was (undiplomatically) ready to criticise their "over-reaction" ; those tactics too often had more to do with panicky skull-bashing than with disciplined crowd control. None of this helped the cause of the protesters by even one iota.
Instead, the overall effect has been to encourage government leaders to withdraw into their shells even more than they might otherwise be inclined to do. Next year's summit was due to be held in the Canadian capital, Ottawa. Yesterday, however, the Canadian prime minister, Jean Chrétien, announced that the summit will be held instead in Kananaskis, a small resort tucked away from it all up in the Canadian Rockies. Inevitably, the connection between the politicians and real life is likely to seem reduced, not increased.
Violent protesters achieve nothing, not least because the bricks and the balaclavas obscure the message. None the less, the violent minority reflect a more widespread malaise, which the politicians ignore at their peril. Millions of non-violent voters perceive the status quo as fundamentally unjust – and feel that that injustice is not being addressed by the world's political leaders. For the politicians to flee into the Rockies solves nothing at all.
Tony Blair argued yesterday that it would "stand the whole principle of democracy on its head" for summits to be governed by the fear of violence. The important point must be made – again and again – that free trade is not a fiendish conspiracy which seeks to increase poverty; on the contrary, it offers ways out of poverty.
At the same time, it is crucial for the rich nations to be conscious of their responsibilities. The good news is that, despite the bashed heads and the mayhem, the summit made at least an attempt, in that regard. The final communique emphasised the need for "decisive global action" in reducing world poverty; the importance of debt reduction is now widely acknowledged. G8 countries have contributed $1.3bn to a new global fund to fight HIV and Aids. This is barely more than a scratching of the surface. But it is an indication that the global ship of state has begun to turn.
Next year's summit in Kananaskis will perhaps succeed in avoiding the violence that we have seen in recent days. It will not, however, get away without addressing the underlying issues. Violence apart, the protesters' concerns are in many respects – though it seems hard to say it after what we have seen in recent days – understandable. World leaders are right not to be cowed by the violence; but they cannot turn away from the problems that have stoked those protests. It is unfortunate that there is now a "gap of blood", as one observer described it yesterday, between the demonstrators and the summiteers. The most important task now is to bridge that gap.Reuse content