Why did so few demonstrators show up to express their views on the recent G7 gathering in Quebec? The sight of one lonely protester bravely holding his hand-made sign within the secured confines in Charlevoix only heightened the sense that global activists decided to effectively avoid the event.
The 6000 police and security personnel assigned to the Charlevoix G7 were about ten times the number of activists who bothered to gather in Quebec City or Charlevoix itself.
It is true that rural G7 settings are chosen precisely because their isolation makes them easy to secure. However, in recent G7s this didn`t deter massive demonstrations from occurring in nearby urban centres. In 2010, over 20,000 security forces arrested over 1000 demonstrators in Toronto.
Other, more macro factors, including historical, may explain the low turnout this year.
1. Fear of violence
The growing violence of G7 demonstrations following the killing of a demonstrator at Genoa in 2001, forced activists as well as G8 member states, to reflect on how citizen views could be communicated in a more effective manner.
It is important to understand that the vast majority of demonstrators have always been engaged, caring, non-violent citizens. They are not protestors; they are visionaries of an equitable, non-sexist, war-free, poverty-free globe. They are not anti-globalization; they are striving for equitable globalization whose governance is directly and democratically accountable to the people.
They do not wear masks; they show their faces proudly. They do not seek publicity; they work quietly, vigorously and mostly anonymously for a better world for their children and their grandchildren.
2. Ineffectual strategy
Millions of protesters from within G7 countries took to the streets in 2002-3 to protest the perceived threat of the probable invasion of Iraq…as it turned out, to no avail.
It mattered not that history proved the civilian demonstrators to be more prescient than their elected representatives. The Iraq invasion proceeded apace, and, as predicted by these huge numbers of concerned citizens, it was a political disaster and a human obscenity.
The launching of the Iraq war, spearheaded as it was by two key democratic governments, the USA and the UK, forced civil society activists to question the inherent political value of massive demonstrations. It also demonstrated that the most powerful collection of democratic governments, the G7, could simply be by-passed by a member state when convenient, and displaced by an ad-hoc, virtually fictional, multilateral force.
The efforts of millions of citizens from G7 countries to convey a powerful message to their respective Heads of State were completely ignored. This dismal failure of civil society forced a major reassessment by global activists on how best to influence not only the G7 but other major, largely unaccountable global governance institutions such as the WTO, the World Bank and even the UN Security Council.
3. Development of alternate strategies
In 2003, during the planning period for the Kananaskis, Alberta G8 meeting, thanks to Canadian governmental and civil leadership, a formal, off-the-record dialogue was initiated between G8 and a very small number of global activists from North America, Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia. It took several years for this process to mature, but today, formal consultations between G8 organizers and civil society leaders have become officially regularized.
4. Decline of the G7
The past determination by citizens to go to the streets was a reflection of the reality that, fifteen years ago, G8 decisions, taken as they were by an elite collection of democratically-elected Heads of State, had major impact on non-member countries; particularly on those in the Global South.
Since then, the emergence of the G20, BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) the Shanghai Grouping and the continued dominance of an unchecked private sector have succeeded in diminishing the global importance of the G7. Furthermore, within the G7, the USA no longer wears the mantle of global democratic leadership, with no global democratic force lying in the wings to replace its historical role.
5. Where to now?
It is no coincidence that much of this year’s G7 agreement reflects values that are dear to most civil society activists. That is reason for encouragement.
The growing democratization of communications provides a powerful and cheap alternative to demonstrate global support for social changes. In its own way, the social media engages millions of citizens.
What will global civil society target to best influence their vision of a fair and prosperous world? Global governance institutions are effectively undemocratic with no direct accountability to an electorate. The UN is dominated and hobbled by the Security Council; the G20 tempered by autocratic states who shun citizen participation and, the USA has lost its moral compass.
Activists will continue their quiet diplomacy with the G7, but there is also a growing realization that the real battle is to democratize global governance, an objective which is anathema to all powerful nation states. The primary target is most likely to be the United Nations, specifically, the Security Council. For activists the UN can no longer be ignored or undermined by the member states. More than ever we are living under international law and the UN remains the only viable body to ensure democratic governance at the international level.
Activists will continue their efforts unabated. The rise of populist national governments may play against them in the short term. However, the emergence of participatory democracy is a powerful historical trend: in recent history it has precipitated the overthrow of apartheid, the growing equality of women, and the emergence of gay rights, to name but a few global issues. Direct citizen engagement may be temporarily set back, but its momentum is unlikely to be reversed. The democratization of information has turned civil society itself into a major global governance player.
Unhindered by the narrow perspective of the nation state, they will continue to fight for global democratic governance …and, more often than not and, in due time, they will prevail.
Written by members of the Groupe de réflexion sur le développement international et la coopération (GREDIC): Nigel Martin, Pierre Veronneau, Nicole Saint-Martin, Yves Petillon, Mario Renaud and Robert Letendre