There are two stories running parallel to this year’s G20 summit being held in New Delhi, later this week. One, that of the big Joes of the world meeting together for photo ops and backroom negotiations jostling for retaining or extracting deals based on their own interests and second, the host India running its own version of a public festival even as Delhi is being converted into a virtual fortress.
But the problem with public festivals is that they have to have an expiry date and one begins to get tired if it is not backed by an encompassing sense of prosperity, security and peace.
But before we come to India, let’s look at the reality of the world right now. There are currently over 700 live conflicts happening around the world, some of which initiated by those very leaders coming together as this block. These hotspots include, Ukraine, Myanmar, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen, just to name a few alongside the new cold war between the Chinese and the America led block. Post-pandemic debt crisis has worsened specially for low income countries, multiple riots have become everyday phenomenon within countries, the rising economic inequalities continue to make rapid stride with the alarming rise in inflation, critical shortages of essential resources such as food and energy are a norm, anti-migration hysteria continues unabated, and the humanitarian crisis compounded by climate-related disasters as an everyday phenomenon is adding to the enduring aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
All this in the backdrop of the concerning erosion of democracy and human rights.
The G20 leaders need to demonstrate their dedication to democracy by signing and ratifying international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and implementing the concluding observations made by the Committee for Civil and Political Rights (CCPR). By committing to and upholding these human rights treaties, the G20 leaders can strengthen the protection of civil and political rights, which are essential for maintaining an inclusive and democratic global governance system.
Global income poverty and hunger have increased over the past three years, with 700 million people worldwide facing acute income poverty. Generally those trapped in poverty are from socially and politically excluded groups.
All this also stands in a sharp contrast to this year’s theme, ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’ put forth by the host Indian government.
One can argue that surely, all this cannot be resolved by just a bunch of these 20 countries (which includes European Union), which is more concerned with a limited set of priorities around global finance, debt, taxation, etc. However, one also knows that this collective group of 20 economies (consisting of diverse democratic, semi-authoritarian and authoritarian regimes), accounts for around 80% of gross world product (GWP), 75% of international trade, two-thirds of the global population, and 60% of the world’s land area.
Surely, this gives them enough heft to influence a lot of things happening around the world if they willed. Unfortunately, we have only seen them either at loggerheads with each other or simply engaging in pious and hollow statements. Also, they have shown no qualms about bypassing any multi-lateral mechanism proposed by UN when they wanted to.
It is estimated that children lost about 35% of a normal school year’s worth of learning during the pandemic.
Prolonged school closures have exacerbated existing educational inequalities, triggered anxiety and depression among students and contributed to child hunger by disrupting school meals.
This July has just been declared the hottest ever in history, while bringing unprecedented rains and floods in other regions of the world. As per the Paris Agreement, instead of reducing their emissions by 45% by 2030, based on the projections on the current efforts G20 countries are only likely to reduce their emissions by 10% by 2030.
Collectively, the G20 is responsible for around 75% of global greenhouse gases (GHGs) including land use change and forestry. We know that the G20 leaders have the power to make substantive and equitable commitments within the revised National Determined Contribution (NDC) framework, setting forth ambitious goals for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.
Equally crucial is the allocation of substantial resources towards the ‘loss and damage’ fund for vulnerable countries as agreed at the UNFCCC COP27 in 2022. For a rapid, just and equitable transition to low-carbon development, the G20 can ensure that environmental and human rights safeguards are foregrounded, by conducting environment, social and cultural impact assessments, ensuring effective public participation in decision making and employing decentralised, nature-friendly and community-led solutions.
Since the inception in 2008, the G20 has engaged in discussions surrounding the reduction of poverty and inequality. Paradoxically, the disparities between the Global South, particularly Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and the Global North have not only endured but have, in many cases, widened. Despite the existence of common frameworks and allocations of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), the aid provided to least developed countries remains insufficient to say the least.
In fact their debt burden of these countries has increased significantly since the pandemic.
In the sphere of trade, the World Trade Organisation’s inability to waive patent rights obstructs the access to critical COVID-19 medications and exacerbates vaccine inequality. G20 leaders can address the urgent economic issues such as global taxation by securing clear commitments on tax heavens, tax avoidance, commonly agreeing to a progressive taxation regime and reshape the international financial architecture, guided by principles of global equality and justice.
However, in a summit where two hefty powers, Russia and China, are not going to be represented by their heads of state, thereby already weakening prospects for any significant agreement, it may literally end up as a year-long preparation for the host country’s perception building in the country and globally.
And this brings us to the story of India, which has been calling itself the ‘mother of democracy’ and promising to voice the ‘leadership of the Global South’ as a ‘Vishwaguru’.
All this is happening at a time where there is ongoing rampant abuse of human rights, freedom of speech and religious freedom, relentless attack on civil society through a plethora of regulatory and punitive mechanisms, long incarceration of political prisoners without any trial for years, a virtual civil war going on in the state of Manipur for about four months now without any accountability being fixed whatsoever, and direct state-backed patronage to fake propaganda and hate speech directed against religious minorities all over the country, particularly Muslims and Christians.
This G20 has been touted as the first one to bring such an important event to the people directly. Looking at the unlimited glittering G 20 logos and light and sound shows across India highlighting the same, one may be tempted to believe the same. However, we also know how scores of slums have been demolished or barricaded behind the gilded facades to make the cities look better before the visiting delegates.
Last week, over 300 civil society delegates from across the country (and several representatives joining online from other parts of the world) met physically inside the Constitution Club in New Delhi as part of a People’s Assembly to articulate people’s expectations from the upcoming summit. And they were accompanied by scores of policemen of different hues and colours, recording each session and scanning faces of the speakers during those two days, a testimony to how robust our democracy is today. A week before that another gathering of civil society organisations was stopped mid-way by the police over completely inexcusable excuses.
And there is a larger media silence all around it.
Democracy thrives only when unburdened by the weight of repression. The pursuit of sustainable development necessitates the presence of a flourishing civil society and a resilient democracy. These cornerstones are pivotal in advancing equitable progress and ensuring that the aspirations of all citizens are honoured. If G20 leaders have the desire and will to change the course of the world towards betterment, its current president and the summit will have to show the way.
Avinash Kumar, Annie Namala and Vidya Dinker are the India coordinators of People’s 20, a global civil society platform engaging with the G20.