Civil Society at the 2001 Genoa G8 Summit.


As the leaders of the Group of Eight (the seven major democratic industrialized countries - Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States - plus Russia) met on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa from 13 to 21 July 2000 for their annual summit, throngs of supporters of local and international civil-society groups were assembling near the site of the meeting. As 27,000 protesters formed a human chain around the huge United States Kadena Air Base, other members of civil society groups engaged in dialogue with representatives of summit-country governments and news media, gave news conferences, and issued press releases and bulletins over the internet.

One year later, the G8 leaders held their summit from 20 to 22 July in the old northern Italian port city of Genoa, well aware of the huge mass protest outside. Demonstrators, estimated at anywhere from 70,000 to 200,000, ranged from groups peacefully opposed to what they saw as a world increasingly controlled by the most powerful states and by large multinational corporations, through those that sought dialogue with G8 governments, to anarchists of all shades. Security concerns had prompted the local hosts to designate a red maximum security zone between 18 and 22 July that was accessible only to local residents and those authorized to be in the immediate area of summit events. Tall wire fences surrounded the red zone, and massive police guards at each gate controlled access. Public demonstrations were not allowed in the larger yellow zone surrounding the central red zone. The port of Genoa was closed to navigation, and the city's airport and main railway stations were also closed. Some groups of protesters challenged the legality of the restricted zones under the Italian constitution, but mainstream groups were willing to confine their demonstrations to officially approved areas. Violent confrontations between a small minority of protesters and Italian security personnel led to the tragic shooting death of Carlo Giuliani, a 23-year-old Italian anarchist (the first death among Western protesters since violent demonstrations around high-level meetings first occurred in Seattle in late 1999, although deaths of demonstrators have been reported in developing countries), some 230 injuries on both sides, 280 arrests, and property damage estimated at up to $40 million. There were accusations that the police used excessive force, targeted peaceful demonstrators as well as journalists, and perhaps even provoked some of the violence.

How did the civil-society nexus with the G7/G8 change so much in just one year, and what can be learned from the Genoa experience?


When Jubilee 2000, the debt-relief coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), claimed that civil-society campaigners had forced the G8 leaders to retreat to the remote island of Okinawa in 2000, they could be criticized for indulging in hyperbole. A year later, however, when the G8 foreign ministers moved their pre-summit meeting of 7 July from Portofino to Rome, reality caught up with rhetoric: concern about up to 200,000 demonstrators, a small but vocal percentage of whom were prepared to use disruptive or even violent tactics, was undoubtedly the main reason. In Genoa, venues and activities were severely restricted by the protest outside. Out of concern for security, the local hosts of the G8 hired a luxury cruiser, the Spirit of Europe, to house all but one of the G8 leaders (George W. Bush stayed at the harbourfront Jolly Hotel Marina), and the security measures described earlier were put in place by the prefecture of Genoa.

Prior to the summit, responsible civil-society groups had made clear their intention to demonstrate and protest peacefully against economic globalization and for more progress on debt relief. They also expressed concern that anarchist and other potentially disruptive or violent groups would jeopardize peaceful, lawful, democratic protest. The Genoa Social Forum (GSF), an umbrella organization of some 700 international, Italian, and local Genoa-based NGOs and civil-society coalitions, included Drop the Debt but also Ya Basta!, an Italian anarchist organization (though an essentially non-violent one). It was unclear from the start how this kind of contradiction could be resolved, especially in light of the announcement by the Social Forum that some of its member groups `would attempt peacefully to invade the red zone during the planned "day of civil disobedience"' on the first day of the summit.(1)

GSF used its website ( to publicize its aims; to disseminate news in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German; to announce planned events; and to solicit donations. It provided practical information for demonstrators on how to get to Genoa; obtain accommodation and legal and medical assistance; and avoid possessing any object that could be considered an offensive weapon. It also asked doctors, lawyers, interpreters, and journalists to help.

GSF planned three sets of demonstrations in the sanctioned area outside the red zone: a `Migrants International March' on 19 July; `Actions of Civil Disobedience' on 20 July; and an international mass demonstration on 21 July. Drop the Debt, for its part, met Italian national and local government representatives the month before to negotiate plans for peaceful demonstrations. It asked its supporters to participate only in the 21 July march, which would take place outside both red and yellow zones. Concerned about safety, Drop the Debt cautioned its supporters to walk away and comply with the requests of the police and demonstration stewards should they encounter conflict. Its website included, among many other features, an invitation to its supporters to e-mail a `debt wish' to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. It was also reported that Drop the Debt and several other respected aid agencies had `drawn up contingency plans to avoid the Italian city during the summit on July 20-22 if a repeat of the violence that accompanied the recent European Union meeting in Gothenburg seem[ed] likely.'(2)

The violence exceeded everyone's expectations and was deplored by G8 leaders and most NGO groups. In a statement issued on 21 July, the leaders recognized and praised the role of peaceful protest and argument, but condemned unequivocally the violence and anarchy of a small minority. And the final communique reaffirmed the right of peaceful protesters to have their voices heard and again deplored the violence and vandalism of those who seek to disrupt discussion and dialogue.(3)

Civil society groups condemned the violence in equally strong terms. Tony Burdon, senior policy advisor at Oxfam, said in a press release of 20 July that `violent disruption of international meetings doesn't help reach a solution, and it certainly doesn't help the poor. It drowns out the voice of many thousands of peaceful and serious people arguing for AIDS treatment and deeper debt relief.' Adrian Lovett, director of the Drop the Debt campaign, added: `Peaceful protest works, and it has made a hugely positive impact on recent 68 Summits. The violence we have seen in Genoa achieves nothing. Peaceful campaigners must reflect on how we make sure our concerns are addressed without the risk of hijack by violent extremists.' Medecins sans frontieres (MSF) was even more forthright: `We take a sharp distance from every kind of violence and from those that in one way or another have chosen to manipulate these days in Genoa and created an atmosphere of violence and aggression - be it from the side of the radical demonstrators or the side of the police.'(4)

Predictably, the media focused mainly on the violence. Several G8 leaders expressed their frustration at this disproportionate news coverage to the detriment of reporting on the deliberations of the G7/G8. What was lost in the shuffle was the peaceful but vigorous action and productive networking by civil-society groups.


A spectrum of issues ranging from the environment to women's rights was represented in Genoa by a variety of NGO groups. This assessment focuses on just three issues: debt,...

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