Global Policy Forum

Violent Fringe Gives the NGOs a Bad Name


By Maria Livanos Cattaui

International Chamber of Commerce
July 19, 2001

Here we go again - unless the Italian authorities manage to thwart the violent anti-globalization protesters who plan to disrupt the Group of Eight summit opening on Friday. No matter that the summit assembles the world's most powerful leaders to discuss issues that affect the lives of all of us, what happens outside the meeting may once more eclipse decisions taken inside.

The prospect of pitched street battles that threatens the tranquility of the good people of Genoa has implications that go beyond smashed shop fronts and general inconvenience. For one thing, the protesters misuse a name that is loosely attached to them - that of non-governmental organizations, NGOs.

The itinerant professional protesters who stir up mayhem under the label "direct action" are light years apart from NGOs like Oxfam, Médecins sans Frontií¨res or Amnesty International. These genuine NGOs, bring relief to communities and individuals in desperate need, often at great personal risk to their workers.

One can readily understand the exasperation of the majority of NGOs, who fear that the violent fringe is undermining their arguments. Maybe we need to invent a new classification to underline the difference between the two.

Of course, the protesters will say that they were the victims of official provocation, and as the debris are cleared, claim that heavy-handed policing was to blame. The fact that the summit leaders will be holed up behind elaborate security barriers will be exploited to show that the leaders had to be protected from popular wrath. Well-meaning attempts to seek dialogue with the protesters as representatives of "civil society" will achieve nothing, if past experience is anything to go by. Constructive engagement can only succeed if both sides want it.

It would be tragic if confrontation, which looks alarmingly like a habit these days, led to an erosion of faith in reasoned argument, if people with a cause were to conclude that agitation, slogans and TV pictures of baton charges were more effective than the ballot box and parliamentary debate.

The sad fact is that after Seattle, Prague, Melbourne, London, Davos, Quebec and Gothenburg - the list is already too long - violent protest has become a routine background to major international meetings. Whatever the outcome, the protesters will hasten to claim that their pressure made a difference.

Let nobody be deceived by that. Taking to the streets to make noise and destroy property is a cop-out. No great commitment or personal sacrifice is necessary, no tireless dedication to a particular ideal, other than that of anarchy. Much more productive - but harder - would be to work within the system, to run for election for example, and to take up all those invitations to participate in reasoned dialogue, something that would require thought and fidelity to fact.

The protesters need to be reminded that the leaders attending the G8 summit are not self-appointed autocrats imposing their whims on the rest of us, but democratically elected members of sovereign governments who will not be intimidated by noises-off. If they are getting it wrong, the remedy is to turf them out at the next election.

The intellectual dishonesty of the protesters, who, as has often been observed, are predominantly white and middle-class, is never more blatant than when they pose as champions of the developing world. The truth is that the developing countries need more rather than less globalization. They are seeking better market access for their exports and more foreign direct investment. Attempts to put the clock back on development of the global marketplace harm the very people whose interests the protesters claim to defend.

The protesters are entitled to their views - as long as they air them peacefully. The good news is the mounting irritation with the violent fringe that is becoming apparent in the ranks of the NGOs themselves. An initiative by the London-based New Economics Foundation, which organises "parallel events" at G7/G8 summits, is an encouraging straw in the wind. NEF is promoting a "Code of Protest" over the Internet, based on a pledge to non-violence at all times. The declared aim is to marginalize those who encourage violent conduct.

This is an idea that ought to catch on.

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