The G20 summit, held in India this September, was instrumentalised by the host government in a vast PR exercise meant to project a positive image of the ruling party and its leader Narendra Modi ahead of elections next year. While India presented the outcomes as a diplomatic triumph, the summit’s statement is notable more for its failure to break new ground on key issues, including climate change and Russia’s war on Ukraine. The declaration also said nothing about civil society, reflecting a dialogue process crafted by the government to ensure no sensitive issues were raised – including its many human rights abuses.

India put itself in the global spotlight this September as it hosted the G20 summit. This annual gathering of states that account for around 85 per cent of global GDP has come to be recognised as one of the world’s key economic forums. But this year’s summit was notable mostly for what it failed to focus on – both globally and at home.

India gets what it wants

The host government was keen to portray the meeting as a success. India was evidently outmanoeuvred by China at the BRICS summit that preceded the G20 meeting. That event committed to expanding the BRICS group by admitting a slew of mostly authoritarian states, positioning it more clearly as an anti-west alliance, something China wanted but India appeared to be cautious about. India’s populist hardman leader, Narendra Modi, has been careful to cultivate warm relations with the USA, while China-India relations, long frosty, are characterised by competition.

But China’s authoritarian head Xi Jinping, having got what he wanted at the BRICS meeting in South Africa, didn’t even bother turning up for the G20 summit. That left the field clear for India to pull off some carefully coordinated diplomatic triumphs.

The big announcement in the wings of the summit was of a plan for an ‘economic corridor’ linking India, the Middle East and Europe. This would entail investment in rail and sea links and land and undersea cables to connect transport, energy and internet infrastructure. Those backing the plan – known as the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment – include India, the European Union (EU), the USA and several Middle East states, among them both Israel and Saudi Arabia, in a further sign of the restructuring of relations in that region.

To some extent this is a rebranding and reiteration of existing EU and US attempts to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a huge infrastructure development programme through which China has made itself a major partner of many global south states. But one of the problems of China’s approach is that its development cooperation includes no provision requiring human rights to be respected or enabling communities to have a say in decisions that affect them. Looking at the some of the partners involved in the rival plan, the same may well turn out to be true.

All the fresh paint lavished on New Delhi shouldn’t conceal a track record of increasingly aggressive attacks on human rights.

Another diplomatic success for India was the admission of the African Union into the G20, something Modi had pushed for. In joining, the 55-member continental body is placed on an equal footing with the European Union, a member since the group was founded in 1999. This move signals the role India sees for itself as a broker of new multilateral connections and a global south champion. But it begs the question of why some of Africa’s major economies – notably Nigeria – can’t take part in their own right; South Africa remains the continent’s only state represented in the G20, compared to multiple members from Asia, Europe and the Americas.

Conflict and climate letdowns

For some time it seemed this might be the first G20 summit to end without the customary joint declaration. Russia’s war on Ukraine was the sticking point. Russia is a G20 member, as are states that have refused to criticise its actions, including China, and others that have led the international condemnation, such as the USA.

It would have been a diplomatic disappointment for India if the summit had produced no declaration, so it led intensive negotiations to avoid this fate. What resulted is a compromise statement weaker than that agreed at the previous G20 summit in Indonesia. Then, the declaration recognised that most G20 members condemned the war and called on Russia to withdraw, but such language was notably absent this time. Instead the statement merely noted that states had different ‘national positions’ and that all must act in line with the United Nations (UN) Charter – without saying what should happen to Russia, which has clearly flouted UN rules.

Both Russia and China insisted on the weaker text, reflecting a hardening of lines and a payoff for Russia’s strategy of painting condemnation of its war as partial and western-centric, despite its evident violations of international law and ample evidence of international crimes.

There was no pressure from India for stronger language; it’s also refused to criticise Russia and blocked a bid by other states to invite Ukraine to attend. India’s official position is one of neutrality, but that position worked in Russia’s favour when it came to agreeing the declaration. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hailed the summit as a success, the surest sign that it had failed to hold his master Vladimir Putin to account. The USA, meanwhile, likely soft-pedalled, letting key partner Modi achieve his consensus.

Another failure came on climate. The G20 grouping is by definition a gathering of high greenhouse gas emitters, whose leadership in a rapid switch to renewable energies and increased climate funding could make a global difference. It came in the wake of the African Climate Summit, which made a plea for a significant advance in climate financing, including through debt relief and carbon taxes.

The G20’s statement, encouragingly, promises to ‘pursue and encourage’ initiatives to triple renewable energy capacities by 2030. It also notes that trillions of dollars of funding are needed to meet global south climate targets – but doesn’t go any further towards committing those resources.

On fossil fuel subsidies, it simply restates past positions, committing to ‘phase out and rationalise’ what it calls ‘inefficient’ subsidies, and even then only ‘over the medium term’. It’s the same when it comes to coal, with the statement maintaining a curiously phrased commitment to ‘phase down’ rather that phase out ‘unabated’ coal power. Worst, it fails to mention oil and gas at all.

In a statement awash with references to the importance of the market and private sector, and with the world’s biggest oil exporter Saudi Arabia and highest greenhouse gas emitter China in the room, perhaps that’s no surprise. But it’s a missed opportunity to accelerate action ahead of the UN Climate Ambition Summit in September and the peak COP28 climate meeting at the year’s end.

No room for civil society

None of these failures have stopped the Indian government talking up its achievements. G20 hosts always try to present themselves well, but this was at another level. The event, located in a glitzy new convention centre, was preceded by a publicity blitz presenting it as the epitome of India’s modern self-confidence and status as a global leader. Informal settlements were levelled and poor people and street vendors were cleared from the streets ahead of the summit.

As well as the international audience Modi wanted to impress, there was an obvious domestic agenda: elections are due next year and Modi seeks to renew public support for his authoritarian leadership underpinned by Hindu nationalist ideology. His image was everywhere.

All the fresh paint lavished on New Delhi shouldn’t however conceal a track record of increasingly aggressive attacks on human rights, and particularly on the rights of India’s Muslim population. Recent years have seen an escalation of tactics such as the criminalisation and jailing of human rights activists, restrictions on media freedoms, internet shutdowns, the prevention of peaceful protests and constraints on funding for civil society organisations.

The government’s Hindu nationalist rhetoric has helped fuel ethnic and religious violence, seen horrifically this year in Manipur state, where the government is accused of standing by and doing little while at least 160 people were killed and tens of thousands were displaced. Meanwhile the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir region has been subjected to a strict crackdown since the government unilaterally stripped it of its special status in 2019.

The government’s hostility to dissent, independent scrutiny and human rights demands was reflected in an elite summit with no prospect of genuine civil society access or influence. G20 summits involve a number of ‘engagement groups’ in the preparatory process, including one of labour organisations, another focusing on women’s rights and, for civil society in general, the C20 group. The C20 produces a communique but the interaction between it and the official summit tends to be minimal. Civil society advocacy typically focuses on getting some of its demands included in the final G20 declaration.

One of the problems with civil society participation in the G20 is that it’s largely left to the whim of the host government. There was no hope of high-quality engagement under India’s presidency. The government was accused of packing the C20 with its supporters. Members of its steering committee disproportionately came from Hindu religious organisations. There are indications that local speakers sought to minimise criticisms of the government and potential presenters were warned off making ‘political’ points. These are signs of a carefully managed consultation process.

The C20’s communique makes no mention of civic space or fundamental civic freedoms, a missed opportunity to send a message to the majority of G20 member states where civic space is seriously restricted.

There was little prospect of informal civil society interaction with state delegations during the G20 summit. The C20’s meeting was held well ahead of the official summit, in July, and in a different city, Jaipur. No journalists other than those from pro-government state media were allowed access to G20 conference rooms either.

Meanwhile an alternative gathering held outside the G20 process, the ‘We20: People’s Summit’, organised by over 70 civil society groups in August, faced disruption. It aimed to put issues of social justice and human rights front and centre. But when the meeting sought police authorisation, it was denied, and the presence of a sizeable police cordon when the meeting took placed forced organisers to cut it short.

The denial of civil society’s agency is made explicit in the G20’s final statement, which in 29 pages finds no room to mention civil society even once, and only references the fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression in relation to their role in respect for religious and cultural diversity.

The issues on the G20’s agenda – climate change, inequality, conflict – are too important to be left to political and economic elites, but this year’s G20 summit was nothing more than a conference of elite power. Next year’s summit will be hosted by Brazil, under more progressive new leadership that’s at least making an attempt to tackle the climate crisis. Civil society will look for it to do better in steering the G20 towards making the hard calls the world needs and listening to the voices of those affected by its decisions.


  • The Indian government should end its attacks on the freedoms to organise, protest and speak out, and commit to upholding civic space.
  • Brazil, as the host of the G20 summit, should commit to expanding the space for civil society participation and open up processes to a wider diversity of civil society.
  • The G20 should develop guidelines for high-quality consultation with a wide range of civil society, rather than leaving the form and content of links with civil society at the discretion of the summit’s host.

Cover photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images