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An Indian paramilitary trooper stands in front of a wall painted with the G20 logo on May 23, 2023, in Kashmir, India.  © 2023 Saqib Majeed/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Group of 20, the world’s largest economies, will hold its annual summit of heads of government in New Delhi on September 9 and 10. India currently holds the rotating presidency, and is seeking to focus meetings on “inclusive, equitable and sustainable growth,” among other topics.

But with diplomatic relations among world powers strained, the Indian government is struggling to forge meaningful areas for consensus. India hosted several ministerial meetings through 2023 discussing trade, environmental issues, sovereign debt crises, health, food insecurity, among other topics. At last year’s G20 summit in Indonesia, Russian and Chinese officials approved language for a joint G20 statement acknowledging pledges on these issues and outlining some remedial economic measures.

The 2022 statement noted that “most members” of the G20 “condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy.” In 2023, however, Russia and China have blocked texts containing similar language.

From a human rights and social justice perspective, a failure by the G20 to reach agreements on any issues would be a tremendous waste.

Whatever the political differences, the G20’s agenda is meant to focus on the welfare of the billions of humans affected by the group’s decisions. G20 members should recognize that most topics on the G20 agenda—debt crises, social protection programs, food security, internet freedom—at their root are about human rights and should be framed as such.

There is no reason why most G20 members couldn’t support stronger measures against Myanmar’s military junta, whose widespread abuses against its population have been well-reported. : Even its long-time defenders, Russia and China, agreed to a United Nations Security Council debate and resolution on the crisis last December.

Another possible area of agreement is Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s severe restrictions on women’s rights have been widely condemned by governments the world over, criticized by the UN Security Council, and even Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the rest of the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). This is rare unanimity in today’s polarized world, and any hopes of the Taliban reversing course depend on it being maintained.

The G20 could also reach more consensus on the world’s sovereign debt crisis. As of a few months ago, 39 low-income countries were in or near debt distress, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF is imposing austerity measures on many of these countries as a condition of support despite a well-documented history that these policies exacerbating poverty and inequality and undercutting rights.

The meeting’s focus on social protection policies provides a window for the IMF’s leading economies to support economic recoveries that reduce inequality and contribute to the realization of human rights. G20 governments should actively support universal social protection systems—which provide support for everyone at critical moments throughout their life—and eschew means-tested systems that base eligibility for support on income, wealth, or other narrow indicators of poverty. Universal programs have been shown to be most effective at reducing poverty and inequality, promoting social cohesion and solidarity, and improving countries’ economic resilience.

Finally, the democratic governments of the G20—including India— need to do more as a block to protect and promote democratic rule. They should adopt joint statements in Delhi that, while reaffirming the benefits for rights of democratic rule, acknowledge that democratic institutions around the world are increasingly under threat. G20 democracies should recommit to the underlying core aims of democratic systems: the rights and liberties of their citizens.

In its World Report 2023, Human Rights Watch highlighted major rights concerns in Indiathe US, Japan, France, and other democratic G20 countries. We called on these governments to better address racism, race or caste-based supremacy, xenophobia, and other entrenched barriers to equality.

At bilateral and multilateral meetings in Delhi, democratic governments should hold open discussions about the need to promote and protect tolerance and pluralism, allow criticism and dissent, and recognize differences in thought, religion, and opinion.

Openly discussing human rights applies also to the host, India. Respect for civil and political rights has markedly deteriorated under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, especially for groups facing persecution due to their caste, religion, ethnicity, or political belief, and for civil society advocates, journalists, and human rights defenders critical of the government. 

In meetings with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the presidents and prime ministers of democratic governments should directly raise concerns about this worsening trajectory. They should publicly urge Modi to condemn communal violence, particularly targeting Muslim, Christian and other religious minority communities. They should also urge the government to end its crackdowns on civil society groups and politically motivated prosecutions and raids on human rights activists and critics, and stop the pervasive use of overbroad and indiscriminate internet shutdowns

Modi should not simply bristle but instead commit to reform, and can urge other G20 members to address their own shortcomings.

Democratic governments—and India as the G20 host—cannot speak effectively on international issues or on problems in undemocratic G20 countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China, unless they honestly speak about their own problems.

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