The African Union has been granted permanent member status in the Group of 20 top world economies, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Saturday, adding momentum to his drive to give a greater voice to the Global South as host of this year’s annual summit.
The announcement during Modi’s opening speech for the weekend summit of the G20 comes as growing global rifts and the absence of key players threatened to make reaching consensus on the thorniest issues elusive.
There was widespread support, however, for adding the AU to the G20, making it the second regional bloc to become a permanent member after the European Union.
Modi rapped his gavel three times before announcing the move to applause in the room.
He shook hands with the current AU chair, Comoros President Azali Assoumani, and embraced him warmly before inviting him to sit at the table.
“I invite the representative of the African Union to take his place as a permanent member of the G20,” Modi said.
Modi addressed the delegates from behind a nameplate that listed his country not as India but as “Bharat,” an ancient Sanskrit name championed by his Hindu nationalist supporters that his government has been pushing at the G20.
Modi has made giving voice to the Global South a centerpiece of this year’s summit, and adding the AU at the outset was a strong step in that direction.
He told leaders that they must find “concrete solutions” to the widespread challenges that he said stemmed from the “ups and downs in the global economy, the north and the south divide, the chasm between the east and the west,” and other issues like terrorism, cyber security, health and water security.
With much of the world’s focus on the Russian war against Ukraine, India has been working to try and direct more attention to addressing the needs of the developing world at the summit — though it is impossible to decouple many issues, such as food and energy security, from the European conflict.
Modi did make a presumed reference to the war in his opening remarks, though he avoided mentioning the names of any countries involved.
“Friends, after COVID-19, the world is facing problems of trust deficit,” he said. “The war has further deepened this trust deficit. If we can beat COVID, we can also triumph over the trust deficit caused by the war,” he said.
As the summit opened, at least a fifth of G20 heads were not in New Delhi. The leaders of Russia and China opted not to come, ensuring no tough face-to-face conversations with their American and European counterparts over multiple disputes, most acutely the war in Ukraine. Spain’s president couldn’t make it due to COVID-19, and Mexico’s president decided to miss it, too.
A series of preparatory meetings leading to this weekend’s meeting failed to produce agreements due to increasingly fractious rifts among the world’s global powers, largely due to differences over Ukraine. Ending the summit without such a statement would underscore how strained relations have become and tarnish the image Modi has tried to cultivate of India as a global problem solver.
Participants arriving in the Indian capital were greeted by streets cleared of traffic, and graced with fresh flowers and seemingly endless posters featuring slogans and Modi’s face. Security was intensely tight, with most journalists and the public kept far from the summit venue.
Along with the addition of the AU as a permanent member, other major topics on the agenda were issues critical to developing nations, including alternative fuels like hydrogen, resource efficiency, developing a common framework for digital public infrastructure and food security.
Countries were also expected to address reforming development banks like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to help make funds more accessible for lower- and middle-income countries as they seek solutions to combat climate change, among other things.
India’s lead G20 negotiator, Amitabh Kant, told reporters that boosting climate action and climate financing were key priorities, particularly for developing and emerging markets.
“It was critical that we focused on multilateral organizations and how to redefine and reform them,” he said. “Our view was that Global South, developing countries, emerging markets must be able to get long-term financing.”
With so many other issues on the table, Human Rights Watch urged the G20 leaders not to let international disunity distract them at the summit.
“Political differences should not deter agreements on critical issues impacting human rights such as the sovereign debt crises, social protection programs, food security, climate change, or internet freedom,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy director of the organization’s Asia division.
Ganguly added that members should not “shy away from openly discussing challenges like gender discrimination, racism and other entrenched barriers to equality, including with host India, where civil and political rights have sharply deteriorated under the Modi administration.”
The summit comes just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin said a landmark deal allowing Ukraine to export grain safely through the Black Sea will not be restored until Western nations meet his demands on Russia’s own agricultural exports.
The original deal had been brokered by the U.N. and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but Russia refused to extend it in July, complaining that a parallel agreement promising to remove obstacles to Russian exports of food and fertilizer hadn’t been honored.
Russia dispatched Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as its top representative to the G20. Erdogan himself was on hand in the Indian capital and others said ahead of the summit that they hoped to be able to find solutions, even as Russia’s military keeps up its attacks on Ukraine’s ports.
European Council President Charles Michel told reporters in New Delhi on Friday it was “scandalous” that Russia was blocking and attacking Ukrainian ports after terminating the grain deal.
“The Kremlin’s war is also unraveling lives far beyond Ukraine, including right here in South Asia,” he said. “Over 250 million people face acute food insecurity worldwide and by deliberately attacking Ukraine’s ports, the Kremlin is depriving them of the food they desperately need.”
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he hoped to marshal international resources to counteract the impact of Russia’s moves on the global food supply. His government has announced London will host a global food security summit in November in response to Moscow’s actions.
Alternatives could include land routes or taking grain out of Ukraine by river barge.
Sunak’s government has also said Royal Air Force aircraft will fly over the Black Sea as part of efforts to deter Russia from striking cargo ships transporting grain from Ukraine to developing countries.
Hundreds of Tibetan exiles held a protest far from the summit venue to condemn Chinese participation in the event and urge leaders to discuss Sino-Tibetan relations.
Before the meeting got formally under way, Modi met with U.S. President Joe Biden shortly after his arrival Friday evening.
White House aide Kurt Campbell told reporters afterward that there was an “undeniable warmth and confidence between the two leaders.”
Leaders of the U.S., India, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were working to finalize a joint infrastructure deal involving ship and rail transit between India and the Middle East to Turkey and beyond, in hopes it could be announced in New Delhi during the summit.
Campbell called the emerging deal a potentially “earth-shattering” project and said that “the strongest supporter of this initiative is India.” In the past, Campbell said, India’s leaders have had “almost a knee jerk reaction” to resist such massive multilateral projects.
“It’s the last moment that’s when things come together or they don’t,” Campbell said. “With huge, enormous ambitious deals it always comes to this place.”
As Biden made his way to New Delhi, U.S. administration officials sought to play down that Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelenskyy wasn’t invited to address the G20.
The Ukrainian leader has made regular appearances, virtual and in-person, at such international forums since the start of the war more than 18 months ago to rally allies to remain committed to support Ukraine.