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G8 wavering shows difficulty of taking common action

Prime Minister Stephen Harper holds a closing press conference at the G8 Summit in Huntsville.

Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

G8 leaders issued a stern condemnation of North Korea on Saturday over the March sinking of a South Korean ship, trying to drive a new round of pressure on the totalitarian state. But it watered down blasts at Iran's human rights record amid Russian opposition.

The G8's final communiqué includes a condemnation of the North Korean attack that killed 46 South Korean sailors, declared it outside the world's nuclear law, and called on all nations to observe sanctions already mandated by the United Nations. It provides G8 backing for South Korea's efforts to have the UN condemn North Korea again.

There was nothing new on the environment in the document the leaders produced after two days of talks in Huntsville, Ont. There was $5 billion for a new maternal-health initiative, as previously announced, but that fell short of hopes.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrapped up the G8 summit -- before heading to the next one, the G20 in Toronto -- with an assertion that there's a common purpose among the G8 countries. But the summit's communiqué showed that common action is tough to muster.

Mr. Harper declared the G8 summit in Huntsville, Ont., a success and gave a strong defence of G8 gatherings saying they should not be overtaken by the G20.

Mr. Harper defended the role of the G8, which is made up of Canada, the United States, Japan, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Russia.

The organization has been around in one form or another for 30 years, but it has been overtaken in many respects by the G20, which includes large economies such as China, India and Brazil.

The G8 typically defers discussions about the global economy to the G20, leaving the smaller group to discuss largely development and security issues.

Mr. Harper outlined a list of issues the G8 leaders tackled at their summit, which wrapped up earlier Saturday, including raising $7.3-billion (U.S.) for a global maternity and child health program, condemning North Korea's attack on a South Korean naval ship and pushing United Nations sanctions against Iran in light of its nuclear program.

The governments of Iran and North Korea have chosen to acquire weapons to threaten their neighbours. The world must see to it that what they spend on these weapons will not be the only cost that they incur. Prime Minister Harper

The final G8 communiqué condemns the March 26 sinking of South Korean ship Cheonan, which was determined later by an international panel to have been the result of a North Korean attack, and the G8 underlined it as a threat to the region's security.

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"Such an incident is a challenge to peace and security in the region and beyond," the communiqué states. "We express our deep sympathy and condolences to the victims and their families and to the people and Government of the Republic of Korea, and call for appropriate measures to be taken against those responsible for the attack in accordance with the UN Charter and all other relevant provisions of international law."

"We condemn, in this context, the attack which led to the sinking of the Cheonan. We support the Republic of Korea in its efforts to seek accountability for the Cheonan incident, and we remain committed to cooperating closely with all international parties in the pursuit of regional peace and security. We demand that the Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea refrain from committing any attacks or threatening hostilities against the Republic of Korea."

The communiqué urged the world to "ensure the comprehensive enforcement" of existing sanctions against North Korea to push it to abandon its nuclear-weapons program, and called the sinking of the Cheonan a danger to regional stability.

But on Iran, where Canada, the U.S., and most of the G8 wanted the leaders to issue a tough rebuke of Tehran's human-rights record, tough turned to tepid.

The G8 called on Iran to be transparent about its nuclear program. But Russia had resisted the other countries' desire for a tough statement about the regime's disrespect for human rights, so the G8 instead reiterated last year's call for Tehran to respect the rule of law.

Mr. Harper defended the G8 by saying it is still relevant and he doubts it will fade away. He added that G8 leaders discussed the future of the group during their meetings and came out in favour of keeping it.

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I have never been at a summit where leaders seemed to more deeply feel the necessity of common action and common purpose. Prime Minister Harper

"Why is that? Some of the personalities around the table and the generational change that has taken place in the G8 over the past few years, some of it I'm sure are the enormous challenges facing us all...I have never seen a G8 more fundamentally united in purpose."

The leaders are heading this afternoon to Toronto for the larger meeting of the G20 Saturday evening and Sunday.

"As we get into the G20 process," Mr. Harper said, "there is a greater understanding of the necessity of also having a forum of like-minded, advanced countries who can exchange views in a much less formal setting and who can sometimes quickly bring resources to bear that others don't have on certain types of conflicts, world problems."

"The G20 has done a magnificent job so far in, really the year and half it has been around and has been tackling the economic crisis. But there are quite frankly limits to what you can discuss and what you can achieve in a group of 20, and of course there are always other participants as well. It leads to much less formal discussion than you are able to have a group like the G8."

He also said the change in leadership among some G8 countries has reenergized the group and reinvigorated discussions.

"I think all the leaders at this point would be pretty strong in their view, based on the discussion we had last night, that G8 is a pretty essential organization going forward," he said.

The leaders endorsed an initiative calling for G8 nations to help poorer ones build their capacity to counter security threats like terrorism and security -- but, short on specific commitments, it's a project that can only be judged by what nations deliver over time.

The G8 also didn't offer any new impetus on climate change, where their policies diverge. They endorsed the Copenhagen Accord they signed in December, and said they want to achieve a post-2012 treaty, but offered no new principle, or step.

Mr. Harper's centrepiece -- an initiative to save lives of mothers and children in the developing world -- was a mixed success: $5 billion was pledged, substantial but less than many expectations.

And contributions form individual countries were uneven, with some committing small sums, or only pledging funds for two years, not five -- so much so that a breakdown of how much each G8 country pledged was not include in the communiqué.

"The government, the prime minister has stuck to a commitment to make child and maternal health a priority," said Dave Toycen, chief executive of World Vision Canada. "I was surprised that some of the countries didn't come forward."

Aid organizations often call for sums they don't really expect. Some called for the G8 to pony up $24 billion over five years. Mr. Toycen said he was really expecting $10 billion. They put in $5 billion.

Mr. Harper said it would serve as a catalyst to spark other donors and action in developing countries, a notion echoed in the communiqué.

"We make our commitments with the objective of generating a greater collective effort by bilateral and multilateral donors, developing countries and other stakeholders to accelerate progress," it said.

Some aid organizations doubt it's enough to spark international momentum. Mr. Toycen hopes it might be just enough, as the UN prepares a September conference on its 2000 "millennium goals" for development.

It did take some steps towards improving its credibility, promising to be accountable for its future pledges -- even Mr. Harper suggested that made them cautious about making new ones non maternal health. But its pledge to launch a new era of accountability isn't yet delivered.

This year's G8's communiqué also didn't make specific mention of its big aid promises from 2005, due this year, to double international aid, and aid to Africa.

The G8 met only half its pledge to double aid to Africa. But it did andorse a new accountability report, issued on Sunday so it wouldn't focus summit attention on national failings, that listed those past failings, and others. It was endorsed by the leaders, who promised to follow up on its recommendations. But those recommendations don't include catching up on all missed pledges.

Just owning up to missed goals is considered by many a step toward G8 credibility, but it has yet to dispel skepticism about its promises.

It's a good thing. It's the first time that they've actually owned up to their failings. But what counts is acting on them. Mark Fried, Oxfam Canada's policy coordinator.

Saturday evening, Mr. Harper and the other G8 leaders will meet in Toronto with the rest of the G20 for a working dinner, during which time all leaders will have a chance to discuss the world economy.

That group is divided on several fronts including the imposition of a tax on banks and whether members should keep stimulating their economies or start cutting back. Mr. Harper has proposed a timetable for countries to reduce their deficits and debt loads.

Mr. Harper said today he believes there is consensus among G20 leaders on the issue.

"My sense is there is a strong consensus around the necessity for mid-term plans on fiscal consolidation in advanced countries," he said.

That summit's outcome now revolves around efforts to hammer out some kind of common message to the world on the global economy - even though leaders disagree on key points. U.S. President Barack Obama arrives stressing the need to keep up public spending to support a fragile recovery, while European leaders, spooked by the bond crisis that hit Greece, are largely emphasizing the need to cut debts.

In the face of those disagreements, another issue - agreement on principles for reforming the banking sector - remains the G20's best hope to declare a victory.

Mr. Harper's campaign against a global bank tax remains a point of division - but not one that will be resolved. Britain announced a levy in their budget last week. Germany and France insist they will press ahead. But Canada, India, Australia and several other countries remain opposed, and the G20 are set to go their separate ways on the issue.

"It would appear that there is no agreement for a global bank levy system," said Len Edwards, the Prime Minister's representative at the G8 and G20. "And so where we are ending up, as one would expect, government's are free to implement this as they wish."

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<iframe src="" scrolling="no" height="650px" width="600px" frameBorder ="0" allowTransparency="true" ><a href="" > covers G8 and G20: Saturday, June 26</a></iframe>

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Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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