The 15th Non-aligned Summit: Achievements and Prospects

Non-aligned with Whom or What?

By Kul Chandra Gautam at interaction organized by the United Nations Association of Nepal on

“The 15th Non-aligned Summit: Achievements and Prospects” Kathmandu, 29 July 2009

Thank you for inviting me to make some remarks at this interaction programme on the “15thNon-aligned Summit: Achievements and Prospects”. I am actually not going to speak much about the 15th NAM summit, as our Honourable Foreign Minister and Foreign Secretary are here to share with us their first-hand account from the Summit at Sharm el Sheik in Egypt.

I must confess that unlike other distinguished panelists on the dais, I have no particular expertise on the non-aligned movement, nor have I attended any of its recent meetings. So I suppose you can say I am truly unaligned with the non-aligned movement.

My main interactions with NAM have been at the United Nations in New York.

Outside its summit process, the UN is really the only place where NAM continues to be considered still relevant.

The NAM Coordinating Bureau at the UN is the main institutional mechanism that guides the movement’s various task forces, committees and working groups. And along with its other incarnation in the form of the Group of 77, NAM continues to be a formidable negotiating bloc on key issues at the United Nations.

NAM is probably the only major inter-governmental movement with a seemingly negative nomenclature – it is non-aligned with something negative, rather than an alliance for something positive – e.g. alliance for peace or development or security.

But this seemingly negative name represented a great positive force at the time of its creation.

For several decades following the 2nd World War, the world was deeply polarized between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact countries. There was a Cold War of ideological and geopolitical competition between the US-led Western Powers and the Soviet-led Eastern bloc. They were engaged in a dangerous and destructive arms race, and were twisting the arms of all countries to join one block or the other.

Recognizing the destructive nature of this Cold War, several wise leaders – including Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Joseph Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Sukarno of Indonesia – boldly decided to stay neutral and non-aligned with the two competing super-power blocs.

Out of this non-alignment, they wished to create a positive force for peaceful resolution of conflicts, disarmament, respect for territorial integrity, non-interference in internal affairs of sovereign nations, and emphasis on economic development and social progress.

It was actually Jawaharlal Nehru who apparently coined the term “non-alignment” and articulated the principles of PanchaSheel as the basis for the non-aligned movement.

For small and powerless countries like Nepal, or Sri Lanka or Cambodia that came under pressure to join one or the other bloc, the non-aligned movement offered a graceful third way.

The Bandung Conference of Asian and African States in 1955 was a precursor of the NAM movement. For Nepal, the Bandung Conference offered a first opportunity to play a role on the global stage, when it was not even a Member of the United Nations.

The first NAM summit in Belgrade in 1961 and subsequent ones in Cairo, Lusaka and Algiers allowed Nepal’s rulers to rub shoulders with other great leaders, and present itself as a proud independent nation.

Today, some of NAM’s original rhetorical flourishes may sound like antiquated clichés manufactured in the propaganda departments of Third World radicals – “the struggle against imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism, racism, foreign aggression, occupation, domination, interference or hegemony of super-powers”.

But those were the prevalent sentiments of progressive leaders of that era. Even today, if we sprinkle a few other words like saamanti, pratigaami, agragaami, dalaal nokarsaahi, it would seem that the level of political discourse in Nepal is going back to the rhetorical excesses of NAM in the 1960s.

But seriously, under the first generation of its leaders, the non-aligned movement made some significant contribution in international relations. NAM certainly helped accelerate decolonization, the end of apartheid in South Africa and provided group solidarity for many nations to resist the pressure to join or be dragged into one super-power bloc or the other.

But as its membership grew, it also became a hiding place for some Third World dictators. Many members of NAM were not really non-aligned, but openly aligned with one or the other super-power blocs. For example, Cuba and North Korea were clearly aligned with the Soviet bloc; Iran under the Shah and Saudi Arabia were clearly aligned with the US bloc.

Some African countries, like Somalia, Ethiopia, Angola, Congo, etc. though nominally non-aligned, were often bribed or enticed into switching sides among the super-powers.

Indeed the NAM movement became so rhetorically radical at times, that the truly neutral and non-aligned European countries like Switzerland and Sweden never considered joining NAM. Today the only European country that is a member of NAM, is Belarus known as the last dictatorship in Europe.

In principle, NAM subscribes to democratic values, but so many of its leaders have been autocratic. A sacred principle of NAM was territorial integrity of its members, but the break-up of Yugoslavia, a founding Member and host of several NAM summits, has become a case study of disintegration.

While NAM stood for disarmament and peaceful resolution of conflicts, many NAM countries are huge military spenders. There have been so many civil wars as well as cross border wars inside and among NAM countries, that the gap between NAM principles and realities has become very wide indeed.

And following the end of the Cold War, it is hard to tell what is NAM non-aligned against.

So dear friends, it is clear that NAM needs to reinvent itself if it is to remain relevant in a multi-polar world in the 21st century. I do not know to what extent the Sharm-el-Sheik Summit led to such reinventing. But I can see a couple of areas where NAM can continue to be a force for positive change in the world.

NAM has historically stood for a strong, transparent and democratic United Nations. Along with its cousin the G-77, NAM has been quite successful in pressuring the UN to give higher priority to social and economic development, including the Millennium Development Goals.

NAM’s advocacy for democratization of the UN, especially the reform of the Security Council has been less successful, because NAM has not been able to speak with one voice on exactly what kind of reformed Security Council it wants.

A major challenge and test for NAM is how it deals with the issue of the Responsibility to Protect that is being debated at the UN General Assembly right now. If NAM hides behind sovereign right of nations to do whatever they please inside their territory, and does not come out in support of collective international action to protect civilians in major humanitarian disasters or against massive violation of human rights, NAM will have lost its moral right as the conscience of the oppressed peoples and nations of the world.

At the Sharm el Sheik Summit Ban Ki-moon called on NAM to play a leadership role in several major forthcoming conferences that will have lasting impact on the future of humanity. These include the Copenhagen conference on climate change later this year; and the review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well as the Millenium Development Goals next year.

A concerted, constructive, creative common position of NAM on these 3 great issues of our times, would really reestablish the continuing relevance of NAM in the 21st century.

Finally, as non-alignment with the old super-power blocks is now a non-issue, I would hope that NAM will now articulate a new vision that it seeks to be non-aligned against the greatest evils of our times – namely, abject poverty, violation of human rights, the culture of violence and impunity, excessive militarization, and degradation of the environment which pose the greatest dangers to future generations here in Nepal, in other NAM countries and the whole world.

Thank you.

(Mr. Gautam is former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF)