NAM and sham: Whither Non-alignment?

By Ameen Izzadeen
The message from Venezuela’s Margarita Island is that the Non-aligned Movement is all but dead. The 120-member organisation appeared like a bed-ridden elderly person thinking of beating Usain Bolt in a 100-metre sprint. Like the proverbial rats deserting the sinking ship, over the years many heads of state or government skipped the summit.
When the 17th summit was held in Venezuela last week, only ten heads of state attended it. Among them were Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Cuban President Raul Castro, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The poor show by world leaders raises the question whether there will be a non-aligned summit again? By not having the country represented at the head of state level or by its foreign minister at the Venezuela summit, Sri Lanka, one of the pioneers of the movement that was once the voice and strength of newly independent countries, signalled that it had all but withdrawn from the movement. Throwing protocol to the pigs, Sri Lanka dispatched a minister who holds the portfolio of skills development and vocational training. This was nothing to be surprised at. Sri Lanka was, perhaps, one of the first countries to realise that hanging on to NAM principles was a liability in the post-cold war era. In 2003, the then Ranil Wickremesinghe government betrayed NAM unity and supported the US position at the Cancun trade talks.
In neighbouring India, which recently signed a defence agreement with the US, enabling the two countries to use each other’s ports, officials did not even bother to provide a credible reason for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to skip the summit. Even the United Nations Secretary General did not consider attending the summit worthwhile.
A waste of time and energy, many NAM heads of state might have thought. And they were not wrong. NAM summits in recent years were largely a foreign policy trophy for the host nation – not for the participating nations, unless they felt that their attendance at the summit would help them promote their foreign or domestic policy goals.
During last week’s summit, the host nation’s president took great pains to portray the parley as a diplomatic success. President Nicholas Maduro called it a meeting that would “be remembered for centuries.” One wonders whether his remarks were prophetic because this could be the last NAM summit. With the Non-Aligned Movement having long outlived its usefulness, solidarity among the developing countries is nowhere to be seen. Be it at the United Nations or any international forum on crucial issues such as climate change, world trade or development goals, NAM countries act individually and take a stand thinking only about their own self-interest.
There was little NAM spirit when India and Libya voted for a US-backed resolution against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2012.
The Non-Aligned Movement was born in response to a post-World War II international order that saw the then two superpowers engaging in a Cold War to win as many allies as possible, virtually dividing the world into two power blocs. Dismissing this world order, the then newly independent states in Africa, Asia and Latin America and other countries with similar thinking decided not to align with either the United States-led Western bloc or the Soviet Union-led Eastern bloc. Enmity towards none and friendship with all was the motto. They first met in 1955 in the Indonesian city, Bandung. Sri Lanka was one of the six convenors of this conference. The others were Egypt, Indonesia, Burma, India and Pakistan.
Perhaps, the present day US-looking mandarins at New Delhi’s South Block, for obvious reasons, do not want the world to know that the term ‘non-alignment’ was first coined by India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru during one of the preparatory meetings in Colombo in 1954. He envisioned non-alignment as a political ideology based on five principles or Panchaseela – a mantra for coexistence first offered by Chinese Premier Zhou-Enlai as a guide for better Sino-India relations.
The five principles were: (1) mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; (2) mutual non-aggression; (3) mutual non-interference in domestic affairs; (4) equality and mutual benefit and (5) peaceful co-existence.
The movement held its inaugural meeting in 1961 in the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade, under the stewardship of Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito or “Marshal Tito”.
Since then the NAM had been championing many a noble cause. It was a strong advocate of the Palestinian cause and the independence struggles of Algeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), Angola, Mozambique and other nations. It confronted largely the United States. This was because the Soviet Union used solidarity with the NAM cause to its advantage.
The spirit of non-alignment was evident in the foreign policies of almost all the member states during the early years of the movement. But as years went by, NAM countries began to flirt with one superpower or the other to keep their economies going. Countries such as India and Iraq signed friendship treaties with the Soviet Union, while Egypt threw its weight behind the United States after the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NAM members began to see non-alignment as a liability. Yet some tried their best to make it meaningful in the context of post-cold war realities. But no more.
Their apathy was evident at last week’s NAM summit, which hardly made news in the mainstream international media. The summit turned out to be a platform for President Maduro and his anti-US allies to criticise US foreign policy.
But it may be a little too early to write NAM’s death certificate. President Maduro, besieged by growing calls for his resignation as the US-backed opposition capitalises on the hardships that Venezuela’s people face due to the world oil price plunge, told the summit that the UN should not merely be reformed, but re-founded in a manner that all nations have a more balanced share.
But we believe that even NAM needs to be refounded in keeping with the realities. With China emerging as a counterforce to the United States and Russia reemerging as a rival of the United States, NAM countries needs to join forces to strike a balance and benefit from all big powers.

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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