By Ernest Corea
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s decision to attend the sixteenth summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM16) in Tehran from August 26 to 31follows the precedent set by his predecessors and reaffirms the interlinked relationship between the UN and NAM.
NAM has been described as the largest politically-oriented body in the world, second in membership to the Group of 77 and China. Most of NAM’s members are UN members as well. Issues explored by NAM have been and are on the UN agenda too, and in several instances the positions taken by NAM, although sometimes opposed in other forums, have prevailed at the UN.
The Secretary-General’s judgment that he should attend the summit effectively dismissed suggestions that he should not do so, because of its location – which was determined and announced three years ago when the previous NAM summit was held in Sharm el-Sheikh (Egypt).
Confirming the universality of the Secretary-General’s role, and its independence from bilateral spats, the Ban’s spokesman said that he takes “seriously” his “responsibility and that of the UN to pursue diplomatic engagement with all of the world body’s Member States, in the interest of peacefully addressing vital matters of peace and security.”
If that wasn’t a sufficiently strong rejection of the view that Ban should distance himself from the NAM summit, the spokesman added: “The Secretary-General looks forward to the Summit as an opportunity to work with the participating Heads of State and Government, including the host country, towards solutions on issues that are central to the global agenda including follow-up to the Rio+20 Conference on sustainable development, disarmament, conflict prevention, and support for countries in transition,”
A hefty list, but an exemplary approach by the Secretary-General to the opportunities provided by the NAM summit. And yet, as the legendary Yogi Berra would have said: “it’s déjà vu all over again.”
Thirty three years ago, when the sixth NAM summit was held in Cuba, an assortment of hand-wringing observers considered the location of the event sinister. A participating foreign minister would tell any of his colleagues who cared to listen that they were all like passengers at a railway station who were about to board a train, but were being kept in the dark by the engine driver as to the destination he had chosen for them. Meanwhile, a head of government wrote to a colleague participating in the summit cautioning him that nothing should be done to hurt “our friends the Americans.”
Adding to the concerns was a claim by political and media commentators that the Soviet Union had surreptitiously introduced a brigade of troops into Cuba in advance of the summit – for what purpose, nobody could tell. Groups of reporters covering the summit were searching in vain for the elusive brigade. It turned out that the Soviet troops had been stationed near Havana from 1972, and that its placement was with the full knowledge of the U.S. Government.
A U.S. diplomat later said that the “brigade story” was a good example of how intelligence can be distorted and exploited by politicians to serve their own ends. In this case, the story did not serve anybody’s ends because it spluttered out like the damp squib that it was.
Kurt Waldheim, UN Secretary-General at the time, was under pressure not to attend the Havana summit but like Ban now he went, anyway, and delivered one of the opening addresses.
In a well-received speech, Waldheim noted: “This conference – your conference, ladies and gentlemen – can effectively encourage international understanding and cooperation and the workings of preventive diplomacy in order to avert new perils to peace. It can also stimulate a clearer understanding of the fundamental proposition that the well-being of nations is interdependent.”
Now, once again, with the current Secretary-General poised to attend the contemporary NAM summit, its location has again been causing uneasy rumbles as the following exchange at the State Department media briefing conducted by spokesperson Victoria Nuland on August 22 demonstrates:
“QUESTION: All right. Let’s start with Iran. The UN has just announced that Secretary-General Ban will go to the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran later this month. And I’m just wondering if you can think of a bigger display of diplomatic impotence than the head of the UN showing up in the capital of a country that has, (a) defied all UN Security Council demands over its nuclear program, and (b) called for the destruction of a UN member – another UN member, and (c) has, according to you guys – or is, according to you guys, the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world.
“MS. NULAND: Was there a question in there?
“QUESTION: Yeah. Is there – can you think of a bigger display of diplomatic impotence than the head of the UN showing up for this meeting?
“MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve talked about our view with regard to the NAM meeting a couple of times here, including earlier this week. I think I even said yesterday that we had concerns that Iran is going to manipulate this opportunity and the attendees, to try to deflect attention from its own failings. And we have the exact same concerns that you articulated, that this is a country that is in violation of all kinds of UN obligations and has been a destabilizing force.
“We hope that those who have chosen to attend, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, will make very strong points to those Iranians that they meet about their international obligations, about the opportunity that we’ve provided through the P-5+1 talks for them to begin to come clean on their nuclear program and to solve this particular issue diplomatically, and about all the other expectations that we all have of them.
“QUESTION: So does that mean you cannot think of a bigger sign of diplomatic impotence?
“MS. NULAND: Again, I don’t think I’m going to rise to your particular –.”
How great a burden today’s bureaucrats and media have to carry; almost as heavy as the “white man’s burden” of years gone by.
A burden of a different kind will be foisted on NAM16 participants: a draft declaration that is 168 pages long and contains 696 paragraphs. Can NAM’s leaders, known for their prolix approach to speech-making, delve into all the topics that interest them, and also move through the somewhat anodyne agenda drafted by the Iranians within the summit’s time span?
Will speakers in the plenary sessions of the summit be up to the challenge of observing the seven minute limit that the hosts plan to impose on each of them? These are the sessions in which heads of state or government or, in a few instances, their foreign ministers standing in for them, speak in the assembly hall but to their audiences at home.
At NAM15, the plenary ended half an hour ahead of schedule. Mubarak’s Egypt obviously knew how to run a meeting. (Gavel in hand and the bulge of their small arms showing through their clothing, perhaps?) If the time-bound precedent set at NAM15 endures, the movement would have really turned a corner. It would then have more time to deal with really pressing issues leaving conference trivia for committees, working groups, and the like.
Among the questions NAM has to address is the oft-repeated reservation about the relevance of non-alignment itself and thus of NAM, now that the cold war has ended. This question presupposes that non-alignment was solely an attempt by post-colonial societies to steer clear of big power competition and confrontation. It was partly that, of course, but it was more than that – which is why it remains relevant even with the cold war laid to rest.
Cold War recruits
Some post-colonial societies opted to volunteer as cold war recruits. Others, after years of their nations’ servitude and subservience, were not interested in fighting other people’s quarrels.
They had, for the most part, struggled over many years to win back the right to manage their domestic affairs. They were determined to protect the freedom to manage their foreign affairs as well.
Thus, it is fair to say that non-alignment as a concept and as a policy is an extension of national independence into the arena of international relations. Even (Tito’s) Yugoslavia, a strong exponent of non-alignment, although it did not share the colonial experience of, for instance, India, wished to uphold its right to make foreign policy decisions untrammeled by the dictates or desires of external forces.
India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, as always, spoke with clarity on this matter as far back as in 1946 when he said: “I am not prepared even as an individual, much less as the foreign minister of this country, to give up my right of independent judgment to anybody else in other countries. That is the essence of our policy.”
NAM is a coalition of nations subscribing to the foreign policy of independent judgment. Within that coalition, member-countries seek consensus – the closest possible convergence of views – and not head counting, on matters of mutual interest and of concern to the world at large.
In this mode, NAM countries have influenced international thinking on many issues including but not limited to: apartheid, decolonization, wars of national liberation, withdrawal of foreign forces from Indo-China, sovereignty over natural resources, food security, and the global development agenda.
Another set of issues worthy of consideration leading to independent judgment, fresh thinking and practical policies have been listed by the UN Secretary-General (see above). If NAM16 can grapple with these issues effectively, providing the wider global community (the host country included) with new insights, Ban’s visit to the summit would be truly worthwhile – and the people of Tehran will deserve the five-day holiday they have been granted while NAM16 is in business.
The writer has served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon ‘Daily News’ and the Ceylon ‘Observer’, and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore ‘Straits Times’. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.