Explainer: the Non-Aligned Movement in the 21st century

Members of the Non-Aligned Movement meet at the session of the 17th summit of heads of state and government. DIRCO

When the Cold War started in the mid-twentieth century, the two world powers - the Soviet Union and US - responded by organising their allies into rival military alliances. The US founded the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and shorter-lived alliances. The Soviet Union founded the Warsaw Pact.

Another response among some underdeveloped countries of the third world was neutrality. Presidents Sukarno of Indonesia, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Josip Tito of Yugoslavia and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India co-hosted the Bandung Conference of 1955. They invited all governments who did not wish to join one of those two world power alliances.

The conference’s main themes were peaceful coexistence, and independence from colonialism and imperialism.

Joined by President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, they met again in Belgrade in 1961. This meeting is conventionally seen as the start of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). We should carefully note the name “movement”. The NAM never became an organisation in the sense of the African Union, nor even the Commonwealth of Nations. NAM comprised only what its official name said: Conference of Heads of State or Government of Non-Aligned Countries.

While the loudest current rhetoric from the NAM is anti-west, its member governments show great ideological diversity across the spectrum. Both conservative Columbia and leftist Venezuela have recently hosted NAM conferences. So have pro-western Malaysia and socialist Cuba. But a third world nationalism and opposition to western hegemony is perhaps the most consistent theme of NAM statements.

Principles and contradictions

A conference - in this case the XVII summit of the heads of state and government of the Non-Aligned Movement - can do no more than issue media communiqués. The NAM has merely a modest coordinating office adjacent to the United Nations in New York, and even its conferences are three years or more apart.

Its member states enjoy cohesion on few issues. Historically, their heterogeneity ranged from absolute monarchs to socialist presidents. Some voted with France and NATO in the United Nations on most issues; others, such as Cuba, tilted towards the late Soviet Union.

India and Pakistan fought four wars against each other; Iraq and Iran one. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, this sharply divided Muslim countries from Cuba and its friends. Muslim governments opposed the Soviet invasion; Cuba supported the Soviet intervention.

What tended to unite them was that almost all were ex-colonies. So the only NAM members in Europe were the islands of Cyprus and Malta. They resigned from the NAM when admitted to the European Union (EU). Today, Belarus is the only European member. By contrast, every state in Africa, bar the newest, South Sudan, is a member. A significant proportion of South American, Caribbean, and south Asian states make up the rest of the members.

The Bandung principles and those of the NAM reiterated peaceful settlement of international disputes; abstention from joining big power alliances and opposition to military bases in foreign countries.

They had the contradiction of respect for human rights versus abstention from intervention in other countries’ internal affairs. This of course meant that there could not even be resolutions condemning human rights violations in any NAM country.

The NAM anti-colonialism principle meant it gave full support to the armed struggles against settler Rhodesia, as well as apartheid Namibia and South Africa.

When the disintegration of the Soviet Union into 15 countries marked the end of the Cold War, many observers presumed that the NAM would wind itself up. What could its members now be non-aligned to? The answer turned out to be: non-aligned to the remaining world power – the US and its western allies.

Non-alignment today

The best way to get a sense of the NAM in the 21st century is to summarise its media communiqué at the end of its 17th summit which was hosted in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. This laid out its objectives as

  • strengthening and revitalisation of the NAM;

  • strengthening international peace and security;

  • the right to self-determination. The only case specified is a demand to end Israeli occupation of Palestine’s West Bank and East Jerusalem, and an end to Israeli occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights.

  • disarmament and a nuclear-free Middle East (here, Israel and its A-bomb stockpile were not mentioned by name);

  • the protection and promotion of Human Rights and the principles of the United Nations Charter;

  • condemnation of terrorism, including specifically Da-esh, Boko Haram and al-Shabbab, and condemning the destruction of cultural heritage and religious sites.

The communiqué also called for a dialogue amongst civilisations, to respect religious, social and cultural diversity.

A view on global governance

Another theme was for reform in global governance. This included reform of the UN by strengthening the powers of the General Assembly, reforming the Security Council, and the need for geographic rotation and gender equality in choosing the Secretary-General.

The resolution also called for reform of the international financial institutions, the Bretton Woods twins of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Climate change and refugees and migrants were amongst the topical issues also addressed.

We may safely assume that these last topics will continue to define lobbying by NAM members in future. More precisely, NAM does not have a lobbying corps. It will be its members – individually, multilaterally, and through organisations such as the African Union, Association of South-East Asian Nations and the Union of South American Nations – who will seek to contest these issues in the forums of global governance.

The Conversation

Keith Gottschalk is affiliated with the African National Congress. He writes this commentary in his individual capacity.