Not many seem to have noticed it; nor would any to have missed the news; but the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) began its 17th Heads of Government summit yesterday. Sri Lanka, a one-time chairperson of the now 120-member nation Movement, the second largest grouping to the United Nations Organisation, was not represented by either the President [...]


Non Alignment: Will Lanka abandon principles


Not many seem to have noticed it; nor would any to have missed the news; but the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) began its 17th Heads of Government summit yesterday.

Sri Lanka, a one-time chairperson of the now 120-member nation Movement, the second largest grouping to the United Nations Organisation, was not represented by either the President or the Prime Minister, nor the Foreign Minister who instead was in the US capital speaking at a seminar on the Oceans. Sri Lanka was represented by only a wanna-be Foreign Minister clearly sending a strong signal that the Movement had served its purpose, outlived its usefulness and was of little significance to the country anymore.

Once a front-line member of the Movement, Sri Lanka opted for the non-aligned path in the country’s foreign policy since its inception in 1961 on the back of its predecessor, the Afro-Asian Solidarity Movement. In 1976, Sri Lanka became the Chairperson of the Movement, the zenith of its stature in world affairs and in the thick of the ‘Cold War’ between the then super-powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Former President J.R. Jayewardene who privately said that there were only two non- aligned countries in the world and named the United States and the former Soviet Union, publicly said that non-alignment was “the silver thread than ran through Sri Lanka’s foreign policy”. Has Sri Lanka exited the Movement for all intents and purposes, and even more so, abandoned its long cherished non-aligned principles in its foreign policy?

This year’s summit was in Venezuela, with a Government that is rabidly anti-US on the one hand, and on the other, economically in ruin, with a population overflowing to neighbouring Colombia in search of food. The Venezuelan Government has had to shift the conference to the isolated Margarita island so that mass protests could be avoided around the venue. That bad is the situation in that country.

When Sri Lanka hosted the NAM summit, the domestic situation was not a picture of prosperity either. The economy was in shambles. Shortages were galore; textile queues, rice rations, exchange controls – and the Government of the day faced angry public criticism that while the people were starving, the Government was hosting a ‘Beggars Banquet’, an unkind reference to the leaders of several poor nations attending and being hosted to gala dinners.

The Non-Alignment principles however survived in Sri Lanka, as did the ‘Cold War’. In 1979, Sri Lanka passed the baton to Cuba, not the most non-aligned of nations given its long battles with the United States. The NAM’s last chairperson was Iran, another virulently anti-US country. Sri Lanka’s then President urged his soul-mate the Iranian President to establish a ‘New World Order’ without spelling what it was, but Iran was too embattled with US-imposed sanctions to care about giving leadership to NAM.
What then is Sri Lanka’s foreign policy? The post-January 2015 Government has realigned the anti-West stance adopted by its predecessor, and in the process also reset its one-time criticism of China, hugging that country at least with one arm when the previous Government did it with both.

The Prime Minister spelt out his approach to foreign policy in a recent speech in Singapore on the subject of the Indian Ocean (ST2 cover page of September 4) – which is the most strategically important aspect of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, where he called for a ‘New Indian Ocean Order’ where no one nation-state in and around its waters plays a dominant role. That should indicate a Non-Aligned foreign policy.

And yet, does it all mean that Sri Lanka has ended its affiliation with the Non-Aligned Movement – 55 years after it was founded?

…and the world, the Movement
Does Sri Lanka’s distancing itself from the Non-Aligned Movement with its secondary presence at the summit in Venezuela this week, together with the absence of the Indian PM and many other Heads of Government – even the UN Secretary General giving it a skip this time — mean it is the end of the road for the Movement?

NAM was born in the height of the post-World War II ‘Cold War’ period when a host of nations in Asia and Africa regained their Independence. The common history of centuries of colonial rule and the oppression that came with it, brought the Nehrus, Nkrumahs, Titos, Sukarnos, Nassers and our own Kotelawelas and Bandaranaikes together.

If the Non-Aligned Movement was to tackle the post-colonial political issues, the momentum it gathered in the 1960s and the 1970s saw the collective bargaining on economic issues through what was known as the North-South dialogue; the pressing for a better deal for the poor South from the rich North. The vehicle for these changes was the United Nations which was then seen as the protector of the weak and the meek.

The Group of 77 (countries) sprouted, pressed the arguments on behalf of these newly independent countries. They became a formidable economic force to be reckoned with. This saw the emergence of UN agencies like the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the like. Sri Lanka played a major part in this period of contemporary world history. Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike moved for the creation of the World Fertilizer Fund (WFF) in Rome, which Sri Lanka co-sponsored later in a joint resolution with New Zealand at the UN General Assembly in New York in 1974. It was to create an international fertilizer supply scheme managed by the UN agency, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Alas, as Leelananda de Silva, an eminent public servant of yesteryear who served the Sri Lankan Government and the UN for 35 years later says in a book he has just released, these Third World initiatives did not last long as the economically developed world of the North kept opposing and obstructing these initiatives, and countries of the economically developing South kept abandoning the principles of joint action and solidarity to curry favour individually with the countries of the North.

This week, a British Parliamentary Committee report found the then British PM David Cameron and the then French President Nicolas Sarkozy guilty of making a mess of the military intervention in Libya in 2011. Earlier, the Chilcot report found ex-British PM Tony Blair and the then US President George W. Bush Jnr., invading Iraq illegally; all of them jointly and severally have brought continued suffering to the world in general and West Asia in particular. The Non-Aligned Movement’s collective voice is mute in the face of all that is happening to many of its member-states except for the many resolutions that would be passed in Venezuela this week.

On the economic front too, UNCTAD and like-minded Third World-led initiatives have given way to the West-dominated World Trade Organisation (WTO) and more of its ilk. With the emasculation of the Non-Aligned Movement, just when most of its members see the UN being dominated by the West, and when its collective strength is most needed, the motto applicable to the Movement of “All for One, One for All’, now seems more like “Each for Itself, and God for All”.

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