Shannon Ebrahim: NAM is more relevant now

The Non-Aligned Movement’s value lies in the solidarity among developing countries behind issues of critical concern, says Shannon Ebrahim.

Johannesburg - The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is more relevant now than it has been since the struggle against colonialism. It is developing countries that suffer most from illegal invasions, foreign occupation, imperialist policies, big power hegemony and efforts at regime change. These are the issues NAM was established to take a stand against.

Delegates attend the Non-Aligned Movement in Porlamar, Venezuela, this week. Credit: AP

The fact that only about nine heads of state out of the 120 NAM members attended this week’s NAM Summit in Venezuela does not suggest that the body is losing relevance, but merely that heads of state prioritised attending the UN General Assembly in New York, while most sent their foreign ministers to the NAM Summit. South Africa did exactly that, and we are one of the most vocal supporters of NAM.

The heads of state who attended the NAM summit happen to be countries that are perceived to have an anti-Western orientation such as Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Bolivia, Ecuador, Salvador, Zimbabwe and Palestine. These are perhaps the countries most aggrieved at the injustices and double standards existing in international relations. They believe that the US through its hegemony has tried to divide social movements in Latin America, bring down governments with independent foreign policies and deny those struggling against colonialism and occupation their right to self-determination.

But while these countries are fervent supporters of the role NAM can play in terms of international solidarity, NAM is more than the sum of those eight leaders.

NAM is the second largest grouping after the UN, comprising two-thirds of the members of the UN general assembly. For the most part, these countries have remained steadfast to the group’s founding principles since 1961.

Through the years, NAM has been criticised for being nothing more than a talk shop, but its value lies in the solidarity among developing countries behind issues of critical concern.

The forum provides countries the opportunity to unite behind common positions and form a core bloc within the UN system.

This may not have proved to be as useful as it should have been within the UN over the past few decades, but that is due to the fact that the reform of UN decision-making structures is long overdue.

Were UN decision-making to be democratised and made more representative of its membership, the positions NAM members take on key international issues would be pushed to the forefront of the UN agenda of actionable priorities.

For as long as the UN Security Council reflects the balance of power as it existed in 1945, the less the bulk of the UN’s membership, which also happens to be NAM’s membership, can influence the maintenance of peace and security in the world. The proposals for the reform of the UN Security Council continue to go around in circles, never amounting to any change to the status quo, as none of the permanent five want to see their power in global decision making diluted.

As global political alliances shift, so does the commitment of some key NAM members to the grouping. India, for example, was one of the founding members of the NAM, and its prime ministers have never skipped a NAM Summit, other than once in 1979.

Over the past five decades, India has effectively used its leverage within the grouping to further its foreign policy objectives, and fight for the right of developing countries.

But India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi strategically chose not to attend the NAM Summit this year, probably out of deference to his newest ally - the US. India’s Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar articulated the rationale behind India’s shift away from NAM recently when he said: “Blocs and alliances are less relevant today, as the world is moving towards a loosely arranged order.”

But it was Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa who probably expressed it best when he referred to NAM’s strategic importance by highlighting the fact that: “NAM countries have always faced oppression and marginalisation.”

It is for this reason that the developing world needs forums such as NAM to strategise and support each other.

Even if NAM has repeated its demand that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories for possibly the 55th time, the call still needs to be made as the situation continues to deteriorate for the Palestinians.

The expansion of Israeli settlements, the demolition of houses, collective punishment and the illegal blockade of Gaza all need to be condemned, and they were in this week’s final NAM declaration.

Similarly, calls were made for the total ending of the economic blockade against Cuba, the return of Guantanamo Bay to Cuba, as well as the call for the self-determination for Western Sahara.

The day these calls cease to be made is the day we will have accepted the defeat of freedom-loving people.