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Non-Aligned Movement Poised to Take Action

By Kaveh Afrasiabi

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) received a timely uplift at its recent summit in Tehran, which featured more than 60 world leaders including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi. The NAM is now poised to tackle the labyrinthine priority issues reflected in the newly minted “Tehran Declaration” and “Tehran Plan of Action” documents, drafted at the summit.

Guided by a rotating presidency, four regional groups, a New York coordinating bureau, a joint coordinating committee with G-77+ China, and six working committees covering such issues as UN reform, disarmament, and human rights, the NAM was originally founded during the throes of the Cold War to help independent states preserve their sovereignty and security despite the aggressively expansionist aims of the Eastern and Western blocs. Today, the NAM is proving its relevance in the post-Cold War global order by acting as a check on Western interests and priorities and pursuing the lofty objective of increasing the input of developing nations in the hierarchy of  “global management.” 

The “Tehran Declaration” and “Tehran Plan of Action” documents, adopted unanimously at the Tehran summit, underscore the NAM’s determination to disprove its (mostly Western) critics who insist that with the end of Cold War bipolarity, the organization has lost its raison d’etre and in effect turned into a “bacchanal of nonsense,” to quote a recent Washington Post editorial. On the contrary, there is no doubt on the part of the NAM nations—comprising some two-thirds of UN member states—that NAM’s star is on the rise. On global issues including UN reform, Palestine, nuclear weapons, and others, NAM must be taken more seriously in the West.

One reason the NAM enjoys sustained momentum today pertains to the growing asymmetry of power and influence in the international organizations favoring the so-called “North” countries, i.e., the advanced Western industrialized nations. In response, the NAM advocates the “democratization effect.” Case in point is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose 35-member governing body was criticized at the Tehran summit for being unduly influenced by Western nations and “unrepresentative of the geographical distribution” of IAEA membership. Thus, reforming the IAEA and democratizing its decision-making structure goes hand in hand with NAM’s unanimous support of Iran’s “inalienable nuclear rights” crystallized in the various NAM statements on the IAEA as well as in the NAM Tehran statement. 

Simultaneously, under the new “activist” leadership of Iran during the next three years, the NAM aims to bolster its role as a force for peace by condemning military threats against Iran and advocating for the peaceful settlement of disputes, thus providing a protective shield for an Iran menaced by threats as well as “crippling sanctions.” This is in line with the NAM’s founding principles of non-aggression, opposition to foreign occupation, and support for the independence and sovereignty of its members.  

In the broad range of issues prioritized by the NAM’s sixteenth summit in Tehran, salient topics include UN reform, the Palestinian issue, and a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone. These are priority issues for Tehran, particularly in light of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s opening speech, which endorsed a nuclear weapons-free zone while forcefully denouncing the stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction. Khamenei also voiced his support for the Palestinians—a sentiment echoed by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and others who deplored Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners. The Tehran summit produced two declarations on the Palestinian issue, which endorsed Palestinian statehood at the UN and called for the release of all Palestinian prisoners, the lifting of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and a return to the pre-1967 borders (i.e., an implicit recognition of the “two state solution”).

Undoubtedly, the NAM summit and the ability of PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas to participate and network with the participants—including his Iranian hosts—gave a boost to the Palestinian cause. It’s momentum Palestinians hope to capitalize on at the UN General Assembly gathering in September. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, expressed hope that the Tehran summit’s prioritization of the Palestinians will be a lesson to the world, providing a contrast to Israel’s strategy of prioritizing the Iranian nuclear threat to the exclusion of all other issues. It remains to be seen how these two issues will be played out in the UN and beyond this fall, given the complex interaction between the two issues and their respective policy demands.  

With respect to the thorny issue of UN reform in general and UN Security Council reform in particular, the NAM advocates in favor of India’s inclusion as a permanent member of the Council. India’s leadership was evidenced by the country’s high visibility at the Tehran NAM summit: Singh headed the largest delegation of any NAM member. Recognizing the growing importance of the UN’s NAM coalition in the organization’s political process, New Delhi hopes to capitalize on its NAM role in its on-going effort to gain veto power in the Security Council, a smart ‘soft power’ move India may well succeed, particularly if it resolves some of its problems with neighboring Pakistan and enhances its image as a regional and international force for peace, instead of as another “hegemon on the rise.” Perhaps India has understood better than most other NAM members the simple yet delicate point that reforming and revitalizing the NAM is a sine qua non for any meaningful UN reform. Reform must contain an economic dimension as well, pertaining to the enhancement of the UN’s economic arms, UNCTAD and ECOSOC, as well as addressing the burning issues of poverty, debt reduction, technology transfer, ecology, global participatory management, and so on. On all these issues, India can prove a valuable asset to the NAM’s principal objectives and plans of action.   

When it comes to UN reform, the two issues of UN structure and process are often conflated. However, from NAM’s  point of view, it is important to separate the two issues for the simple fact that while reforming the UN structure and decision-making framework may be an arduous task, it may be considerably easier to influence UN processes thanks to NAM’s ability to perform as an inspiring “voting bloc” at various UN organs and agencies like the General Assembly and Human Rights Council. In effect, this means using NAM’s collective clout to contest big power politics at the UN and other international organizations and transform them into “contested terrains” rather than “instruments of hegemony” pure and simple.  

Undoubtedly, an important prerequisite for successful NAM-based initiatives is unity of purpose, which is difficult to achieve given the diversity of interests among the NAM’s 120 members, some of whom share close relations with the US and other Western powers. With the pro and anti-West cleavages hampering NAM’s ability to mount a concerted effort, the challenge facing the “new NAM” today is actually an old one, i.e., how to create a “unity of needs” by tapping into common denominators such as non-aggression, independence, etc. There is no abstract solution, and this problem should be tackled on an issue-by-issue basis. Still, what has prompted the NAM’s political leaders to continue vesting hope in the future of their movement is their certainty about the insufficiency of the current global order to tackle the various issues—of peace, development, and decision-making participation, among others—that are a priority in today’s world, and their faith in NAM’s historic role in finding proper solutions for the problems besetting our globalized world.

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Kaveh Afrasiabi is a former political science professor at Tehran University and author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy and international affairs, including After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy and UN Management Reform.

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