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A successful summit

Published : Mar 28, 2003 00:00 IST

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The 13th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, held in Kuala Lumpur and attended by 112 nations, makes a strong case against the U.S. war rhetoric and also tendencies such as suppression of democracy and human rights.

in Kuala Lumpur

IF attendance was anything to go by, the 13th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), held in Kuala Lumpur in the last week of February, was a runaway success. The theme of the five-day summit was "Continuing the revitalisation of NAM''.

It is after a long gap that so many heads of state and government found the time to attend a NAM summit. An important that contributed to the high attendance was the near-imminent war in the Gulf.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, who has been open in his criticism of the United States' policies after September 11, urged NAM leaders to "take the moral high ground''. Speaking after taking over the NAM chairmanship from South African President Thabo Mbeki at the formal opening of the summit on February 24, Mahathir urged member-countries to wage a united struggle for the establishment of "a more equitable and just world order''.

What a visitor noticed first on arrival in Kuala Lumpur were the huge banners and posters denouncing the U.S. war plan. A day before the summit formally opened, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), the party headed by Mahathir, organised the biggest ever peace rally in the Malaysian capital in recent years. More than 2,00,000 Malaysians participated in the rally, at which the Prime Minister gave yet another impassioned speech against a possible war on Iraq.

Mahathir elaborated on the theme at the inaugural session of NAM. "Unless we take the moral high ground, we shall wait in vain for the powerful North to give up voluntarily slaughtering people in the name of the national interest,'' he said. In a brutally frank speech, which was heard by his fellow heads of state in rapt attention, he said that the condition of the world had deteriorated since the end of the Cold War.

Mahathir said that in the post-Cold War era, oppression and injustice were not confined to waging wars. "We are now allowed only a democratic system of government. We admit it is by far the best system of government. But applying sanctions, starving people, denying access to medicine in order to force the acceptance of democracy hardly seems to be democratic,'' he said. He went on to add that it was the rich nations which lacked transparency and showed disrespect to human rights. "How else can we interpret the operations of the hedge funds and the currency traders, sanctions and the systematic bombings of certain countries, the impoverishment of the already poor, and the censorship of news as well as distorted and fabricated reports about the South?'' he asked.

Earlier, while inaugurating the new NAM Business Forum, Mahathir was even more blunt in his criticism of the West. He said that the impending war against Iraq and the failure to act against North Korea, which has admitted to possessing weapons of mass destruction, showed that "it is a war against Muslims and not against the fear of possession of weapons of mass destruction by the so-called rogue nations''.

Not all the criticism of the new NAM Chairman were directed at the North. He said that the South had itself to blame for many of its problems. "We have not used our independence and freedom to develop our countries for the good of our people. Instead, we have been busy overthrowing our governments, setting up new governments, which in turn would be overthrown. We have killed our own people by the millions. And frequently, frustrated by anarchic democracy, we resort to autocratic governments, exposing ourselves to much vilification.''

Mahathir said that NAM members should be the first to admit that the grouping has not been as effective as it should have been. He implied that many countries want to remain uninvolved so as to "avoid incurring the displeasure of the powerful countries''. This attitude was evident during the ministerial meetings that preceded the NAM summit. Some NAM members, who in the 1960s and 1970s revelled in anti-Western posturing, adopted a low profile when the burning issues of the day such as Iraq, Palestine and North Korea came up for discussion.

Among the countries that seemed ambivalent on Iraq were India and Pakistan. Their position seemed more in conformity with that of the "Group of Rio'', whose prominent members are Peru and Chile. This group while formally calling for a peaceful resolution of the crisis over Iraq, said that it would, however, agree to the use of force if Iraq failed to comply with the United Nations Security Council resolution 1441. Indian and Pakistani officials also say that though they are against the unilateral use of force against Iraq, they want Iraq to implement U.N. Security Council resolutions. The pro-American positions of countries such as the Philippines and Singapore were barely disguised.

A consensus on the Iraq crisis was duly achieved and a separate NAM statement on Iraq was issued at the conclusion of the summit. The leaders expressed their concern at "the precarious and rapidly deteriorating'' situation in Iraq while reiterating their stand on finding a peaceful solution to the crisis. The statement emphasised NAM's respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence and security of all U.N. members.

The leaders also welcomed the decision of Iraq to facilitate the unconditional return of U.N. weapons inspectors and cooperate with them under the terms of Resolution 1441 and other relevant Security Council resolutions. The NAM leaders also emphasised that the current disarmament effort in Iraq should not be an end in itself but should constitute a step towards the lifting of the sanctions in accordance with Security Council Resolution 687. Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadhan, who represented his country at the summit, requested the NAM "troika'' consisting of Malaysia, Cuba and South Africa, to send a fact-finding mission to Baghdad to certify that Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction.

MANY NAM members, especially Arab countries, wanted to label Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories as "war crimes''. However, this terminology was vociferously opposed by some NAM members. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat could not attend the summit as the Israeli authorities had refused to guarantee his right of return to his homeland. However, in a videotaped message to the NAM leaders, Arafat called upon them to send a fact-finding mission to Palestine. He also said that the "criminal campaign'' of the Israeli authorities included extrajudicial executions, excessive and indiscriminate use of force, practices of demolition and destruction, imprisonment and a suffocating siege. A separate statement on Palestine was issued at the end of the summit. The statement expressed the hope of NAM members for a peaceful but early solution to the long-drawn-out conflict in West Asia while identifying Israel's unilateral actions and policies as the main stumbling block to peace and justice in the region.

Mahathir was not the only leader to launch a frontal attack on the hypocritical policies of the West. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has been subjected to serious destabilisation efforts by the West in recent times, said that Washington was trying to revive colonialism. Mugabe said that the U.S., along with Britain and some other Western countries, had turned into "ferocious hunting bulldogs, raring to go, as they sniff for Third World blood''.

Mugabe said that the U.N. Charter, the sovereignty of nations and the concept of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, are being "desecrated by the day''. In his address at the NAM plenary session, the old revolutionary, who had waged a guerilla struggle to free his country from colonialism, said that "(George) Bush and (Tony) Blair have apparently developed similar warlike dispositions derived from similar ideologies of new imperialism''.

Cuban President Fidel Castro, rather uncharacteristically, made a short but incisive speech. Castro maintained a low profile, preferring not to take the spotlight away from his host and good friend, Dr. Mahathir. Cuba will host the next NAM summit. It will be the second time that Cuba will have the privilege of hosting Third World leaders. Cuban diplomats have been assiduously working behind the scenes to strengthen and revitalise NAM. Unfortunately, some NAM members view Cuba's activism with suspicion. The Cuban government has been stressing that the issue of terrorism should not be viewed in isolation but should be linked to social and economic issues like poverty and debt.

Castro, in his address reminded the assembled leaders about the recent "scary words and statements'' of U.S. President George W. Bush. He quoted from Bush's speech in June last year, in which he stated that the U.S. military "must be ready to strike at a moment's notice in any dark corner of the world''. The Cuban leader said that the U.S. President had on the same day proclaimed "the doctrine of a pre-emptive strike, something which no one has ever done in the political history of the world''. Castro said that the "dark corners'' of the world to which Bush referred to are Third World nations. "That is the perception some have of Third World nations. Never before had anyone offered a better definition; no one had shown such despise.'' He pointed out that the threat of pre-emptive strike was not being made by any small or weak nation but by a country that possesses thousands of nuclear weapons, which were "enough to obliterate the world population several times over''.

The Cuban leader listed the woes faced by developing countries today. He said: "Authority is snatched from the United Nations, its established procedures are obstructed, and the Organisation itself is destroyed; development assistance is reduced; there are continuous demands from Third World countries to pay a $2.5-trillion debt that cannot be paid under the present circumstances while one trillion dollars is spent on ever more sophisticated and deadly weapons.'' Castro emphasised that for the first time the human race was running the real risk of extinction. "Only we can save humanity ourselves... by sowing ideas, building awareness and mobilising the world public opinion and the American public opinion... Our most sacred duty is to fight, and fight we will.''

Iranian President Mohammed Khatami spoke in favour of a "dialogue of civilisations and cultures'' while setting aside "the logic rooted in fear and fright''. He emphasised that the voice of violence and war, ''whether coming from the hideouts of terrorists or from the palaces of politics, or even from those preaching from the position of world supremacy, is neither acceptable nor sustainable''.

Khatami said that an attack on Iraq "will subject the suffering people of Iraq to immeasurable further suffering; will endanger the stability and security of our sensitive area; will create instability in this strategic region; will certainly bring in its wake a host of environmental consequences; and last but not least, it will create a humanitarian catastrophe for the neighbouring countries''.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo stressed that the fight against international terrorism must involve all members of the international community and should be conducted in conformity with the principles of the U.N. Charter and international law. He wanted NAM to intensify its search for collective action to reduce violent conflicts, by utilising available NAM mechanisms for the prevention and peaceful resolution of disputes, within and among member-states. To bolster his argument, he gave examples of sub-regional and regional efforts in Africa that have helped to resolve conflicts peacefully. Regional African groupings such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have helped resolve conflicts in the recent past under the banner of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). He also acknowledged the supportive role played by the U.N. in these endeavours.

Many NAM countries, including Pakistan, wanted a paragraph on intra-NAM conflict resolution to be inserted in the Final Declaration. These countries feel that NAM can play a meaningful role in sorting out regional conflicts.

However, India's Foreign Secretary Kanwar Sibal is of the view that the African scenario cannot be replicated in South Asia where the influence of regional groupings such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is minimal. He said that involving NAM in conflict resolution activities would be a "negative step''. New Delhi also seems to have a more hardline stance on terrorism than most NAM members who feel that social and economic disparities are contributory factors fuelling the growth of terrorism. Indian officials say that poverty cannot be cited to justify terrorism in any form. "Poverty will not be eradicated for another hundred years. Does that mean we should tolerate terrorism for that long?'' asked a senior Indian official.

The crisis in the Korean peninsula was another important issue that came up for discussion at the NAM meet. The disarmament working group, which functions under the political committee of NAM, spent considerable time debating Pyongyang's draft proposal, which stated that the removal of the constant threats from the U.S. against their country constituted a pre-condition for ensuring stability, peace and security in the Korean peninsula. However, the majority view in the working group was that North Korea's nuclear facilities and programmes be supervised under the Convention on Nuclear Safety. This was unacceptable to Pyongyang which formally confirmed at Kuala Lumpur that it had withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) "to cope with the grave situation in which its supreme interests'' were threatened by the U.S.

"The Kuala Lumpur Declaration on continuing the Revitalisation of the Non-Aligned Movement'', a six-page document, called on the members to adopt a more proactive stance on international issues in order to strengthen multilateralism in conflict resolution. The leaders from the 112 nations agreed to exert every effort necessary to strengthen the U.N. as an "indispensable international organisation'' for the maintenance of international peace and security. "Conflicts among states should only be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy,'' the Declaration said.

It stressed the importance of establishing a just and more equitable world order. "With the end of the Cold War and the emergence of unipolarity, the trend towards unilateralism and the rise of new challenges and threats, such as international terrorism, it is imperative for the movement to promote multilateralism, better defend the interests of developing countries and prevent their marginalisation,'' the Declaration read. Timor Leste along with St. Vincent and the Grenadines, were the two new members admitted into the Movement, at the summit.

It was clear in Kuala Lumpur that the majority of the NAM members were keen to revitalise the movement. But some countries like India are evidently not too enthused. The Indian Foreign Secretary said that agreeing on a common agenda was a very difficult for an organisation such as NAM. "NAM is like the U.N. It is difficult to reconcile viewpoints. It is not an easy task to revitalise NAM. Some countries have their pet agendas,'' said Kanwar Sibal. He also cautioned against NAM taking ideological positions. The tough anti-American rhetoric that echoed in Kuala Lumpur was evidently not much to the liking of Indian officials. Sibal said that NAM still did not have "a clear road map'' and lacked the relevance it had during the Cold War days. "India is now recognised as a pole in a multi-polar world, with many countries wanting to establish strategic relations with it. Our relations with NAM will have to be pragmatic, not ideological,'' he said.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Mar 28, 2003.)

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