Does the Non-Aligned Movement Still Matter?

With Iran taking over the three-year term of the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement (N.A.M.) at the end of August 2012, the question arises: does the Non-Aligned Movement still matter in world politics and how will Iran use the presidency?

At the time of its founding at the Bandung Conference in April 1955, the major world powers were aligned in Soviet and US-led blocs.  The war in Korea had recently ended in an armistice with the same frontiers as at the start but could have been the forerunner of a world war. The French war in Indochina had ended with independence of the three Indochina states, but a new independence conflict had just started in Algeria. Basically Bandung marked the end of formal colonialism. As Sir John Kotelawala, Premier of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), said at the end of the conference “Bandung will be a name to reverberate in history and earn the gratitude and blessings of ages to come.”

For fear that the new Non-Aligned Movement might supplement or weaken the United Nations, no implementary organization was set up.  Later, the pattern of three-year rotating presidency was developed, but without a permanent secretariat.  The country holding the presidency offers its own diplomats and civil servants to carry on Non-Aligned tasks.  The outgoing presidency — Egypt — was so taken up with its own political changes that it virtually played no role on behalf of the N.A.M.. Will Iran be able to do more than use the prestige of the Movement to defend its own interests?

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will become the N.A.M. representative for its 118 members. His first presentation will be to the United Nations General Assembly in September.  His talk should be analyzed closely to see if his presentation goes beyond the usual Iranian positions to be more inclusive of the interests of the N.A.M. members.  A large conference at the end of August in Tehran will be the formal start of Iran’s presidency.  Some Iranian leaders have called for the creation of a permanent secretariat.  Thus it will be important to note what structural reforms are made within the N.A.M.

While in 1955, the idea of a “third camp” was a possibility — a wedge of sanity and restraint between the two atomic giants — now there are real conflicts of interest among the N.A.M. members, the conflict in Syria being a prime example, along with differing territorial claims within the South China Sea among China and its neighbors.

Iran itself is at the center of an international storm, and it is not clear if its diplomats and political leaders will have the energy to deal with the host of current conflicts among N.A.M. states as well as making propositions concerning the important economic, financial and ecological issues that the world faces.  Moreover, the N.A.M. states are members of regional, intergovernmental organizations and therefore look less to N.A.M. leadership to structure economic and cultural cooperation.

Yet the N.A.M. does provide a structure for states and a large percentage of the people of the world.  N.A.M. leadership has had an erratic relation with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — sometimes encouraging their participation in meetings and programs and at other times ignoring them completely. Without a permanent secretariat, the N.A.M. has not developed the sort of consultative status that the United Nations has with NGOs. The Indian government at one stage had encouraged NGO-related activities within the N.A.M. Given the challenges facing the Iranian presidency of the N.A.M. it would be useful for NGOs to propose a more structured and formal relation with the N.A.M. especially if a permanent secretariat is created.