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World: Non-Aligned Nations Meet In South Africa --- But Does The World Care?

Foreign ministers of the Non-Aligned Movement are meeting in South Africa this week for their annual conference. Founded by some of the world's leading statesmen, including India's Jawaharlal Nehru and Yugoslavia's Josip Tito, the Non-Aligned Movement was a high-profile organization during the Cold War. But few follow its proceedings these days. Does the Non-Aligned Movement still have a mission? Who are its leaders today and what are they discussing?

Prague, 18 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "Non-Aligned Movement? No, I'm afraid I deal with the major powers. You know: the U.S., Russia, Britain. I can't tell you much about Third World politics."

That was the reaction of one international affairs expert RFE/RL contacted for some analysis of this week's annual conference of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). It is perhaps a measure of the loss of prestige of an organization that once counted some of the world's great politicians as members.

The Non-Aligned Movement, created at the height of the Cold War in 1961, aimed to act as a counterweight to Western states and the Soviet bloc and to safeguard its members' independence at time when most nations were being forced to take sides in the Cold War. Another aim included mediating in the superpower conflict and working to prevent a nuclear conflagration.

Its founders included heroes of the anticolonial struggle in Asia and Africa, such as Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, and Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, as well as Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Yugoslavia's Josip Tito hosted the group's inaugural meeting in Belgrade.

Greg Austin is an international affairs expert at the London-based Foreign Policy Center, an independent think tank. "I think it [NAM] was important for giving weaker and poorer countries a sense of solidarity and a sense of security that there was some way of organizing in opposition to the very destructive policies -- or the more destructive policies -- in developing countries of superpowers like the USSR and the USA. I think that was important then and remains important even though the world has shifted from an era of significant arms exports by the superpowers to fuel internal conflicts, to an era where trade issues and trade sensitivities are much more important to the majority of developing countries," Austin told RFE/RL.

Few expected NAM to continue after the Cold War. Many questioned the rationale for its existence. But it did continue -- and even expanded its membership -- by staking its claim to such issues as globalization, conflict resolution, and economic development and cooperation among members.

Today, 117 nations are officially members of the Non-Aligned Movement -- including three post-Soviet states: Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- and its representatives are meeting this week in the South African city of Durban.

The standoff between East and West may be over, but the Foreign Policy Center's Austin said NAM still has a role to play in a world divided between rich nations that drive global policies and poor nations that feel left out.

Elizabeth Sidiropoulos of the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg agrees. She told RFE/RL that the issues being discussed at the forum -- third-world debt relief, trade tariffs, the Mideast crisis, Iraq -- highlight frustration felt by countries in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia that their voices are not heard in Washington and other capitals of the "rich" world.

The problem is that the larger the forum, the more difficult it becomes for countries to agree on common positions. With so many members, the Non-Aligned Movement, Sidiropoulos said, has little chance of agreeing on anything beyond platitudes. She cited the example of last year's failed World Trade Organization talks in Cancun, Mexico, where even 20 developing countries had difficulty uniting.

"If one looks at the case of the group of 20-plus countries in Cancun a year ago, where you had a relatively small number of developing countries and even there, there was difficulty in agreeing to a common agenda and what the negotiating issues should be within the World Trade Organization. So within such a widely representative body, it is very difficult to arrive at common issues beyond something that is very vague, like creating greater global equity in international institutions," Sidiropoulos said.

South Africa is the current leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. It has been a vocal critic of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and much of the debate at this year's conference has been tinged with anti-U.S. rhetoric.

South African Deputy Foreign Minister Sue van der Merwe implicitly criticized the United States when she addressed conference delegates today. She said some countries were pursuing unilateralist policies that involved "increasing meddling" in the affairs of developing countries -- reminding her of the colonial era.

Sidiropoulos said mere polemics are not going to help anyone -- least of all developing countries. She advises NAM members, if they want to create an effective movement, to focus on areas where they can take positive action. "There isn't always the necessary examination and analysis and a more in-depth examination of some of the potential causes of problems -- whether one looks at Islamic fundamentalism or terrorism more broadly or the actions of poor governance in developing countries," she said. "There isn't sufficient focus given to those a lot of the time because it's very easy to criticize and to use the labeling and rhetoric of the past in terms of neocolonialism and domination and imperialism, etc. And that certainly doesn't do any favors to anybody."

To be fair, NAM's members would likely disagree with that sentiment.

At last's year's annual conference in Malaysia, the movement underscored the need to study and understand the causes of terrorism. And Sri Lanka is reportedly leading a NAM bid to forge a global Convention on Terrorism that could be approved by the United Nations.

But until that or something similarly significant is achieved, NAM is likely to be viewed from the outside with a mix of curiosity and disdain -- if not misunderstanding.