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Reviving the Bandung Spirit
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The Global South needs to intensify the normative battle to correct the structural inequalities in euro-centric international law to better reflect its concerns

January 24, 2023 02:14 pm | Updated January 26, 2023 10:15 am IST - New Delhi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the opening session of the Voice of Global South Summit, via video conferencing, in New Delhi, on January 12, 2023.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the opening session of the Voice of Global South Summit, via video conferencing, in New Delhi, on January 12, 2023. | Photo Credit: PTI

The ‘Voice of the Global South’ summit that India recently organised bringing together 120-odd developing countries is a commendable step. This will add moral heft to India’s G-20 presidency. In today’s multi-polar world, where the boundaries between the Global North and South are getting blurred due to the realignment of interests, this summit has brought back the focus on the Global South. In many ways, the summit rekindled memories of the historic 1955 Afro-Asian Conference held in Bandung, Indonesia, of which India was a key architect. For the first time, former colonial territories of Asia and Africa came together in Bandung, igniting the spirit of third-world solidarity and paving the way for the creation of a Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). As the late Samir Amin wrote, the imperialist West despised the Bandung spirit and did everything possible to break the Global South solidarity.

Although the world is not the same as it was in the 1950s and 60s (characterised by post-colonial solidarity), and NAM has lost much of its steam, the recent summit has underlined India’s leadership in championing the cause of the Global South in the last seven decades.

Respecting international law

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his remarks at the summit, called upon the countries to respect the sovereignty of nations and the rule of law, and to resolve disputes and differences peacefully. From a positivist standpoint, this is a welcome message, especially in contemporary times when powerful countries are more than willing to sacrifice their international law obligations at the altar of political expediency. We are also witnessing a populist challenge to international law whereby states are trying to wriggle out of their international obligations under refugee law, human rights law, and trade law, to shore up support amongst ethno-nationalists domestically.

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However, from the Global South perspective, it is imperative to go beyond the positivist approach to international law – a point that scholars espousing third-world approaches to international law have been making for several decades. As Antony Anghie argues , imperialism has shaped the evolution of international law with Europe playing a very important role. International law’s doctrines and principles have a distinct euro-centric character that, in turn, has created several structural imbalances when viewed from the perspective of the Global South. While respecting international law is important, the Global South simultaneously needs to intensify the normative battle to correct these structural inequalities so that international law can better reflect its concerns. Making international environmental law principles, like common but differentiated responsibilities, more meaningful and implementing international trade law principles like special and differential treatment are examples of this normative battle. But this also means that the Global South needs to deploy more resources to develop its intellectual capacities, such as by nurturing the academic community, to take on the hegemony of the Global North in the marketplace of ideas and research.

Reforming International Organisations

Both Mr. Modi and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar made a strong case for reforming international organisations like the United Nations (U.N.). The UN Security Council (UNSC), unquestionably, is also crying for reforms. The countries that won World War II designed the UN Charter and gave themselves the prized permanent membership of the UNSC with veto power. The geopolitical realities have changed since then but the UNSC remains stuck in 1945 with marginal involvement of the Global South. Thus, the Global South needs to collectively keep pushing the door till it opens.

Concomitantly, the Global South needs to reinvigorate other international organisations that it has created, to serve its interests. An important organisation in this regard is the Asian African Legal Consultative Organisation (AALCO), created immediately after the Bandung conference. AALCO, which has its headquarters in Delhi, is meant to serve as an advisory body to its member states in international law. Countries like India should scrutinise AALCO’s performance and strengthen it with more resources for improved outcomes. Likewise, other regional institutions such as BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and SAARC should be bolstered to deepen South-South cooperation.

NIEO 2.0

An important glue that held the post-colonial states together in the 1960s and 70s was the quest to build a New International Economic Order (NIEO) with a focus on permanent sovereignty over natural resources. Through the NIEO movement, the Global South asserted itself as an equal stakeholder in the international economic system. It confronted the inequitable economic arrangements of the colonial era aimed at safeguarding the interests of foreign investors of metropolitan powers in developing countries. While the NIEO movement did play a role in shaping international law, the oil shocks of the 1970s followed by the triumph of neoliberalism relegated it to the background.

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Now is the time for the Global South to launch an NIEO 2.0 movement, which should decry the growing protectionism in the West, especially in the United States, and rising unilateralism, which is deeply undermining the Global South’s ability to benefit from international trade. Already plans are afoot on this front at the U.N. with more than 100 developing countries, including India, sponsoring a new NIEO resolution last year. The Global South needs to build and sustain momentum on this initiative.

People-centric approach

One of the unfortunate aspects of the international order has been its fixation with the state-centric approach. However, as Balakrishnan Rajagopal persuasively argued, social movements have played an important role in influencing international law-making. A case in point is the 2001 Doha Declaration, on the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights and Public Health, adopted after the clamour by patient groups and health activists to make medicines affordable in wake of the AIDS crisis in Africa. The Global South countries, thus, need to empower their citizens and allow people’s movements to contest the structural inequities of the international legal order, be it for climate change or sustainable development.

One hopes that the recent summit was not just a one-off and that the Global South will continue to work in unison and revive the long-forgotten spirit of Bandung.

Prabhash Ranjan is Professor and Vice Dean, Jindal Global Law School, O P Jindal Global University. Views are personal.

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