[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Saturday, 16 September 2006, 12:47 GMT 13:47 UK
Doing business at Non-Aligned summit
By Roger Hearing
BBC News, Havana

Viewed from Washington or London, it was a "rogues' gallery".

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
Venezuela's Hugo Chavez wants to re-organise the movement
Speakers at the opening ceremony of the 14th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), in the Palace of Conventions in Havana, included Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.

And they were only the starters.

Later on, delegates heard from Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, as well as senior politicians from North Korea, Sudan and Burma.

In 2006, attention at the NAM summit in Cuba is inevitably focused on member states who buck the international order - those who choose to challenge what they see as US-imposed conventions of how to behave.

The rhetoric falls neatly into line with the outlook of the host nation, Cuba: American hegemony is bad for economic freedom, for sovereignty and equality.

But the NAM is now 118 nations - two-thirds of mankind - and sitting listening to all this are US allies like India, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

In the corridors behind the meeting halls, I found wry smiles and uneasy reassurance from diplomats who looked as though they were guests who had somehow turned up at the wrong party.

Cold front

So why do they still come to the NAM summit? What is in it for them?

The Non-Aligned Movement grew out of a conviction among the leaders of mostly former European colonies in the 1950s and 1960s that they did not want their futures shaped by either Moscow or Washington.

There are dozens of private meetings between leaders who would not get the chance to meet anywhere else

They were guided by a set of principles agreed at a conference in Bandung, Indonesia, of mutual respect, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference, equality and peaceful co-existence.

Over the years, those principles have not been universally applied: NAM members Iran and Iraq, and India and Pakistan have fought bitter wars with each other.

Nor have they stuck to the idea that members should not be part of any other bloc: Cuba itself was as close to the USSR as can be imagined until the late 1980s.

It was then of course that the old order changed with the end of the Cold War, and the bipolar world became a unipolar world.

Yet the NAM goes on, and even grows. Haiti and St Kitts and Nevis have come to the summit for the first time just this week.

A new purpose

So what is its function now?

"Who or what are you not aligned with?" was the question I put to a number of diplomats and ministers.

Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela
The summit offers leaders not favoured by the US a chance to meet
The answer was that the name may now be just historical baggage, but the organisation is not.

"The voice of the voiceless," the Belarussian ambassador ventured.

"A forum for the global South," suggested a South African.

"A place to air ideas that won't get an audience anywhere else," according to a Gulf Arab veteran of these meetings.

This week there have been tough fights over the wording of resolutions on Lebanon and Western Sahara.

But I was told by an African delegate not to take too literally the still fierce words of the final summit declaration: "It's paper only," he said.

Odd couples

The NAM only really exists once every three years, at the summit.

Cuba has been keen to change that, setting up a permanent secretariat and organising the immediate past, present and future NAM chairs into a "troika" to represent the organisation and give it diplomatic clout.

Other members like India, I'm told, are much less enthusiastic, perhaps fearing greater power in the hands of the more radical members.

The real importance of NAM remains at these triennial summits, and the real value is in what are called bilaterals.

These are dozens of private face-to-face meetings between leaders of, for example, Colombia and Lebanon, who are simply unlikely to meet anywhere else, except perhaps in the hothouse of the UN General Assembly.

The NAM of 2006 is probably not one that Tito, Sukarno or Jawaharlal Nehru would recognise, but while its members feel it has a purpose, the chances are it will survive, at least for a little while longer.

Annan calls for Mid-East solution
15 Sep 06 |  Americas
Castro misses Cuba summit opening
15 Sep 06 |  Americas
Chavez pledges support for Iran
15 Sep 06 |  Americas
Cuba slams 'morally decadent' US
13 Sep 06 |  Americas
Musharraf seeks Indian PM talks
11 Sep 06 |  South Asia
UN 'encouraged' by Iranian talks
13 Sep 06 |  Middle East

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific