Non Aligned Summit in Colombo, 1976


By Leelananda De Silva

The world of 1976 was that of the Cold War and of North South tensions. The Non- Aligned Movement (NAM) was born as a result of the Cold War and resulting East-West tensions. The political agenda of the Summit was determined by the issues that dominated East-West relations. The continuing question posed by the big powers of both East and West was whether NAM was truly non-aligned. The West felt that by 1976, the NAM was tilted more towards the East meaning the Soviet Union. At this time, China remained outside this equation. Among the nearly 100 members of the NAM some were inclined to look towards the West and there were others who looked more towards the Soviet Union. One of the major issues Sri Lanka faced in 1976 was to maintain a truly non- aligned stance, without bending towards East or West. The Prime Minister, Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike was determined to make the Colombo Summit a truly non- aligned event.

There was another major issue in international relations. Starting about the early 1970’s, there was a new phenomenon- the North South divide. Developing countries, most of them non- aligned, were organizing themselves to demand changes in the international economic order which had been designed by the western developed countries. The South started to organize themselves in a new institution, called the Group of 77 (at the start in 1964, there were 77 countries and hence the name), which functioned primarily within the UN to demand changes in the international economic order. The NAM could no longer restrict itself to politics only and had to include the economic dimension of North South relations. Mrs. Bandaranaike was concerned with these new issues, and was anxious to attach a higher priority to economics.

The preparations for the Fifth Non-Aligned Summit (NAS) in Colombo can be traced way back to the fourth NAS held in Algiers in 1973. At the Algiers Summit the decision was taken to confirm Colombo as the venue of the Fifth Summit. Mrs. Bandaranaike was at this conference, and she wanted the Sri Lankan delegation to observe and learn the process of organizing a summit. The Fourth NAS was an eventful one. While the conference was proceeding, there came the news that the Allende government in Chile was overthrown by General Pinochet. This was to be a seminal event and clouded the proceedings in Algiers. Conference delegates felt it personally as Ambassador Hernan Santa Cruz of Chile was chairing the Economic Committee (He was not to go back to Chile for a long time). The other factor which dominated the Algiers Summit was the oil price increase of OPEC, of which Algeria was a member. Algeria manipulated the summit to obtain the support of the NAM for OPEC actions, with vague promises of support to obtain a better economic deal for the developing countries.

From the Algiers Summit in 1973 until the August 1976 Colombo Summit, it was a time of preparation for the latter event. There were many major international conferences during these three years- the World Food Conference in Rome 1974, the UN General Assembly Special Sessions in 1975, the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting in Kingston, Jamaica in 1975, and UNCTAD IV in Nairobi 1976. These conferences were the forums in which North-South issues were played out prior to the Colombo Summit. Sri Lanka played an active role at these conferences. In 1974 Mrs. Bandaranaike had proposed the creation of a World Fertilizer Fund at the ECAFE (now ESCAP) Conference held in Colombo in March 1974. This was followed up at the World Food Conference, and led to the UN General Assembly resolution for the creation of an International Fertilizer Supply Scheme. An articulate and consistent foreign economic policy was pursued by Sri Lanka during this period in multilateral forums.

When preparing for the Colombo Summit, Mrs. Bandaranaike’s instructions were clear. She wished to attach equal priority to economic issues of the Summit alongside political issues. One reason for this was her domestic concerns. She did not want the perception that the Summit was engaged in issues of remote concern to Sri Lanka. By stressing crucial economic and social issues, she felt that the Summit can be related to important domestic concerns not only for Sri Lanka but of other developing countries. Another reason was that by attaching a higher priority to economic issues, the pronouncements of the Summit will be more balanced than an exclusive focus on a political agenda. Sri Lanka also wished to establish a closer link between the NAM and the Group of 77. The Group of 77 did not have an institution which met at Heads of Government level.

At the summit, the economic committee worked in parallel with the political committee. Mrs. Bandaranaike in her speech to the Conference, as its Chairman, made two major economic proposals. One was for the creation of a countervailing third world currency, to remove some of the asymmetries of the prevailing international monetary system. This proposal was more rhetoric than practical, and was intended to rally the radicals in the NAM. They liked to hear this kind of impractical, anti-western demands. The second proposal was a practical one, to establish a Third World Commercial Merchant Bank. Many developing countries, especially the smaller ones did not have the capacities to develop sophisticated strategies to purchase their import needs, and also organize the financing if international trade. It was found at that time that Sri Lanka was purchasing commodities like oil, rice and wheat, when prices were high in a volatile world market, and full of stocks locally when the prices were low in world markets (at a time when we should be buying). A central facility for developing countries would enable them to obtain large gains through combined purchasing and other means. One model behind this proposal was that of the Crown Agents in London, which had provided similar services to British colonies. The Summit adopted a resolution on this proposal and I was asked by UNCTAD to come to Geneva to develop it further.

Another interesting intervention at the behest of Mrs. Bandaranaike was on pharmaceuticals. She wanted Prof. Senaka Bibile to be a member of the Sri Lankan delegation and to work with me in the Economic Committee to prepare a draft resolution on this complex issue. Prof. Bibile had been instrumental in developing pharmaceutical policies in this country to obtain low cost generic products. The Summit adopted this resolution Once again, Mrs. Bandaranaike had her domestic constituency in mind. Overall, the Summit stressed the central role of economic issues in international relations, and particularly in a North-South context.

The economic issues of the Summit cannot be detached from the political side of the conference, and there were many points of interaction between the two. While I am not discussing the political agenda of the Summit, it is appropriate to place on record the contributions made by so many to the success of this Summit, when Sri Lanka punched above its weight in international relations. Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the Prime Minister, was primarily responsible for the success of the Summit. She personally supervised many of its key aspects. Felix Dias Bandaranaike and Shirley Amarasinghe were actively engaged in most of the preparatory work between 1973 and 1976. They were persons of international standing and were highly respected, and with Mrs. Bandaranaike, were responsible for a highly acclaimed Summit. W.T Jayasinghe , the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Basanayake, Director General of the Foreign Ministry and Izeth Hussein, Director of the non aligned desk at the foreign ministry were key figures in the preparations on the political side. Neville Kanakaratne can be added to this list. Izeth Hussein made a distinctive contribution in drafting what was considered an outstanding political declaration which captured the essence of non-alignment. He was assisted by Nihal Rodrigo and Alfie David. Nihal Rodrigo played a key role in New York in the aftermath of the conference.

Dr. Mackie Ratwatte, was the man in charge of the organizational side of the conference. Manel Abeysekara managed a flawless protocol operation with finesse and flair. This aspect of the Summit is crucial, as delegations with Heads of Governments and State are sensitive to their treatment by the host country. Vernon Mendis, who was then the high commissioner in London, was brought to Colombo to act as Secretary General of the conference, as W.T. Jayasinghe and Arthur Basnayake declined to undertake that role. Dharmasiri Peiris, Secretary to the Prime Minister, worked behind the scenes over this entire four year period and was guide and adviser to the Prime Minister on many NAM issues. He ran her office at the Conference, where many issues had to be addressed on an urgent basis. On the economic side I received much assistance from Wilfred Nanayakkara, Deputy Director in the Ministry of Planning. Susantha de Alwis who was ambassador in Geneva (he served as the Secretary of the Political Committee of the Summit) was a constant point of contact on economic issues. Lakdasa Hulugalle, an outstanding economist working with UNCTAD and an authority on North South issues was in regular contact, and was a great source of advice during the Summit. Havelock Brewster, a renowned Caribbean economist from UNCTAD worked with the economic committee during the summit.

Let me divert here to record my recollections of two episodes connected with the Summit as they are instructive and should not be forgotten. First was Mrs. Bandaranayaike’s decision to vacate " Temple Trees" so that Mrs. Gandhi, the prime minister of India could occupy it during her visit to Colombo. At this time, Indo- Sri Lanka relations were at a low ebb, due to Sri Lanka’s assistance to Pakistan during the Bangladesh crisis. Mrs. Bandaranaike wanted to signal her closeness to India and also her personal regard for Mrs. Gandhi by this gesture. That was a master stroke in bilateral relations. The second is with regard to Kurt Waldheim, the Secretary General of the UN. He was in Colombo accompanied by Dr. Gamani Corea, who was Secretary General of UNCTAD. He expected to address the non aligned summit, of heads of government. There were many who were opposed to Waldheim addressing the summit and preferred him to address the foreign minister’s conference the previous week. It is my recollection that Waldheim in the end addressed the summit. In 1976, the Secretary General of the UN was not regarded as an equal to heads of government.

The success of the Fifth Summit is not in doubt. The members of the NAM were satisfied with the outcome. Countries like the USA were pleased that this was a truly non aligned summit and was not engaged in destructive criticism of the Western powers. Henry Kissinger the US secretary of state met Mrs. Bandaranaike in New York to express their satisfaction. Mrs. Bandaranaike received a tremendous reception when she addressed the UN General Assembly in New York in 1976 as chairman of the NAM. The prime minister was invited by Japan and other South East Asian countries and her visits were successful and productive in terms of bilateral relations. It is tragic that the goodwill built up through the summit was squandered by a new government which did not believe in Non Alignment. The importance of foreign policy for a small country and the result of its neglect can be seen in what happened after 1977.

(Leelananda De Silva was Director, Economic Affairs in the Planning Ministry and Secretary of the Economic Committee of the Fifth Non- Aligned Summit in Colombo, 1976)

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