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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 46 New Delhi November 2, 2019

Non-Alignment, Human Rights, New: International Order, Regional Cooperation

Tuesday 5 November 2019

by Kamal Hossain

The following is the paper the author presented on November 5, 2013 at the last session of the two-day conference held in New Delhi in honour of N.C. on his birth centenary.

I am privileged to have the opportunity to honour the memory of the late Nikhil Chakravartty, our Nikhilda. I remember him with profound respect and affection ever since we came into close contact during the early years of Bangladesh. His deep commitment to independent Bangladesh, and his wise counsel was invaluable in meeting the many challenges we faced in consolidating our dearly won independence by developing our foreign relations in a world still divided by the Cold War. The importance of not becoming involved in the competition among contending powers through adherence to non-alignment was a course which commended itself to us. Nikhilda supported and encouraged our quest, along with other developing states, for a global order in which people could live free from want and free from fear in a peaceful and stable world. This had continued to be an elusive goal, even though it was recognised in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as reflecting legitimate expectations of all peoples.

In the seventy years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the world’s population has more than doubled, the number of states more than trebled and the world’s real GDP quadrupled. The process of liberalisation of the global economy has accelerated over the last five decades.

While some rate this as a period of progress for developed countries, the impact on developing countries has been negative in significant respects:

“... we should not be oblivious to the desperate situations still gripping large parts of the world population. In the midst of an increasingly prosperous global economy, around 10 million children every year do not live to see their fifth birthday, and nearly one billion people survive in abject poverty on less than $ 1 a day, with 2.6 billion living on less than $ 2 a day. The income of the richest one per cent is equal to that of the bottom 57 per cent and income inequality is dramatically increasing in countries that account for more than 80 per cent of the world’s population.1

The economic boom in the decade described as the “the roaring nineties” was attributed to the success of de-regulation and to unfettered markets. Protagonists relied on these two features of market fundamentalism to remain optimistic, despite a succession of economic crises in different parts of the world. The Nobel Laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, wrote:

“... a crisis that began in Thailand spread to other countries in East Asia and then to Latin America and Russia. It was a classic example of contagion—a failure in one part of the global economic system spreading to other parts. The full consequences of an economic crisis may take years to manifest themselves. In the case of Argentina, the crisis began in 1995, as part of the fallout from Mexico’s own crisis, and was exacerbated by the East Asian crisis of 1997 and the Brazilian crisis of 1998, but the full collapse didn’t take place until late 2001.”2

Then in 2008 the world economy went into what Stiglitz described in Freefall, the title of his recent book:

“In the great recession that began in 2008, millions of people in America and all over the world lost their homes and jobs. Many more suffered the anxiety and fear of doing so, and almost anyone who put away money for retirement or a child’s education saw those investments dwindle to a fraction of their value. A crisis that began in America soon turned global, as tens of millions lost their jobs worldwide—20 million in China alone—and tens of millions fell into poverty.”3

“... many who observed the long expansion of the world economy during the era of deregulation concluded that unfettered markets worked—deregulation had enabled this high growth, which would be sustained. The reality was quite different. The growth was based on a mountain of debt; the foundations of this growth were shaky, to say the least.”4

The challenge of re-building the global economy, and indeed of rescuing national economies from the grave impacts of the 2008 “freefall” called for a qualitative change of attitudes and values and for people to rise above self-centered narrowness and instead to aim for solutions for the human race as a whole, bearing in mind the universal problem that existed the world over. It is persuasively argued that

“The problem is beyond the scope of political, administrative and economic means, which are materialistic approaches. It is a mental one, connected to attitudes and values, and it requires the collective wisdom of religion, philosophy, ethics and the humanities to address. In short, all branches of human knowledge should be applied to addressing this problem, and it will only be solved if humanity can progress to a new level of being.”5


A fundamental principle that is relevant to a global order for the 21st century is that of Sustainability. The growing literature over the last four decades maps the multi-dimensional character of the concept of sustainable development. The Stockholm Declaration (1972) itself had recognised the importance of both aspects of environment, “the natural” and the “man-made”. The Club of Rome describes a sustainable society not only in terms of physical sustainability but in terms of one based on social justice, thus:6

“A sustainable society implicitly connotes one that is based on a long-term vision in that it must foresee the consequences of its diverse activities to ensure that they do not break the cycles of renewal; it has to be a society of conservation and generational concern. It must avoid the adoption of mutually irreconcilable objectives. Equally, it must be a society of social justice because great disparities of wealth or privilege will breed destructive disharmony.”

The Earth Summit in 1992 presented an opportunity for global stock-taking. Deliberations of governmental representatives at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (RIO Conference) were paralleled by serious discussions in a global gathering of ordinary men and women, who participated in the NGO Forum. They expressed their shared concern over the damaging consequences of development models grounded in the pursuit of economic growth and consumption to the exclusion of human and environmental concerns. They judged that the then current thinking which may be characterised as “market fundamentalism” was “a path to collective self-destruction, not to sustainable development”.

For the first time in human history dangers of irresponsible exploitation of the earth’s resources have begun to present threats to human life and indeed to human survival. Stiglitz’s assessment of the first decade of the 21st century is that it is already being written down as “a lost decade”. He urges, however, that there is still a window of opportunity which may be rapidly closing for an alternative course to be charted. This would include not only effective regulatory reforms but the creation of a new vision, “one based on global social justice and a balanced role for the government and the market”.7

For the creation of a new vision we may revisit the People’s Earth Charter which was adopted by consensus in the NGO Forum in Rio. From the following provisions of the Charter, we are able to identify the elements of a global order responsive to the needs of the 21st century:8

• the fundamental purpose of economic organisation is to meet the community’s basic needs, for food, shelter, clothing, education, health, and the enjoyment of culture; this purpose must take priority over all other forms of consumption, particularly wasteful and destructive forms of consumption such as consumerism and military spending;

• the quality of human life depends more on the development of social relationships, creativity, cultural and artistic expression, spirituality and opportunity to be a productive member of the community than on the ever increasing consumption of material goods;

• organising economic life around decentralised, relatively self-reliant, local economies that control and manage their own productive resources, provide all people an equitable share in the control and benefits of productive resources, and have the right to safeguard their own environmental and social standards is essential to sustainability; trade between such local economies, as between nations, should be just and balanced; where the rights and interests of corporations conflict with the rights and interests of the community, the latter must prevail;

• all elements of society, irrespective of gender, class, or ethnic identity, have a right and obligation to participate fully in the life and decisions of the community; the presently poor and disenfranchised, in particular, must become full participants; women’s roles, needs, values and wisdom are especially central to decision-making on the fate of the Earth; there is an urgent need to involve women at all levels of policy-making, planning and implementation on an equal basis with men;

• knowledge is humanity’s one infinitely expandable resource; beneficial knowledge in whatever form, including technology, is a party of the collective human heritage and should be freely shared with all who might benefit from it;

• transparency must be the fundamental premise underlying decision-making in all-public institutions, including at international levels.

The people’s consensus expressed in the Earth Charter calls for an integrated approach to implement political and socio-economic rights provides a universally-acknowledged basis around which to build a normative framework for sustainable human development in a new international order.

Such a framework would regulate economic, social and political processes. The principles for the building of such a framework were enunciated in the Preamble to the Delhi Declaration, adopted by the International Law Association, which states:9

“The objective of sustainable development involves a comprehensive and integrated approach to economic, social and political processes, which aims at the sustainable use of natural resources of the Earth and the protection of the environment on which nature and human life as well as social and economic development depend and which seeks to realise the right of all human beings to an adequate living standard on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom, with due regard to the needs and interests of future generations.”


Human Security and the Peace Process

A paper presented to the First South Asia Economic Summit (August 2008) entitled, A Perspective on Peace and Economic Cooperation in South Asia, focused on the implications of militarisation and the arms race between India and Pakistan both as threats to peace and as obstacles to development, thus: 10

“States in South Asia have primarily pursued ‘national security’ through the building of the military capability for mass annihilation of each other’s citizens. It is not surprising that South Asia is the poorest and yet the most militarised region in the world.”

The dangers posed in themselves call for urgent attention. Reducing tension and the potential conflicts would also release significant resources—a substantial peace dividend for productive purposes.

Changing Geopolitical Environment and Regional Cooperation


We find ourselves in the midst of global change on an unprecedented scale. How will these tidal waves of global change impact on our society and our region is a matter of critical importance for us. Caught up in the midst of transition and change, we need to take stock and together explore the potential and possibilities that exist in our societies, and within our region, for strategies of regional cooperation, in order to realize strategic national and regional goals.

The State and Democracy in South Asia Report (2008) brings home to us the formidable challenge of social and economic change that still faces us:11

“If one needed any evidence to believe that freedom from want is still a distant goal in this region, that South Asians experience the most intense forms of poverty, deprivation and destitution, this report lists it all. The per capita income in every country of the region ... is less than half the global average and below the global average for developing countries. Nearly a third of the people in the region still live below the poverty line. ... Literacy and enrollment figures are way behind the global average; nearly 40 per cent of the adult population is non-literate and only about half of the school going age children are actually enrolled in schools. Health indicators are equally dismal; one-fifth of the population is undernourished; infant mortality is higher than the global and developing countries’ averages; the region has more patients of tuber-culosis than in any other region of the world. ... All this evidence presents us with the paradox of the co-existence of mass poverty and mass democracy.”

As we look forward to a common future for South Asia, we should begin to identify basic common objectives. Clearly the first on the list must be peace and stability in our region, being indispensable for development in the interest of the poor and the deprived in each of our societies. Development in this context must mean sustainable human development, that must be sensitive to environmental and social concerns. A sound test of a people-centred development is how it improves the conditions of the bottom 50 per cent of our populations.

The challenge of the coming decades in South Asia is presented by expanding populations and increasing pressures for expanding employment and investment opportunities. A significant expansion of employment and investment opportunities could be realised within a frame-work of multi-dimensional regional co-operation. The goal of such co-operation would be sustainable development aimed at optimising the use of human and natural resources in a manner that ensures equal opportunities, social and gender justice. Multi-dimensional co-operation could embrace a range of different sectors including energy, environment, trade and communications, human resources development and the sharing of R&D for generating innovative and improved technologies. Free movement of peoples within the different countries of South Asia should be given high priority. The talk of a common history and shared culture needs to be reflected in policies to raise awareness amongst its citizens so as to overcome the barriers and change the negative attitudes towards cooperation which are a legacy of the past.

The prospects for each country should thus be visualised not in isolation but in the context of widening options and expanding opportunities within a framework of regional co-operation. The challenges that face us and the possibilities that exist are well encapsulated in the words of George Verghese in his study on the Waters of Hope:12

“The glaring contradiction of the largest con-centration of the world’s most poor unable to garner the bounty of one of the world’s richest natural resources regions in which they live is an indictment that can no longer be evaded. Not a little has been achieved over the past 40 years. But not enough. Political stability and the social fabric are threatened as populations multiply and justly demand equity and opportunity.”

His recommendation is that “on a large canvas the Basin of the great rivers has to become an ecologically responsible region in order to secure ecological security for all”. This approach can be extended to develop a wider movementto secure peace, security and progress for all our peoples by promoting cooperation within the broadest possible frame.

Regional cooperation could be viewed as extending beyond economic and technical co-operation to co-operation in different areas of institution-building. We could share our experiences in many areas to strengthen democratic institutions. These areas would include electoral reforms to improve the framework for free and fair elections, administrative reforms to promote transparency and accountability so as to reduce arbitrariness and corruption, and legal and judicial reforms to strengthen the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law, so that equal protection of law becomes a reality for all, including the weak and the poor, in our societies.

Unresolved issues arising out of utilisation of water or other natural resources or deriving from ethnic or sectarian conflicts tend to vitiate the political climate and loss of a co-ordinated response to global and regional challenges. This is why efforts should be directed to improving the political environment in our region. We should move our governments to attach the highest foreign policy priority to a resolution of outstanding issues, removal of sources of tension, and to building mutual trust and confidence through constructive consultations and coordi-nation of responses to common challenges, ecological, economic or other, faced by us. Ethnic and communal conflicts promoting extremist tendencies in some of our societies not only threaten political stability, but by their very nature, have a negative impact on relations between countries in our region. High priority needs to be given within our countries to resolve such conflicts and to contain the growth of extremism.

South Asia is described as one of the critical regions with complex security in the world primarily due to the fact that most of the states in this region are faced with a wide range of conflicts and disputes. Almost inexplicably, South Asian nations, despite their apparent adherence to the ideal of non-alignment, have pursued inappropriate policies. This has allowed external elements to aggravate the intra-regional cleavages of South Asia.

A regional citizen’s coalition, the South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), however, has argued in favour of an alternative approach as follows:

“Perhaps it is time for India and Pakistan to realise the need to move away from the strategy of seeking mutual peace and goodwill through solution of disputes and disagreements. ...”

“The alternative route suggested over the past many years by quite a few Indians and Pakistanis of goodwill stresses the need to put the contentious issues on the back burner and concentrate on promoting collaboration between the two countries in mutual interest.”

“Many people have identified the steps on this alternative route. First of all the people should be allowed to revive cross-border friendships, regardless of what the spoil sports in security agencies may say. The two states cannot build bridges of friendship so long as ordinary Indians and Pakistanis treat each other as irreconcilable enemies, straight out of their poison-laden history books.”

“India and Pakistan have no right to allow their bilateral wrangling to undermine South Asia’s future. Quite plainly India-Pakistan standoff is not merely a bilateral matter, it is a South Asian issue of the first order.”13

Windows of opportunity to move towards resolving issues should be effectively utilised. In the case of Bangladesh, such opportunities have arisen from time to time, and it is unfortunate that because of uncoordinated efforts some of these have been missed, as in the case of an agreement relating to Teesta waters, or delayed as in the case of agreements on multi-modal transport (myopically described as inability to agree on transit arrangements) or on agreements to co-operate in optimising the utilisation of energy resources (including oil, gas, coal and hydro-power).

Voices across South Asia must resolutely call for concerted and coordinated efforts to pursue enduring peace in order to accelerate sustainable development. This will build confidence and strong public opinion to remove doubts and suspicions which have created barriers.

While honouring the memory of Nikhilda we cannot overestimate the importance of media, in linking, in particular like-minded peace initiatives, reflecting the yearning of the majority of our peoples, throughout the region, which would encourage coordinated efforts to build peace as the foundation for our common future in a South Asian Union.

In concluding, we could derive inspiration from Nelson Mandela, when he writes of “great dreams”, thus:

“I am very fond of great dreams...at a time when some people are feverishly encouraging the growth of fractional forces, raising the tribe into the finest and highest form of social organisation, setting one national group against the other, cosmopolitan dreams are not only desirable but a bounden duty; dreams that stress the special unity that hold the freedom forces together—(in) a bond that has been forged by common struggles, sacrifices and traditions.”14

These are sentiments which Nikhilda would have endorsed, since they reflect his own deeply felt convictions, but those which he so powerfully expressed in his writings, and so movingly shared with those who came into contact with him.


1. The statistical data are taken from World Bank, World Development Report from years 1992, 2003, 2006, 2007 (Washington, World Bank); id., World Bank Atlas from years 2002 and 2004 (Washington, World Bank); UNDP, Human Development Report from years 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007/2008 (New York, United Nations); UNCTAD, The Least Developed Countries Report from years 2002 and 2004 (New York/Geneva, United Nations).

2. Joseph E. Stiglitz, Freefall, Free Markets and the Sinking of the Global Economy, Penguin Books, 2009, 2010, p. xiv. Also see, The Roaring Nineties, New York/London, Norton, 2003.

3. Ibid., p. xi.

4. Ibid., p. xx.

5. Liberty, Equality,and Fraternity: http://www.buddhanet.net/cmdsg/solns3.htm

6. The First Global Revolution, (Report of the Council of the Club of Rome), New York, 1991, p. 49.

7. Joseph E. Stiglitz, op. cit. (Freefall), p. 343; (Roaring Nineties), p. 319.

8. Kamal Hossain, “Globalisation and Human Rights” in Burns H. Weston and Stephen P. Marks (ed.), The Future of International Human Rights, New York, Transnational Publishers, Inc., 1999, pp. 195-196.

9. Nico Schrijver, The Evolution of Sustainable Development in International Law: Inception, Meaning and Status, Leiden/Boston, Martinus Nijhoff, 2008, p. 172.

10. Professor Akmal Hossain, A Perspective on Peace and Economic Cooperation in South Asia, SACEPS, Colombo, pp. 11-12, 2008.

11. UNDP, The State and Democracy in South Asia Report, 2008.

12. George Verghese, Waters of Hope, Oxford, New Delhi, 1999, p. 385.

13. I.A. Rehman, “Can India and Pakistan look beyond Disputes?”, SAHR, Newsletter, August 2010, p. 2.

14. Nelson Mandela, Conversations with Myself, London, MacMillan, 2010, p. 17.

Dr Kamal Hossain, a distinguished public figure of Bangladesh, is a former Foreign Minister of that country. He was incarcerated in West Pakistani prisons alongwith Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman during the months of Yahya Khan’s military crackdown over East Pakistan in 1971.

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