Fifty-six years ago, on April 18-24, 1955, a conference that involved five sponsoring countries (Burma, Ceylon, India, Indonesia and Pakistan) and 24 participating countries from Asia and Africa convened in Bandung. The Bandung Conference turned out to be a historic watershed in the international relations of those countries.
Amid pressure from the growing Cold War bipolarism, those countries were able to concertedly affirm that they would choose neither the East nor the West but pursue their own path and strategy under the guidance of the “Bandung Principles”.
By the later stages, the Bandung Conference had inspired not only the independence of new countries in Asia and Africa and the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement but also the fight against racialism.
An African-American poet turned anti-racialism author, Richard Nathaniel Wright, said that the Bandung Conference had introduced something new, something beyond Left and Right. He added that there were extra-political, extra-social, and almost extra-human aspects to the Conference.
Wright was present in Bandung and directly observed the conference. He chronicled his observation in his book The Color Curtain: A Report on the Bandung Conference, which was published in 1956.
The Bandung Principles was one of the most important outcomes of the conference. Since their inception, the principles have been navigating countries in the Asian-African continents as well as those in other continents through the turbulence of the Cold War period.
Unlike inter-regional cooperation between Asia and Europe through ASEM or East Asia and Latin America through FEALAC, Asia-Africa inter-regionalism for many decades had been less structured.
This has no longer been the case since 2005 when Indonesia hosted the Asia-Africa Summit where more than 80 heads of state and government attended.
The Summit agreed on a New Asia-Africa Strategic Partnership (NAASP) that aimed to promote a deeper and more structured and systematic cooperation between Asia and Africa.
At the 2005 Summit, the Bandung Principles were enriched. New norms and values were embraced. Those new principles include among others democracy, promotion and protection of human rights and multilateralism.
The Bandung Conference has given Indonesia particular meanings. It revived the bebas aktif foreign policy, and now it has become a national heritage in the gallery of Indonesian as well as Bandung history.
For younger generations of the country, however, the conference and its meaning have unfortunately turned out to be less appealing than other more recent inter-state initiatives such as APEC, ASEM and G20.
The Bandung Conference is also an icon in the history of Indonesian diplomacy. It is a symbol of independence. Independence in policy, in action and in making choices.
In the present context of international relations, cooperation between Asian and African countries remains critical, and even becomes more important than ever before. Both Asia and Africa continue to experience changes.
Geo-economically speaking, Asia has become more and more strategic. With the rise of India and China, and emerging economies like Indonesia, Asia is in a position to contribute to global growth.
Democracy in Asia is also taking roots — becoming more substantive after a long process, whereas democratization in countries in North Africa and the Middle East has only just begun.
Under the NAASP, leaders of Asia-Africa have agreed to cooperate in the strengthening of democratic institutions and popular participation by sharing experiences. Thus, Asia-Africa democracy cooperation is not only timely but also warranted.
Addressing piracy in the Somalian waters is another critical issue that Asian-African countries may consider discussing in their collaborative agenda. Piracy in the area has been increasing, and many incidents have seen Indonesian crews taken hostages.
The NAASP has mandated countries in both regions to jointly promote safety of navigation and communication as well as search and rescue operations in the Indian Ocean, which also includes the Gulf of Aden and Somalian waters, where piracy frequently takes place.
It is also critical to reflect on the best ways to tap the practical and normative meanings of the Bandung Principles in the current context of global politics. It is a daunting task to develop a collective understanding, let alone a collective response, to such emerging norms as a right to humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect.
One of the Bandung Principles clearly underlines the abstention from intervention or interference in the internal affairs of another country. But in reality, there are conditions that humanitarian intervention will eventually be invoked if all other efforts have failed.
The Constitutive Act of the African Union, for example, includes the right to intervention as one of the principles to be adhered to in the functioning of the Union. Article 4 (h) and (j) stipulate respectively the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: War crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity; and the right of Member States to request intervention from the Union in order to restore peace and security.
There are many more issues that Asia and Africa can work together on. Poverty remains a pressing issue in both continents. Compounded by demographic challenges, poverty has become abject and more burdensome.
The situation in Africa is more difficult because the poorest billion people of the world’s total seven billion population live there. Moreover, it has become worse and worse whenever armed conflicts — often fueled by the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons — break out in countries on the continent.
What can Asia and Africa do to overcome all of those challenges?
Quoting president Sukarno’s opening speech at the Bandung Conference entitled “Let a New Asia and a New Africa be born,” the answer is that Asia and Africa can do much.
Now it depends on the commitment and determination of the countries in both continents. It is only natural that many quarters would expect the founding countries to take the lead in that regard.
I have full confidence that as always, Indonesia will be able to bear that responsibility when need arises.
The writer is assistant special staff to the President for international relations. The opinions expressed
are his own.