Geneva is holding celebrations to mark the birth of our modern era of international cooperation, which happened exactly 50 years ago this week with the launch of the United Nations Conference of Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
UNCTAD, with 194 member countries, is tasked with helping states to maximise their development, particularly through international trade – the main driver of development. A central goal is to assist developing countries in their “efforts to integrate into the world economy on an equitable basis”.
Half a century ago at the first session of UNCTAD, developing countries established the Group of 77, now expanded to 133 members including Thailand, and demanded with tenacity “prosperity for all”.
I had the privilege of attending “birth” of the organisation and witnessing a unique event in the history of multilateral diplomacy.
The three months of UNCTAD I meetings in 1964 revealed what could be called the magic of solidarity of developing countries.
On March 23, 1964, then-UN chief U Thant set the tone with an opening declaration that international relations are not determined solely by diplomacy backed by military might, but are also influenced by people in the fields and in the factories where human beings earn their daily bread.
Asian countries were eager to adopt that humanitarian vision. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step,” the Afghan delegate said, symbolically marking an end to the era of trade dictatorship and the dawning of the age of “economic understanding”.
The Malaysians chimed in, vowing that Asian countries were in Geneva not just to further the isolated interests of one group of countries against another. At stake was whether Asian countries could demonstrate the moral solidarity and the political will to confront and destroy the ancient scourges of mankind – poverty, hunger, disease and ignorance.
Speaking on behalf of Latin America, the Colombian delegate expressed the foundational principles of UNCTAD: justice, deep solidarity and a general resolve to work untiringly in order that underdevelopment should at last cease to be the tragic lot of the vast majority of human beings.
Those sentiments were echoed as, one by one, delegations from developing states all over the globe stood up and vowed their commitment to forging solidarity and understanding between regional neighbours and the wider world.
Some developed countries recognised the value of solidarity in the struggle to make UNCTAD I objectives tangible.
Germany and Norway hailed a new approach to world trade, emphasising the need to do more than merely clear away the obstructions to a free international exchange of goods and services.
Spain advocated for social justice and human solidarity, which demand that the structural, psychological, climatic or other drawbacks from which many developing countries suffer should be remedied.
Uruguay sounded a warning note for developing countries – that the Group of 77 was not an end in itself, but a dynamic instrument designed for the affirmation of a still broader unity, a more universal solidarity, ending the division into blocs which impeded understanding and joint responsibility in the most rational manner.
These are words pronounced in June 1964.
Fifty years later, the magic of solidarity is an open, unfinished chapter in international relations. The promotion of solidarity remains an imperative and most complex task in the sphere of multilateral diplomacy.
Right now in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council is tabling a draft declaration on the right of peoples and individuals to international solidarity.
It declares that international solidarity is the union of interests, purposes and actions between and among peoples, individuals, states and their international organisations, to preserve the order and the very survival of international society and to achieve common goals that require international cooperation and collective action.
We live, according to some strategists, in an age of choreographed reality. Yet, the choreography holds hope of progress. The 50th anniversary of UNCTAD attests to the gradual but universal recognition that international solidarity is the most fitting response to the need for transformations towards equity, sustainability, security and empowerment that are applicable to all countries during the current irreversible process of globalisation.
Ioan Voicu is a visiting professor at Assumption University.