Who are the norm makers? The Asian-African conference in Bandung and the evolution of norms.

Author:Acharya, Amitav
Position:SPECIAL SECTION - Report

It is increasingly recognized that the literature on norms, like that of international relations more generally, neglects or obscures the voices and role of non-Western actors. Part of the reason has to do with its relatively narrow conce tualization of agency: who are the norm makers and how do they create and diffuse norms? This article, drawing on the author's previous work on the subject, calls for a broader understanding of what norm making means and who should be considered as norm entrepreneurs. It then examines the debates and outcomes of the Asian-African Conference in Bandung in 1955 to illustrate some if not all of the key points about the normative agency of the developing countries in the construction of the postwar security order. Keywords: Bandung Conference, nonintervention, disarmament, human rights, norms.


DUE TO LACK OF SPACE, I WILL LIST MY GENERAL THEORETICAL POINTS ONLY briefly. First, norm making seldom involves a single source, but multiple ideas and actors. Norms come from a variety of sources, involving a complexity of actors, issues, and contexts. The linkages among them may not be entirely obvious, and media reports and self-serving promotional action by the norm entrepreneurs may create misperceptions about the origins of the norm.

Second, while a good deal of research on norm making focuses on activities at the global level by transnational civil society groups and major international institutions, it is also important to look at other arenas, especially regional and interregional sites of dialogue. These have received less attention in the existing literature on norms. The relationship between global and regional norms and role of regions (especially outside of Western Europe) as sites of global norm making remains undertheorized. Some supposedly global norms can have regional origins, influences, and manifestations. One should not assume that regions merely adopt global norms wholesale; it can also be the other way around. And what matters in norm dynamics is not just the norm entrepreneur, whether it is an individual or a group like a nongovernmental organization, but also the local and regional context from which they draw the norms. I have conceptualized this earlier as "constitute localization." (1)

Third, norm making is not a one-step or linear process; initially articulated universal norms are not only subject to contestation, but also to resistance and modification, whether at international or regional levels. In other words, once articulated, norms do not remain static, and resistance and contestations do not end but persist. Such contestations often produce critical feedback that could reshape the original norm in question. Contestations and feedback are perennial features of norms.

Fourth, norm creation and propagation is not the prerogative of materially powerful states. Weak states can also create regional and global norms. They may do so if they are excluded or marginalized from initial global norm-making processes. They may also do so to protest against the hypocrisy of powerful actors when they seem to violate the very norms that they have helped to create and diffuse. Elsewhere, I have called this process "norm subsidiarity." (2)

Fifth, agency in norm dynamics can also take multiple forms, including widening (extending to new issues, regions, and actors), deepening (adding new injunctions and prohibitions), and thickening (reducing the scope for exceptions and violations). Moreover, in considering agency, one should pay attention not only to where and how norms originate, but also to where and how they diffuse. The proposition of a new norm is important, but agency can also lie in how the norm in question is being promoted and who is doing it. Variations in the scope and interpretation of norms that are the product of the localization or subsidiarity also constitute a form of agency.

Taken together, the interrelated and interactive processes of proposition, localization, subsidiarity, and feedback offer a more complete picture of a norm's life cycle than models that focus substantially on the proposition, diffusion, and internalization of norms in a more or less linear process led by materially powerful states or globally prominent transnational civil society groups. This broader framework, which I call "norm circulation," (3) allows space for those who investigate norms to consider the role of weaker actors, including regional actors, that may get involved in norm dynamics by relating to one or more of its different elements.

With these general observations, I examine normative debates and outcomes of the Bandung Conference, focusing mainly on the relationship between human rights and the norms of state sovereignty, especially noninterference/nonintervention (I use these interchangeably, but would stick to nonintervention). This relationship is one of the most contentious major issues in post-World War II international relations. Conventional wisdom casts these as polar opposites. What is more, it is seen as a core issue in the Global North-Global South divide; the former are generally seen as the champions of human rights while the latter are cast as champions of nonintervention, which is invoked to gain immunity from Western criticism of their human rights abuses. And because of this perception, the role of non-Western countries in the creation of the human rights regime has remained sidelined (for important exceptions, see Kathryn Sikkink's article in this special section).

Yet the above picture is simplistic and misleading, especially when it comes to the construction of human rights and noninterference at the early stages of the postwar international order. The countries of the South could legitimately claim agency in developing and championing human rights norms. There was no discernible contradiction between nonintervention and human rights. A close reading of the Bandung Conference, using previously unavailable primary sources--including the verbatim records of the Political Committee (4) where the leaders of the twenty-nine national delegations congregated for five days--provides ample evidence of this.

The Significance of the Bandung Conference

The Asian-African Conference, which took place in Bandung from 18 to 24 April 1955, has been woefully neglected in the mainstream literature of international relations. The conference was preceded by two Asian relations conferences organized by India in New Delhi. With African participation, the Bandung Conference was termed by Indonesia's president Sukarno, with his trademark hyperbole, as the "first intercontinental conference of coloured peoples in the history of mankind." What is beyond doubt is that the conference was the most widely publicized gathering of the newly independent countries. With twenty-nine countries participating (see Table 1), the Bandung Conference saw more representation from the developing world (Japan was the odd presence) than the San Francisco conference on the UN Charter. It was the first international conference for Communist China without the Soviet Union attending. It marked Japan's first attempt to reengage with Asia after the defeat of its imperial order. It was the first international meeting of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser after he had assumed power in Egypt. Although neither Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah nor Yugoslavia's Marshal Tito attended, the conference had a major influence on the global Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). (5) Six participating...

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