This year marks the 66th anniversary of the historic Bandung Conference, which was described by Sukarno, the first president of host country Indonesia, as “the first intercontinental conference of colored peoples in the history of mankind.”
Taking place from April 18 to 24, 1955, the Asian-African summit was far more representative of the newly established postcolonial states than the San Francisco Conference that had taken place a decade earlier and drafted the United Nations Charter, which was dominated by the US and the West in general.
Interestingly, the Bandung Conference also should “be remembered as the first time the rights of Palestinians were acknowledged at an international level,” as Dr Nahed Samour argued in her seminal article titled “Palestine at Bandung: The Longwinded Start of a Reimagined International Law,” published in a book titled Bandung, Global History, and International Law: Critical Pasts and Pending Futures.
Despite being one of the most important topics discussed at Bandung, Palestine itself was unable to send an official envoy to the event. Instead, it was represented by Egypt and Syria, with a significant contribution from Ahmed Shukairy, a famous jurist of Palestinian origin, who joined the Syrian delegation as its deputy head in order to make sure that his people’s case was properly represented.
Moreover, it was reported that Hajj Amin al-Husayni, the Mufti of Jerusalem (later renamed by the British Mandate Power as Grand Mufti of Palestine), attended as an observer.
Although a number of the attendees of the summit were profoundly displeased with the lack of a proper Palestinian representation, it was China that made a noteworthy effort to include Palestinian hardships in the shared Asian-African experiences of foreign domination and political aims of self-determination.
Serving as China’s foreign minister, Zhou Enlai, inspired by the Syrian delegation, made it clear that the Bandung Conference could not be considered a success if Palestine was not included in its agenda. This was in line with China’s policy at the time of securing allies by supporting movements concerned with strengthening national independence.
While the Palestinian dilemma was introduced by the president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who drew clear parallels between the former colonialism in North Africa and racialism in South Africa, the “Speech of the Delegation of Syria to the Asian-African Conference, Statement of the Syrian Delegation on the Palestine Question” is essential to understanding the said question in the context of self-determination, human rights, colonialism, and imperialism.
China perceived Israel as a base for “Western imperialism,” and the Chinese press made clear that for this reason the peaceful co-existence between Jews and Arabs in Israel was impossible, as we can read in Hashim S H Behbehani’s book China’s Foreign Policy in the Arab World, 1955-7.
Sharing the same political philosophy as the Israeli Communist Party (Maki), Beijing believed that only this party could change the unhealthy imperial dynamic within Israel and therefore save Palestinian refugees from the colonial calamity. This same view was also shared by the Soviet Union.
In fact, Israel, which attempted to secure a place at the Asian-African summit out of fear that the participants from the Arab world would find common ground regarding the cause of Palestinian self-determination, was also seen by other invited states as a foreign implant in the Middle Eastern region and, as we can read in Shira Robinson’s book Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State, a “seedbed of imperialism.”
China’s important achievement concerning the Palestine issue was to push the conversation toward human rights, which established its role as Palestine’s main supporter at the conference.
Together with Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan, Jordan and Lebanon, the Middle Kingdom not only stressed the human rights of the Palestinian people and condemned Israel, but also called for the repatriation of Palestinian refugees.
On the sixth day of the summit, the delegation from Afghanistan proposed a resolution calling on the African and Asian states “to take appropriate steps for the implementation of human rights” of the Palestinians, and the Syrian delegation argued that the Palestinian question should be described as a matter of “the very existence of a nation that is at stake” and declared the right of repatriation of Palestinian refugees to be “an inherent right,” as well as accusing Israel of violating the UN Charter.
Beijing went even further to suggest that the Bandung Conference should also support “territorial revisions” regarding Arab demands. Being the only non-Arab, non-Muslim participant vigorously supporting the Palestinian cause, China’s stance was perceived as remarkable and was explicitly appreciated by the Syrian delegation.
However, despite China’s effort to help the Palestinian people, India’s and Burma’s lack of support for Palestine and Nawaharlal Nehru’s argument in favor of not taking a specific stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict by the attendees of the summit determined the Final Communiqué’s final tone, which instead of supporting “human rights of the Arab people of Palestine” in particular concentrated on supporting only their “rights” in general.
Furthermore, peaceful negotiations were agreed to be the only way to move forward, which contradicted the official Arab stance.
The People’s Daily’s “Observer,” explaining Beijing’s push for negotiations as the key tool to break the Palestinian impasse, as quoted in Behbehani’s book, wrote the following:
“For peace in the Middle East … it is necessary that consultations be held among the countries concerned on the basis of United Nations principles and the wishes of all countries in the Near East … it is necessary to avoid military conflict. All those who are interested in peace in the Near East believe that if efforts are made along these lines, the Palestinian question can be peacefully settled.”
What is noticeable about Beijing’s reasoning is that although it had not yet attained membership of the UN, the country made reference to it – a move that should be perceived as an expression of a desire for the People’s Republic to be included in the international community on Westphalian terms.
It is important to note that at the time the Bandung Conference was taking place, the newly independent nations were unable to shape international law ex novo as they were confronted with a legal order that had been created during colonial times when they were characterized by “civilized” European nations as “uncivilized,” and therefore incapable of participating in the global governing process because of lacking sovereign status.
This limitation had a profound impact on Bandung’s Final Communiqué and its decision to embrace a state-centric approach to the Palestinian question, accompanied by universalist legal rhetoric, with the UN and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the main points of reference.
Nonetheless, embracing this kind of approach, as Samour argues, “was problematic as the ‘universal’ in United Nations law emerged from European legal and political genealogies that had not benefited Asian-African concerns in general, and Palestine in particular, but rather disregarded Palestinian rights.”
As the academic concludes, what was particularly characteristic for UN resolutions concerning Palestine as “authorization of the partition of its territory against the wishes of the indigenous community” and “administrating the plight of Palestinian refugees as humanitarian concern, rather than addressing the legal context of their forced expulsion to make space for Europeans seizing land.”
Despite the huge dissonance between the anti-colonial awareness at that time and therefore the rather disappointing tone of the Final Communiqué, on April 23, 1955, the Libyan publication Al-Jihad applauded, somewhat prophetically, the Bandung Conference as a distinct milestone for the Palestinian cause, and as an Eastern landmark:
“From now on we shall not ask for the implementation of the United Nations resolution on Palestine but shall demand the execution of the Bandung resolution…. We shall turn eastward with our hearts and hopes.”
In fact, 66 years later, this call could not be more relevant, as the recent rise in violence inflicted on the Palestinian people by the current Israeli regime – accused last month by Human Rights Watch of “committing the crimes of apartheid and persecution” in its report titled “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution” – coincides with the unprecedented rise of China’s economic, political, and military power.
With Beijing being one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and holding the rotating presidency this month, the Bandung participants could not have even dreamed of a more favorable situation for their decolonization cause.
As Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted this past Saturday during a phone conversation with his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi, “The root cause of the deterioration of the situation is that for a long time there has not been a just solution to the Palestinian issue.”
Wang added that “in recent years, the Middle East peace process has deviated from its original track,” also regretting that “the UN Security Council resolutions have not been earnestly implemented and, in particular, the Palestinian right to build an independent state has been continuously violated, adding to the plight of the Palestinian people, which has led to the intensification of the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation and repeated conflicts.”
Faced with the obstacles coming from the same forces that desperately tried to prevent the Bandung Conference from occurring, China has a special duty to reimagine the Bandung spirit in an attempt to help its “old friends,” whose rights it so fiercely defended in 1955.
With Beijing putting forward a four-point proposal during the UN Security Council’s Open Debate on the Palestine-Israel conflict held on Sunday via video link, the Asian heir to the historic conference would be well advised to do whatever it takes to live up to the Bandung promise by firmly supporting the two-state solution in order to restore long-awaited dignity to the Palestinian people and true peace to the Middle East.
By pursuing that significant goal, China has a chance to prove the superiority of the Bandungian international order over the Westphalian one, which has for so long dominated international affairs and which is still preventing a more just and equal post-colonial world from flourishing.