65 years since Bandung: Indonesia’s role as a leader in international law

Bandung City. Photo: Cep Budhi Darma / CC BY-SA

This month marks 65 years since Indonesia hosted the Bandung Conference, a ground-breaking summit between newly independent nations that shaped international law. As the Global South takes on a greater role in global affairs, Indonesia would do well to return to the principles of this historic conference.

By Aristyo Rizka Darmawan

Aristyo Rizka Darmawan is a lecturer in international law and a senior researcher at the Center for International Law Studies at the University of Indonesia Faculty of Law.

This month marks 65 years since one of the most important events in the history of international law, when the beautiful old-fashioned city of Bandung, Indonesia hosted the Bandung Conference. Heads of state from Asian and African countries, including China, India and Japan, gathered to discuss the future of decolonization and the independence of countries in Asia and Africa.

Under the leadership of Indonesian President Soekarno, the conference represented a major leap in the history of international law and would later shape the new international legal order. The history of international law is most often dominated by the legacy of European nations and for a time involved only so-called “civilized” nations or Western countries.

The Bandung Conference was tremendously important in changing this status quo, by supporting Asian and African countries to push for independence and gain recognition under international law as well recognition at the United Nations. The conference also left an economic legacy, as it led to the UN Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order, part of a set of proposals by the Non-Aligned Movement in opposition to the Bretton Woods System.

The Bandung Conference also helped newly independent nations to gain ground in negotiations of international treaties. In negotiating the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, many Asian and African states struggled protect their jurisdictions at sea, in terms of exclusive economic zone as well as the maritime territory attached to archipelago states. Today, the convention is regarded as successfully accommodating the economic interests of many developing and newly independent states.

The Asian–African Conference at Bandung April 1955

Fast forward to 65 years later, and the international order has changed dramatically. There are now 193 countries in the United Nations, all with equal status under international law, and international law is no longer monopolized by Western countries.

But despite this ostensibly equal footing, many people criticize the fact that Asian and African states still don’t play a large enough role in the development of international law. Most international institutions are still located in the Global North and serve the interests of Western countries.

In the last several years, many international affairs scholars, including Kishore Mahbubani from the National University of Singapore, have suggested that the 21st century may be the “Asian century,” as most Asian countries assume much more significant role on the world stage.

The 65th anniversary of the Bandung Conference could provide momentum for Asia to reflect on its current and future involvement in the international legal order. Asian and African countries are poised to again work hand-in-hand to shape the future of international law. Through international institutions, Asia and Africa could play a more significant role in the development of international law and shape it to support their own interests and development.

Gedung Merdeka in Bandung during the conference in 1955

To realize these goals, however, Asian and African countries must obey and support international law. In the South China Sea conflict, for instance, Asian countries should uphold the rule of international law.

Amidst the growing trend of unilateralism and populism, the commemoration of 65th Anniversary of Bandung Conference could also be a wake-up call and reminder for Indonesia: the country has made a tremendously significant contributions to international law and norms. Indonesia would do well to revive this initiative and take on a leading role in international affairs, potentially as a mediator in regional conflicts such as the South China Sea dispute, but also to promote a rules-based international order in the region.

The “Asian century” shouldn’t be the story of only China and India. Indonesia, as the third-most populous country in Asia, should also use this momentum, not only to secure more economic benefits for the Global South through international cooperation, but also to contribute more to the development of international law to assure a more peaceful world.

By reflecting on the Bandung Conference, Indonesia should realize the country has a legacy of taking a leading role on the international stage. Indonesia could use the current momentum to once again implement what is mandated in our constitution: to contribute to world peace through the development of international law.

About the Author

Aristio Rizka Darmawan
Aristyo Rizka Darmawan is a lecturer in international law and a senior researcher at the Center for International Law Studies at the University of Indonesia Faculty of Law.