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UN Symposium

On Thursday, April 22nd, in celebration of the United Nation’s 70th Anniversary, the UN symposium was held in Zarrow Hall featuring an eye-opening lecture from Jennifer Foray, an Associate Professor of History at Purdue University. In her lecture, Dr. Foray discussed the many behind-the-scenes interactions between different people and organizations that directly affect our history. She specifically mentioned September 28, 1950 – the day on which Indonesia was accepted into the United Nations as an independent state. She explained that the Indonesian Flag raising ceremony outside of the UN headquarters in New York City was simply the finite result of years of Indonesian struggle against Dutch imperialism and the extremely complex process of decolonization in the East Indies.

Until December 27th of 1949, what we now know as Indonesia was recognized as the Dutch East Indies – “the crown of the Dutch empire.” It is a commonly-known fact that Indonesia is now a free and autonomous state; however, the long and violent process that lead to Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch, and the United Nations’ (and a few especially influential delegates’) instrumental role in the process of decolonization are less well known. The process began during World War II; while Dutch officials (who were typically stationed in the Dutch East Indies) were away in London, Indonesian nationalists declared their independence to the world. Unsurprisingly, their declaration of sovereignty was not recognized by the Netherlands or, initially, the United Nations. This lack of recognition speaks to the massive inequality between states in that it displays the ubiquitous hierarchy between the Netherlands and the East Indies which allowed the Dutch to determine the status of the East Indies, thereby denying Indonesians the right to self-sovereignty.

Both Jeanne Mintz and Ambassador Sutan Sjahrir played instrumental roles in Indonesia’s journey to independence. Due to Dr. Mintz’s extensive knowledge of both the Netherlands and Indonesia, she was able to provide incredibly valuable insight that ultimately resulted in the UN decision to allow Indonesians to fight to obtain their independence. Despite its status as an “observer,” granted by the United Nations in 1947, Indonesia still had no voting power and was thus unable to determine its own fate when the larger UN powers determined that the situation in the East Indies was not threatening and closed the case. Again demonstrating the inequality of power between states on the global stage. Imperialist powers like the United States and the United Kingdom have relatively absolute power over smaller states and especially nations who are not recognized as sovereign. Since these Imperialist powers have such a huge amount of power, smaller states often have no say in international dealings.

Fortunately, in 1949, the United Nations realized that the Netherlands had repeatedly violated its cease-fire agreement with the East Indies which prompted the UN to reevaluate the situation in the East Indies and reconsider Indonesia’s declaration of independence from the Netherlands. After Indonesian delegates, specifically Ambassador Sutan Siaharir, presented their argument at UN Headquarters in New York City they were finally granted their independence. The fact that Indonesia was not able to declare its sovereignty from the Netherlands, despite the violent Dutch treatment of Indonesians and having created a stable government is further testament to the inequality of states; there are a few large and powerful states who hold the majority of global control. They are responsible for making many decisions of international importance, and play crucial roles behind-the-scenes of most global interactions even when their influence can’t be directly observed.

Indonesia was the first state to transition from colonial control into the United Nations. Since 1949 many other states have followed in the steps of Indonesia, and have gained active positions in the United Nations. However, even states who are active members of the United Nations do not have the same weight and influence as the larger, more powerful countries. I found Dr. Foray’s lecture to be extremely insightful into global politics as a whole, the United Nations and inequality between states. As Dr. Foray began to explain how the United Nations was involved in Indonesia’s journey to Independence I began to realize how much power the elite powers wield in comparison to smaller states who have a limited influence. I was also surprised by the “observer” status of states that aren’t recognized as sovereign by the United Nations. I feel that this system gives large nations a significant advantage over smaller, poorer states that could (and most likely already has) result in corruption. I certainly agree with Dr. Foray that the UN played a significant role in Indonesia’s independence from the Netherlands, especially after hearing the extensiveness of UN involvement.

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