Legal Aspects of the New International Economic Order

The complaint of the poor nations against the present state is not only that we are poor both in absolute and relative terms and in comparison with the rich nations. It is also that within the existing structures of economic interaction we must remain poor, and get relatively poorer, whatever we do … The demand for a New International Economic Order is a way of saying that the poor nations must be enabled to develop themselves according to their own interests, and to benefit from the efforts they made.

—Julius Nyerere, 19741


The general neglect of the New International Economic Order (NIEO) in contemporary discussions and analyses of international relations has obscured the scale of this initiative and the seriousness with which it was treated by states, international institutions, and scholars alike. The NIEO combined a powerful political campaign with a compelling moral vision of global order that sought nothing less than the transformation of the international economic system. The NIEO was presented in a number of different registers, and it emphasized the importance of mutual benefit, enlightened self-interest, interdependence, and cooperation. And yet this was in itself insufficient. Law was an important dimension of the NIEO for, as President Luis Echeverría of Mexico asserted in 1972, “It is necessary to take co-operation out of the realm of good will to crystallize it in the field of law.”How then did the Third World attempt to use international law to make the NIEO a legal reality? In this essay I provide an overview of the political vision that inspired the NIEO, some of the key areas of economic relations that the Third World attempted to transform, the legal doctrines it sought to develop or reform for these purposes, and the different strategies it formulated in its campaign.

The creation of the Organization of Petrol Exporting Countries (OPEC) and its demonstration of power through the oil embargo it managed in 1973 both inspired the Third World and alarmed the north. The assertion of Third World power—at least by some of the oil-producing nations in 1973—caused enormous concern and was characterized as an “economic Bandung.”3

Understandably, the NIEO was viewed with some hostility, by developed countries. The responses were varied. Irving Kristol accused the Third World of“maumauing” the West, its actual or potential benefactor; Henry Kissinger began a concerted campaign to organize the rich against the poor, and, more moderately, Willy Brandt headed a commission that eventually published the report that would bear his name, and which attempted to demonstrate how all countries, rich and poor alike, could benefit from international reform.The legal aspects of the NIEO campaign were inevitably contested by the developed states and the lawyers supporting their position. My interest lies, then, in examining the confrontation between the Third World and the West as it played out in legal terms.

The broad argument this essay offers is, first, that imperialism was too deeply entrenched in international law to be reformed by that very same law; and second, that the Third World initiative was unable to expand its reach to regulate power within the private sphere—in particular, the activities of corporations and the vision of property, contract, and economic relations that they furthered. A conclusion considers the NIEO’s ambiguous legacy.

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