What happened when Indonesia ‘withdrew’ from the United Nations

Natashya Gutierrez

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What happened when Indonesia ‘withdrew’ from the United Nations
President Rodrigo Duterte's threat to leave the United Nations is not the first from a nation's leader. Indonesia attempted to leave the organization in 1965. Here's what happened.

MANILA, Philippines – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s threat to leave the United Nations (UN) is not the first from a nation’s leader.

On Sunday, August 21, Duterte threatened to withdraw the Philippines from the UN, as he launched another profanity-laced tirade against the organization for criticizing his bloody war on drugs.

“Maybe we’ll just have to decide to separate from the United Nations. If you are that disrespectful, son of a whore, then I will just leave you,” Duterte said in a press conference.

Duterte said he may even try to set up a rival international organization. “I would invite everybody. I would invite maybe China, the African (nations),” he said.

In 1965, Indonesia’s then president Sukarno declared the same – that Indonesia would leave the UN – in opposition to the UN’s decision to give Malaysia a seat on the Security Council. At that time, Indonesia was involved in an undeclared war with Malaysia.

Malaysia became an official country in 1963 – which Sukarno opposed – in his belief that its creation was Britain’s way to keep its colonial influence in the region despite granting the nation independence. Sukarno also aimed for Indonesia to be a regional power. 

On January 6, 1965, according to an Associated Press (AP) report, the Indonesian president declared that Indonesia had “walked out of the United Nations.” 

“On Jan 7, 1965, at 2230 hours (11:30pm), I declare as follows: In my announcement a few days ago I said that if Malaysia becomes a Security Council member, I will order Indonesia to walk out of the United Nations,” he said.

“Now since Malaysia has become a Security Council member, I declare that Indonesia has walked out of the United Nations.” 

He also pulled out of UN specialized agencies namely the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the World Health Organization – agencies which set aside $50 million in aid for Indonesia.

“We can afford to operate without the United Nations specialized agencies,” he said. “It is good for our nation to stand on our own feet. I have said: Go to hell with your aid!” 

Sukarno also said his decision was backed by “the entire people, ministers and military command” and that “we dare to face all consequences.” 

“Only through our overcoming difficulties can we become a great nation. Now march onward, ever onward, never retreat,” he added.

No process for withdrawal

Sukarno said other countries asked him to rethink his decision, but he said, “Many thanks, my decision remains.”

The only country at that time who was supportive of Indonesia’s decision was China, who the AP quoted as saying, the move was “wise and resolute.”

“This is a great encouragement to the people of Asia, Africa and Latin American fighting against imperialism,” it said. 

Even Russia, which provided Indonesia with most of its arms in its conflict with Malaysia, warned Indonesia to rethink its move.

It also noted Indonesia’s unusual decision, saying “regardless of how one assesses Indonesia’s withdrawal from the United Nations, the fact in itself testifies to an abnormal situation in the UN.” 

Two weeks after Sukarno’s declaration however, another AP report said Indonesia was still being treated as a member by the UN.

This, even if the country had reportedly sent two letters to headquarters on its decision to withdraw.

On January 22, Indonesia’s flag flew along with the flags of other UN members, and its nameplate remained in the general assembly hall.

A UN source at the time told the AP that the letters contained “many nuances”; the UN was studying the letters which it shared with all the other members.

It also said the UN charter involved “a treaty of 115 countries,” adding that the other countries may have something to say about the decision.

The UN charter purposefully does not contain a clause on withdrawal to discourage nations from pulling out to avoid UN obligations, and also because it believes a withdrawal goes against the UN’s core aim of unity.

Indonesia continued to insist that its decision was irreversible.

Return to UN

By September 29, 1966, Indonesia returned to the UN after an 18-month absence.

This was after Indonesia conveyed its intent to return on September 10, after a military coup under Suharto stripped Sukarno off most of his power.

Indonesia’s return was met by protests by an American leftist youth group who said Indonesia’s membership should only be restored with debate or a formal vote.

But because there were no real instructions or process on the UN withdrawal, its revocation of membership was also done on the fly. It was simply raised to the General Assembly – an issue to which no country complained. 

Indonesia returned to its seat in the UN after an absence of 18 months, amid a noisy protest by young American leftists in the GA public gallery. 

Upon its return, Indonesia pledged that it would cooperate with the UN and expressed thanks to those who made their return “a smooth and happy one.”

Indonesia is the first nation to ever attempt to quit the UN in its history.

On Monday, the Department of Foreign Affairs said the Philippines is “certainly not leaving the UN” and remains “committed” to the organization. – Rappler.com

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.