By Kul Chandra Gautam, Assistant Secretary General, UN
There is much poverty, injustice, inequality and feudalism in Nepal. We would all like to see these evils end. But none of these justify the violence and vitriol, murder and mayhem, the destruction of infrastructure and the consequent militarization of our society. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Even noble ends do not justify evil means.
I worry deeply about the long-term consequences of the culture of violence and intimidation that is being glorified in the name of people’s revolution, and the counter measures that it is provoking. Even after the conflict ends and peace is restored, it will take years, perhaps decades, for our nation to heal its wounds. People will not easily forgive and forget the killing of innocents. We will be able to rebuild the infrastructure that has been destroyed, but it will be harder to overcome the hurt, the distrust and resentment that have been instilled in people’s hearts and psyche. History will judge our revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries very harshly indeed.
So we must do everything possible to end this fratricidal conflict in which even the victors will be losers and all Nepalis have become victims. Since we are dealing with an internal ideological conflict among the Nepalis, ideally it should be resolved by the Nepalis themselves. Ultimately the solutions to Nepal’s problems must be found right here in Nepal, not in New York or New Delhi or Norway or anywhere else.
However, if we Nepalis are not able to resolve the conflict by ourselves, for whatever reason, we should not hesitate to call upon our international friends and well-wishers for advice and support. After all, we habitually solicit and accept international assistance for all kinds of internal development issues, including the fight against poverty, hunger, illiteracy, and even to control corruption and promote good governance. How is it that it is okay to accept external military aid for guns, ammunition and combat helicopters in an internal conflict, but it is not okay to accept external assistance for making peace? So long as the external support is not imposed, but voluntarily solicited by Nepal, and accepted by both parties to the conflict, such support should be welcomed by everybody.
I have heard some Nepali leaders say that Nepal’s situation has not become bad enough to warrant any international involvement. Well, my friends, I hope we will have the wisdom to seek international support long before the situation further deteriorates and becomes a real or perceived threat to international peace and security, at which time we may very well have some unsolicited international intervention as has happened in several countries in our own region and beyond in recent decades. I hope Nepal will learn from the experience of many “failed states” and others in conflict that invoke the logic of “it is an internal affair” to avoid friendly external support until it is too late, the situation gets out of control and then some form of external intervention becomes inevitable. Wouldn’t it be better for Nepal to voluntarily seek support for making peace before the country becomes a completely lawless wasteland, rather than face the consequences of a possible unsolicited intervention later? All of this is not to say that international support will necessarily produce peace. There is no magic formula that the international community can bring to peace talks. Ultimately it has to be the Nepalis themselves who must find enough common ground in their conflicting vision of a better Nepal. What the international community can bring is some professionalism, expertise and a dispassionate role of an honest broker, facilitator, guarantor or simply a witness that might be helpful to the Nepali negotiators.
I want to emphasize the importance of “the good offices” function of the Secretary-General. This is especially helpful in sensitive negotiations, where the parties to the conflict wish to engage in discreet dialogue, to explore various options both in terms of processes and substance. The offer of his “good offices” is inherent in the Secretary-General’s role as the world’s premier peacemaker. It does not require any formal UN resolution or official request. All it requires is the willingness of the parties to the conflict to avail of such “good offices” and the goodwill – not a formal agreement – of other key stakeholders. Many parties to the conflict in the world have used the Secretary-General’s “good offices” to come to initial agreements, which are later formalized through peace agreements or through appropriate UN resolutions. Agreeing to the Secretary-General’s good offices does not necessarily imply accepting the UN as a mediator, but only as a facilitator. This role can be as broad or as limited as the parties to the conflict desire, and, obviously, depending also on the availability of resources at the disposal of the Secretary-General.
Although the conflict in Nepal is most painful to us, it is not a high profile or a high priority for the UN yet. So let us not assume that Nepal will easily get high-level attention, if the Nepalis themselves are ambivalent about the UN’s role. We will need to compete for such attention with other crises in the world that command greater media attention and greater strategic interest of the world’s big powers. As part of the Secretary-General’s “good offices” function, a senior official of the UN’s Department of Political Affairs, and a good friend of mine, has been visiting Nepal from time to time to assess the situation, and to explore how the UN might be able to help.
As you know, the official position of the Government has consistently been that while they appreciate the UN’s interest and concern, they would prefer to resolve the conflict by negotiations among the Nepali parties without involvement of any third party, including the UN. But should there be a helpful role for the UN in the future, the government has said that it remains open to seeking the UN’s help as needed.
The Maoist leaders have said that they would accept and welcome peace talks under the auspices of the UN though they send mixed messages in terms of preconditions under which they would be willing to enter into negotiations. Leaders of most political parties also seem receptive to UN supported peace talks. Nepal’s civil society, including the large number of Nepalis living and toiling all over the world, whose remittances sustain the livelihood of so many victims of the conflict, also strongly favour UN-brokered peace talks. Some Nepalis and friends of Nepal have expressed an understandable worry that involvement of the UN in negotiations between the recognized Government and a rebel movement might lend undue legitimacy to the latter. Based on the UN’s experience elsewhere, I would say that this worry is unfounded.
Like in Nepal, most conflicts in the world today are internal rather than international. The UN has found many innovative ways to help in such internal conflicts. With the UN playing an impartial role of an honest broker, the issue of recognition, legitimacy and equivalency need not arise. On the other hand, however the peace talks are carried out, Nepal would eventually need to undertake disarmament of combatants, monitoring of elections, and a massive programme of relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction. The UN would be uniquely qualified to assist Nepal in these tasks. In fact, it is hard to imagine that any other country or organization could fulfill this role as well as the UN would.
Even when peace comes to Nepal, it is likely that people who have lost their loved ones and who have suffered from violence will not be able to easily forgive and forget the pain, injustice and indignities they had to endure during the dark days of the insurgency. The desire for revenge and to settle scores will be understandably very strong. Like in other war-torn countries Nepal too might need to set up mechanisms of “Truth and Reconciliation commissions” to help heal the wounds of the conflict.
The support of the United Nations could be especially helpful in setting up such mechanisms as well as to help monitor and prevent further human rights violations, and to foster a climate of respect for human rights and humanitarian principles.
It is sometimes said or implied that our neighbors, especially India, do not wish to see any third party involvement in Nepal’s internal conflict. And the Government is obviously sensitive to this geopolitical consideration. I would however argue that the fact that Nepal is surrounded by two giant neighbors, makes the potential role of a neutral, impartial organization like the United Nations to facilitate the peace process more appropriate, not less so. Both our neighbors have denounced the insurgency in Nepal. Both of them, and all of our other friendly nations, too want to see a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Nepal. India and Nepal have a complex, multi-faceted relationship with many players involved. It is possible that some of them may have some reservations about third party involvement in Nepal’s peace process. However, it is for Nepal to decide what is best for itself, with due sensitivity to its neighbors’ legitimate concerns.
It is perfectly normal and understandable that two good neighbors may not always have identical views or approaches on every issue. In the Indo-Nepal relationship there have been instances in the past when one country’s views and actions were not fully appreciated by the other, at least initially.
However, in due course, these differences of views strongly felt at the time, were resolved and reconciled, as they usually are between two good neighbors. Good friends must be sensitive to each other’s concerns, not subservient to anyone’s wishes. If it is Nepal’s sincere judgment call that UN’s support would be helpful for bringing peace in Nepal, I would venture to suggest that India or China or any of our other friendly countries would not object, but would support it. So let us not use possible objection by our neighbors as an excuse for not seeking UN’s support, if we genuinely believe that such support would be helpful.
There are ways in which the UN’s support can be structured to take account of the legitimate concerns and sensitivities of its member states.
Even as a neutral facilitator, the UN would not be party to any agreement that is contrary to the norms of democracy and human rights. If any of the Nepali parties have the illusion that they can use the umbrella of the United Nations to pursue their political or ideological objectives that are not in keeping with the 21st century norms of democracy and human rights, they will be disappointed. On the other hand, for those who sincerely subscribe to genuine democracy, human rights and peace, a UN supported peace process ought to provide some comfort that these basic principles will not be compromised.
Let me be clear, as I said at the beginning, that the UN does not have any magic formula to bring peace to Nepal. So we should not have any false expectation that the conflict will end quickly if or once the UN is involved. It may well take many years of protracted negotiations and further loss of life and destruction before the parties to the conflict get exhausted or find the wisdom to agree to settle their differences peacefully. But let us hope that there might be faster progress in Nepal.
As I have said before, compared to many other complex political crises in the world in which the UN has played a helpful role, the resolution of Nepal’s political conflict ought not to be so difficult. Fortunately, Nepal’s conflict has no historically deep-rooted racial, ethnic or religious connotations. It does not involve war over drugs, oil, diamonds or other mineral riches. Although, some analysts often advance various conspiracy theories, there are really no colonial, superpower or other external forces trying to fuel or profit from Nepal’s conflict. Nepal’s conflict is a classic struggle for political power, though as in all such conflicts, socio-economic factors are invoked and exploited in support of the protagonists’ cause. With enlightened national leadership and helpful international support, it should not be so difficult to find a common ground among Nepal’s political protagonists. Indeed each of Nepal’s 3 political protagonists, the King, the Maoists and the parliamentary political parties has something good to offer the people of Nepal. As in some progressive European democracies, a truly constitutional monarchy could offer the country a symbol of national unity and stability.
Some aspects of the Maoist agenda for social justice and an egalitarian economic order could help Nepal overcome the long legacy of unjust feudalism. And a modern multi-party democracy characterized by good governance would help usher Nepal to join the mainstream of progressive, 21st century democracies in the world. Unfortunately in Nepal’s recent history, all three of these political protagonists have at times behaved in a manner that has created deep distrust among each other, and alienated the people of Nepal. But there is still a chance for each of these protagonists to redeem themselves by resorting to the best elements of their ideals that could endear them to the Nepali people.
The leaders of the Maoist movement have an especially important opportunity and challenge to make a historic choice at this juncture, which will determine whether they will be seen in the history of Nepal as a progressive force for social change or be condemned as a brutal movement espousing a failed ideology that inflicted unspeakable terror in the land of Lord Buddha.
The Maoists participated in the parliamentary elections of 1991 and did reasonably well. More recently they have shown that they can appeal to a segment of the population that felt disenfranchised and marginalized. By joining the democratic mainstream and abandoning violence, intimidation and extortion as their political instruments, the Maoists can now leverage their success in the battlefield and transform themselves into a mainstream, progressive political party that champions the cause of the poor and the downtrodden. However, the Maoists should not make the mistake of miscalculating the people’s acquiescence out of fear and intimidation as popular support for them. If they truly believe that they have popular support they should welcome the opportunity to demonstrate it through ballots not through, bullets. The Maoists should also realize that if somehow they manage to come to power through a violent revolution, they would turn Nepal into a pariah state, shunned by the international community. As we have seen in many other countries, violent revolutionary movements can occasionally gain power but cannot retain it for long. I trust that Nepal’s Maoists will have the wisdom to learn from history and make the right choices at this critical time.
Finally if the Maoists wish to see UN involvement in the peace process in Nepal, they should demonstrate in action, not just in words, that they comply with the basic principles, norms and Conventions of the United Nations.
Cold-blooded murder and intimidation of journalists, for example, casts serious doubts on their commitment to a democratic state and a pluralistic society. We all hope that peace talks will start soon and a durable cease-fire will accompany such talks.
(Courtesy: Talk program organized by the NCWA last week)