Challenges Facing Nepal’s Leadership to Usher

By Kul Chandra Gautam

At a Dialogue on the Millennium Development Goals organized by the Nepal Chapter of the Society for International Development

Kathmandu, 19 March 2004

Yes, I am a UN official. But I would like to speak to you today as a Nepali citizen, who shares the agony of the difficult times this country is going through. I would like to express some views candidly, with the freedom of speech that fortunately we continue to enjoy in Nepal, and slightly less encumbered by the diplomatic protocol that a UN official has to observe.

First, let me start by acknowledging how honoured and privileged I feel to join Drs. Shankar Sharma, Harka Gurung and Mohan Man Sainju. This is truly a Triple A team of the very best and brightest of Nepal’s development planners and practitioners. If I were asked to choose 3 professionals who could best represent Nepal in any international development forum, I could not think of anybody else who could match these 3 gentlemen.

Having heard from them, what can I add? They have talked about the historical context and the present realities in which Nepal is pursuing the Millennium Development Goals. They have talked about domestic resources and international cooperation needed and available for Nepal’s development. They have touched upon the regional context in which Nepal is pursuing the MDGs.

I know the whole of the United Nations system and the donor community, some of whose representatives are in the audience, are committed to helping Nepal pursue MDGs.

Nepal actually has a pretty good track record of being one of the first countries to prepare its Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper that is very MDG-oriented.

It was also one of the first countries in the world to prepare this Progress Report on MDGs.

Last year, I was proud to hear Shanker Sharma and the UN country team present Nepal’s commitment to MDGs to the joint Executive Boards of UNDP, UNICEF, UNFPA and WFP in New York.

As a least developed, land-locked country Nepal faces formidable challenges in meeting the very ambitious Millennium goals. The horrendous political conflict further compounds its prospects.
One needs to actually ask how relevant are the MDGs in the present context of Nepal?

Some would say that the MDGs are highly relevant because they address some of the presumed root causes of the conflict – namely, poverty and inequality, illiteracy and ill health.

But how about peace and democracy? Human rights and social exclusion?  And conflict resolution?

These issues too are covered in the broader Millennium Declaration, of which MDGs are only one part. I would actually suggest that Nepal needs to pursue the totality of the Millennium Declaration, not just the MDGs.

Nepal’s international development partners, including the United Nations system, should also take a holistic approach and support it in pursuing the MDGs in this broader context.

The Charter of the United Nations asks it to promote peace, development and human rights. These are really 3 indivisible components for national development, for international solidarity and for human progress.

So when UNICEF and other partners here in Nepal advocate for “children as a zone of peace”, for example, that concept embodies the 3 precious ideals of the United Nations – the sanctity of schools or any institution where innocent children congregate as a haven for peace; investment in education, health and other basic services for children as the foundation for human development; and protection of child rights and nurturing respect for human rights among children as the corner-stone for a just, democratic society locally, nationally and globally.

I would hope that as we pursue the Millennium Development Goals and the Millennium Declaration, we would always look for approaches that promote this trilogy of peace, development, democracy and human rights.

Peace is obviously the most urgent need of Nepal today, as development, democracy and human rights cannot flourish in the absence of peace. One can hear and feel the yearning for peace among Nepalis everywhere.

But what would it take to bring peace in Nepal?

Compared to many other complex political crises in the world, the resolution of Nepal’s political conflict ought to be not 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, people 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 other socio-economic factors are invoked and exploited in support of the protagonists’ cause.

With enlightened leadership, it should not be so difficult to find a common ground among Nepal’s political protagonists.

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 would 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.

But at present none of the 3 political protagonists are behaving in a manner that would harness the best of what they have to offer the people of Nepal.

Some of the actions of both the monarchists and the Maoists seem clearly not in keeping with the world of the 21st century. The manner in which the major parliamentary political parties are being sidelined and undermined betrays a lack of genuine faith in democracy (which as Sir Winston Churchill said, is the worst form of government, except for all the rest).

The Maoists seem wedded to a globally discredited and failed ideology. While some of their pronouncements are progressive and modernist, their actions betray an undemocratic streak in which any means is justified for their political ends.

In recent years, violence, intimidation and extortion seem to have become standard operating procedures of the Maoists, in contrast to the populist policies and actions that resonated well with the poor and oppressed people in the early years of the movement.

And the parliamentary political parties, still smarting over popular disenchantment with their poor governance in the past decade, have not yet been able to come up with their own redeeming vision that could rally people behind a viable democratic middle ground.

The lack of internal democracy and transparency seems to have sapped the vitality of political parties. And the political vacuum at the local level in the absence of all elected local bodies has weakened the parties at the grass roots level – a vacuum often filled by unelected Maoists.

All 3 groups of political protagonists in Nepal need to eschew their craving for power and put the interest of the suffering populace at the forefront. Among them, the two groups commanding the power of the gun, have a special responsibility as their actions are a source of untold suffering for the people, creating an atmosphere of violence, fear, insecurity and violation of human rights.

Today the leaders of Nepal have an extraordinary opportunity to make the right decisions that will leave a lasting mark in the history of this country.

Having come to the throne in the most tragic circumstances in the life of his dynasty, as well as at a turning point in the history of his nation, His Majesty the King has the historic opportunity to transform the medieval institution he represents into an institution fit for the 21st century.

There are plenty of examples of monarchies that have collapsed or that survive only because the tide of history has not reached their shores. But there are also a few examples of constitutional monarchies that remain and thrive even in the most advanced and progressive nations.

To survive and thrive, the monarchy of the 21st century has no choice but to cast its lot with the forces of democracy. The people of this country, and its friends in the world, count on His Majesty to make the right choice.

The leaders of the Maoist movement also face the challenge and opportunity to make the right choices at this juncture. They can transform their success in the battlefield into becoming a progressive political party that champions the cause of the poor and the downtrodden.

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. They can try to parley this into broader-based popular support in electoral politics and emerge as a constructive political force.

However, the Maoists should not make the mistake of miscalculating the people’s acquiescence out of fear and intimidation as popular support for them.  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 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.

As those that are likely to be the indispensable force for the future, the parliamentary political parties have a historic opportunity to secure a second chance to redeem themselves and offer the nation a healthy middle ground.

In the past leaders of many of these parties, when in power, were too keen to enjoy the spoils of office and compromised on ethical norms of good governance. When out of power, the same leaders were too eager to bring down those in power rather than acting as a mature, constructive loyal opposition.

Learning from their past mistakes, it would be highly desirable for the parties, individually and collectively to come out with some voluntary codes of conduct to temper their behaviour in the future. This would include instituting more transparent internal democracy in the functioning of the parties, so that they bring to the fore their inner strength that emanates from the grassroots of their party organizations and local leadership.

When peace talks resume, if mediators or facilitators are involved, it would be worthwhile for them to try to come up with such codes of conduct for each of Nepal’s key political protagonists – the monarchy, the Maoists and the political parties.

I know there are various groups in Nepal trying to prepare such codes of conduct. I would encourage these to be thoughtfully formulated, and widely debated and disseminated.

Such codes of conduct could be appended to the final political settlement, with a commitment by all parties to be held accountable. Nepal’s international development partners, and national civil society could serve as witnesses and possibly as monitors and guarantors of such commitment.

Let me add, one more group to the list of leaders who are called upon to make wise decisions for the sake of the nation at this historic juncture. The armed forces of Nepal have a proud history as the defenders of the nation, and as peace makers in the world. As a Nepali and a UN official, I feel proud of Nepali troops in UN peace keeping missions in all kinds of trouble spots in the world.

It is therefore, most disappointing that the Royal Nepalese Army’s conduct in our internal conflict has been tarnished with accounts of human rights violations. The accounts of excesses committed by RNA personnel with impunity come from so many sources on so many occasions that explanations and excuses do further dishonour to this vital organ of our body politic. At a time when the RNA is getting increased budget, personnel and equipment, it simply needs to recommit itself to becoming the most disciplined force worthy of the name and fame of the Gurkhas all over the world.

I have strayed a bit far from my assigned topic of the Millennium Development Goals and the Millennium Declaration, because I believe that the resolution of the political crisis must be a part, if not a precondition for the successful pursuit of the Millennium goals.

But as part of the pursuit of a durable peace, I believe it would be important for us to already begin to outline a massive programme of post-conflict reconstruction and development. It would be wonderful if planning for such a programme could be a multi-party, national undertaking.

For the resolution of the political conflict, it is often suggested that some kind of a round table conference should be held involving all political parties, including the Maoists. It may take some time before such a conference can be held on the difficult core political issues. But why could not we start such a conference on issues of reconstruction and development?

I could imagine an all party conference initially devoted to issues of reconstruction and development as a confidence building measure in the context of the impending political negotiations. It would show the Nepali people and our international development partners that our leaders are not just obsessed with political power but care about the people’s well-being.

I would urge the government and political parties, to nominate some of their most senior and seasoned leaders and professionals to work on issues of reconstruction and development. The Maoists too could join such a process when they come above ground.  The United Nations could be helpful in facilitating and supporting such a round table conference.

If the millennium development goals were made the centre-piece of such a reconstruction and development plan, I know we can mobilize substantial international support for Nepal’s efforts.

The people of Nepal would find it refreshing to see our top political leaders engaged in a serious debate on how to reduce poverty, create employment, build infrastructure and empower communities for local development, instead of their endless bickering for attaining or retaining political power.

The yearning of people for peace, reconstruction and development is so great, and their disdain for the constant maneuvering and machinations of political leaders so widespread, that it would be wonderful if even in the midst of the on-going political conflict, we could initiate some activities that would unite people in an act of solidarity around shared goals and aspirations of people.

One subject that unites everybody and evokes goodwill and solidarity is the wellbeing of children. Could we make the cause of children a rallying point for some actions that would be the antidote to the politics of bandhs and blockades, hartals and hustling which inconvenience innocent people but do not lead to any political breakthrough?

I would like to suggest that we institute days or weeks of tranquility during which the whole nation mobilizes around provision of some basic services for children. Under the auspices of UNICEF and other UN agencies and with the participation of some of our local implementing partners, we could fan out to every village and town to provide services such as immunization and vitamin supplementation, food aid and other commodities to needy population, especially children. Special programmes could be organized in schools and health centres.

We would ask the cooperation of the government, political parties, including the Maoists, to facilitate delivery of such services without any hindrance or obstruction. We would ask that during such days or weeks of tranquility service providers and the people at large are allowed complete freedom of movement to avail of such services.

We would ask that all political protagonists support this initiative, and not try to take partisan credit for it.

One way to do this would be for the government as well as the Maoists and other political parties to explicitly acknowledge and abide by the basic operating guidelines that the UN agencies in Nepal have put out.

These guidelines are based on principles enshrined in international laws and conventions to which Nepal is a party. The guidelines stipulate that UN agencies are to have free and unhindered access to civilian populations in need, including the transportation, distribution and end-use monitoring of development and humanitarian assistance.

It is my impression that all of Nepal’s political protagonists – the current government, the political parties and the Maoists underestimate how much ordinary people disdain their lack of genuine concern for the people’s well-being and their self-serving pursuit of political power and perks.

If, for a change, our key political leaders were seen as interested in long-term reconstruction and development as well as short term humanitarian action, even in the midst of the conflict, I can imagine there being a groundswell of popular support and a sense of hope and optimism developing that would be so conducive to extricating the country from the present morass.

To sum up, on the political front 5 set of actions are urgently needed:

1.     reconciliation between the government and the political parties, with the former making some bold, courageous and genuine efforts to entrust the formation of a multi-party government to the major parliamentary parties.

2.     the parliamentary political parties to adopt a code of conduct for their future behaviour that gives people some assurance that they would rectify some of their past mistakes, and will govern with greater integrity and accountability in the future.

3.     the Maoists to renounce their acts of violence and intimidation as a prelude to resumption of peace talks.

4.     the signing and implementation in a monitorable manner of specific commitments on protection of people’s human rights by government security forces and the Maoist militia.

5.     initiation of peace talks, perhaps under the auspices of the United Nations.

These political initiatives, along with the simultaneous pursuit of planning for reconstruction and development and immediate humanitarian action would pave the way for Nepal to pursue the Millennium Development Goals in earnest and end the present dark chapter of our history for a better future for the nation.

Thank you.

(Mr. Gautam is Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author in his personal capacity, and not necessarily those of the United Nations or UNICEF.)