By Kul C. Gautam
At the Nepali Samaj – UK Conference London, 20 February 2005
I am delighted to join the Nepali community and friends of Nepal in London to commiserate with you on the sad turn of recent events in Nepal, and to share some thoughts on the possible ways forward.
I salute the Nepali community in the UK for your activism and genuine concern for Nepal. I also acknowledge with great appreciation how the government and people of the United Kingdom have been great and genuine friends of Nepal.
And let me single out BBC and its Nepali language programme for its extraordinary coverage of events in Nepal. At a time of severe censorship of the press in Nepal, the BBC Nepali service has been a precious little window to our beleaguered homeland to millions of Nepalis all over the world. Thank you, BBC.
Fifty-five years since the advent of democracy in modern Nepal, democracy has never been in greater peril than it is today.
For many years we felt democracy in Nepal was fragile because of our feudal past, or because of the immaturity of our political leaders, or because of the ignorance of our peoples.
But today democracy is threatened, first and foremost by the ruthless insurgency of the Maoists, and now compounded by the authoritarian measures of the King.
The fact that our elected political leaders too failed to give us good governance when they had a chance to do so for a decade since the advent of democracy in 1990, is a sad commentary on the state of Nepali politics.
While all 3 groups of protagonists share the blame for Nepal’s political misfortune, the degree of their culpability and the longer term impact of their actions and convictions vary considerably.
There is no doubt that the political parties squandered their opportunity to help build a strong foundation for democracy with good governance. Many of their leaders were seen as lacking vision, maturity and accountability.
They acquired notoriety for mismanagement, corruption and constant bickering for power and perks. None of the party leaders truly commanded great popular respect. Most of them were seen as power-hungry political opportunists.
However, it must also be said that, although it is no justification for their misdeeds, Nepal’s political leaders were, on balance, perhaps not terribly more corrupt and inefficient than leaders in many other new and fragile democracies.
Moreover, while politics at the national level was sullied by some crooked leaders, Nepal’s short-lived multi-party democracy was functioning relatively well at the local level and was beginning to produce good results.
Had the democratic experiment been allowed to continue, over time, there was a good chance that younger and more accountable leaders rising from the grass roots would have taken charge.
A functioning democracy tends to be self-correcting as voters eventually throw out irresponsible and unaccountable leaders.
The value of democracy should be measured not only by the performance of political leaders but also by the vibrancy of civil society, the freedoms enjoyed by people to express their views and pursue their dreams.
Though far from perfect, the advent of democracy in 1990 did usher in a new era of unprecedented openness and freedom to Nepal.
And while the pace of progress was not fast enough to meet people’s rising expectations for economic development and social justice, people were beginning to be empowered as globalization in all its dimensions began to penetrate the mountains and valleys of the kingdom.
The monarchy has a chequered history in Nepal. While it is generally identified with Nepal’s nationalism and unity, it is also seen as a protector of feudalism. Some of Nepal’s Kings were progressive and reformists, but others have been authoritarian and obscurantist.
The present King Gyanendra ascended the throne, for the second time, under inauspicious circumstances, following the massacre of most members of the royal family. He dismissed an elected government and assumed de facto executive powers. While he professes a commitment to constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy, his actions were seen as constantly manoeuvring to outsmart the elected leaders of political parties.
King Gyanendra’s proclamation of February 1, 2005 is full of disdain for political parties and their leaders. Given his antipathy towards political parties, his impatience with democracy, and his reliance on the military and political cronies from the “party-less” Panchayat days, people cast doubts on his professed intentions to “suspend democracy to protect democracy”.
A charitable view is that he attaches the greatest importance to end the Maoist rebellion and feels that he can do a better job than the political parties who misruled the country over the past decade and created the mess in the first place. Once peace is restored in the nation, he would hand over power to a democratically elected government.
But the draconian measures he has taken to curtail civil liberties, including freedom of speech, censorship of the press, incarceration of political leaders, journalists and human rights activists, in the context of his well-known contempt for political parties, reminds people of his father King Mahendra’s authoritarian rule.
The fact that some of the present King’s closest advisers come from his father’s entourage or their ideological successors, gives little comfort to his detractors.
But the worst culprits for the tragic situation of Nepal today are the Maoists. They are clearly driven by an outdated ideology that has failed elsewhere in the world.
While their advocacy of certain populist causes won them some initial popularity, today fear of violence, coercion and intimidation are the fundamental basis of their power.
The Maoists profess to champion certain progressive social and political agenda, including letting the people decide the fate of the monarchy through an elected sovereign constituent assembly. But the fact that they are armed and intolerant of other political parties, casts serious doubts on their sincerity to seek a negotiated settlement and to allow free and fair elections.
Thus all 3 groups of political protagonists have disappointed the people of Nepal.
This is a great pity because potentially each of these groups has something good to offer the people of Nepal.
If we could harness the best elements of all three – Nepal could have a respected constitutional monarchy as a symbol of national unity; a progressive, populist, egalitarian socio-economic order as espoused (but not always practised) by the Maoist movement; and a modern multi-party democracy with a higher degree of accountability than has been the case in the last decade.
I am afraid that the February 1, 2005 royal coup d’etat by the King may have irreparably damaged the prospects for genuine reconciliation between the King and the political parties.
It has certainly divided and polarized the people of Nepal (including our community in diaspora) into some who welcome the King’s actions as essential to combat the Maoists; and others who condemn the royal authoritarianism as a death knell to democracy.
Feedback from Nepal indicates that many Nepalis genuinely welcome the King’s actions because they are fed up with the Maoist atrocities and have lost faith in the ability of our elected political leaders to secure peace and tranquillity.
Indeed, authoritarian rulers enjoying emergency powers can make certain things happen that can be very popular (trains run on time, strikes are banned, bureaucracies can be jolted to action, justice can be meted out summarily, etc).
While we should not dismiss or denigrate such support for the King, many equally patriotic Nepalis genuinely condemn the King’s actions and distrust his motives. It takes a great leap of faith to believe that authoritarianism is the answer to totalitarianism.
Some Nepalis want to give the King the benefit of doubt, noting that he has taken great risk to his own throne in making this daring do or die decision. Others feel that his power grab to “suspend democracy, to save democracy” is not only disingenuous, but it inadvertently helps the Maoists as they can now claim that they are not fighting a democratic government but an anachronistic and repressive monarchy.
Thus ironically, the Maoists who are hell bent in abolishing the monarchy might be the major unintended beneficiaries of the royal ruse.
Most of Nepal’s closest international friends, especially those committed to democracy, have condemned the royal take-over.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations has called the King’s actions a serious setback for the country. He has demanded that steps should be taken immediately to restore democratic freedoms and institutions.
But in deploring the excesses of the royal take-over, let us not forget what led to this situation. It is largely the Maoist rebellion, the so-called “people’s war” with its abominable atrocities, that paved the ground for the royal takeover.
Two wrongs don’t make a right. The King’s actions should not be allowed in anyway to justify or vindicate the Maoists’ anti-peoples’ war.
Even as we condemn the King’s actions, we must condemn even more vigorously the Maoist atrocities, and demand that the CPN (Maoist) forsake the use of violence as a method of political change; stop extortions, abductions, and destruction of the nation’s infrastructure; and come forward for a negotiated settlement of the conflict.
Like the King, the Maoists too have an obligation to abide by universally accepted norms of democracy and human rights.
As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Louise Arbour has reminded the King, Nepal is a party to many key international human rights treaties, conventions and instruments. It is obliged to ensure the enjoyment of the rights contained in these treaties by the Nepali people. The core of these human rights cannot be suspended under any circumstances, even during a state of emergency.
Similarly, the High Commissioner has warned the Maoist leaders neither to misread developments in the wider world nor to believe that they can operate outside of the law. “…we have entered an era of accountability”, she said, “In every part of the world, political and military leaders who thought themselves immune from prosecution are now answering before the law for gross human rights abuses they perpetrated.”
Coming from a former prosecutor of war crimes in the Balkans, our Maoist and military leaders would be well advised to heed this warning.
Peace is obviously the most urgent need of Nepal today, as everything else we want – development, democracy and human rights cannot flourish in the absence of peace.
But what would it take to bring peace in Nepal?
Everybody agrees that there is no military solution to the conflict. The government’s efforts to put military pressure on the Maoists to persuade them to come to the negotiating table have so far failed miserably.
Early reaction of the Maoists to the King’s call for their “return to the mainstream of national politics peacefully” and his efforts to put military and political pressure on them has produced a defiant rejection by the Maoists.
The Maoists’ military successes in the past have led to a dramatic growth in the size of the Royal Nepalese Army, increased foreign aid for the RNA and further escalation of conflict and increased militarization of Nepali society.
Long drawn out wars tend to create their own momentum of corruption and criminality. A lasting impact of the Maoist insurgency in Nepal will be the glorification of violence and culture of extortion and intimidation.
Military expenditures have risen dramatically in Nepal’s civil war. War is becoming a profitable business for some. It is leading to increased human rights violations. It is destroying the fabric of Nepali society.
It is clear that a military solution to the conflict is simply not an option because its human costs, and long-term impact on Nepal’s future are simply unacceptable. A negotiated settlement to the conflict is therefore the only viable option.
But as two rounds of peace talks between the government and the Maoists collapsed, it seems doubtful that there is enough mutual trust or a unifying vision among the Nepali parties to reconcile their differences to end the conflict.
Some helpful international support seems indispensable.
There have been many offers of international mediation and support, including by the United Nations, the European Union, and some non-governmental organizations. In the past these offers have been systematically rejected by the government on the ground that Nepalis can and ought to deal with their internal affairs.
A contributing factor has been the presumed objection of the government of India to any third party mediation.
I believe the time has come for a renewed effort to initiate peace talks, but this time with the active involvement of third party facilitation.
In the past I have spoken at length about the possible role of the United Nations in helping the peace process in Nepal. Let me reiterate here some key points.
It is often said that since we are dealing with an internal ideological conflict among the Nepalis, ideally it should be resolved by the Nepalis themselves.
I agree that ultimately the solutions to Nepal’s problems must be found in Nepal, not in New York or New Delhi or here in London 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 internaldevelopment 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 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. Because if that happens, 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. 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 am often asked what the United Nations can do to help.
The short answer is that if the Nepalis don’t help themselves, nobody else, not even the United Nations, can help us.
But if the Nepalis genuinely reach out to the UN, it could do much to help, not just in negotiations for peace but also for post-conflict reconstruction, development, disarmament and electoral assistance.
Unless the Nepalis, especially His Majesty’s Government of Nepal, request it, it is difficult for the United Nations to be proactively involved in what is essentially an internal conflict.
The Charter of the United Nations forbids it from intervening in the internal affairs of a sovereign Member State, unless either the government itself requests for help or if the situation in the country threatens international peace as determined by the Security Council.
In the absence of these, all that the UN can do is to express its concern, show its solidarity and offer its good offices.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan has offered his “good offices” repeatedly in his reports to the General Assembly, in his messages to the Nepali authorities, and to all parties concerned, including the Maoists.
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 peace maker. 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.
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.
In the past 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 have been receptive to UN supported peace talks. And Nepal’s civil society and human rights activists also strongly favour UN-brokered peace process.
Some Nepalis and friends of Nepal have expressed an understandable worry that involvement of the UN in negotiations between the 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 fulfil 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.
Nepal is a proud and active member of the United Nations. It has the right to request UN’s help, and the UN has a duty to provide such help. The UN should, therefore, not be considered a “third party” to negotiations but a helpful mutual friend of the Nepali negotiators.
If we Nepalis want and ask for UN’s support 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 neighbours 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 all its member states, and especially of our neighbours.
Finally, it should be reassuring to all Nepalis and friends of Nepal that any peace agreement with which the UN is associated, would certainly uphold principles of democracy, respect of human rights and adherence to international law. So all democrats should feel comfortable in seeking UN’s help.
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 earlier, 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.
While international pressure and support might lead the King and the government to change their course, I am afraid the biggest obstacle to peace might continue to be the Maoists.
It is far from clear that the Maoists are genuinely prepared to accept a pluralistic, democratic system that forsakes violence as a legitimate instrument of political power.
In areas where the Maoists run the so-called people’s government, their rule has no tolerance for other political parties or opinion. Their system of justice is based on kangaroo courts. Intimidation and indoctrination seem to be the normal operating procedure.
Many teachers have been forced to be “full timers” for the Maoists. Many people have been involuntarily coerced to join the Maoist local governments. Land mines laid by the Maoists have caused havoc. Innocent people are caught in the crossfire between the Maoists and RNA. The victims are predominantly ordinary people, including women and children, who have nothing to do with politics and have committed no crime.
The Maoists have abducted thousands of children from schools and communities to participate in their ideological training and are using them in armed conflict, which is clearly a violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Geneva Conventions to which the Maoists profess their allegiance.
Many highly credible individuals, organizations and eye-witnesses ranging from Nepali journalists, human rights activists, the National Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group, have documented evidence of these arbitrary and atrocious actions of the Maoists.
But incredibly, the CPN (Maoist) spokesman flatly denied and belittled these violations of human rights in his recent interview on BBC.
In a cynical and potentially dangerous and divisive way, the Maoists have introduced the notion of regional autonomy based on ethnic groups. People have been forced to dig bunkers to protect themselves from imaginary invaders. Indeed the Maoists’ actions, propaganda and paranoia remind one of Albania under Enver Hoxa, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and today’s North Korea under the Kim dynasty.
The fact that the Royal Nepalese Army too has committed human rights violations and the King’s recent steps have violated democratic principles, is no justification for the Maoist atrocities.
At least the King and the RNA do not claim the inherent rightness of their actions but acknowledge them as necessary aberration, whereas the Maoists proclaim their actions and ideological convictions as based on “scientific truths”, notwithstanding the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disavowal of Maoism in its own birthplace.
If the Maoists really wish to see UN involvement in the peace process in Nepal, as they have been demanding, they should demonstrate in action, not just in words, that they comply with the basic principles, norms and Conventions of the United Nations which uphold democracy, respect for human rights and international law.
Let us all hope that the Maoists will have the wisdom to 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.
And let us hope that they will 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 the Maoists 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. Let us hope that Nepal’s Maoists will have the wisdom to learn from history and make the right choices at this critical time.
The choices they make at this juncture, will determine whether the Maoists 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.
Similarly, Nepal’s King and the military too are faced with having to make some bold, historic choices at this time.
There is already a widespread and growing pro-republican sentiment among Nepal’s students and younger generation, not just confined to the Maoists.
And now with the King’s recent moves, many mainstream parliamentary parties which previously supported constitutional monarchy are seriously questioning their loyalty to it and its utility to the nation.
The behaviour of some members of the royal family further erodes people’s reverence for monarchy.
The King will have to perform extraordinary somersault, restore people’s civil rights and democratic institutions, and transform his image, if monarchy is to continue to survive and thrive in Nepal.
The armed forces of Nepal have a proud history as the defenders of the nation, and as peace makers in the world. Here in the United Kingdom the Gurkhas have an impeccable reputation of being valiant professional soldiers.
As a Nepali working at the United Nations, 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.
And the parliamentary political parties too face a major challenge to redeem their reputation.
The lack of internal democracy and transparency seems to have sapped the vitality of political parties. 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.
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.
There is no going back to the status quo ante of pre-February 1, 2005, as it was not the finest period of democracy in action.
If they are to win the trust and respect of people, the political parties of Nepal will have to re-engineer themselves, bring out fresh and new leadership, shed some of their old habits and secure a second chance to redeem themselves and offer the nation a healthy middle ground between royal authoritarianism and Maoist totalitarianism.
And we the Nepali civil society, including the NRN community in diaspora, must do our part to encourage our friends, compatriots and leaders to make the right choices.
The first one of those choices is for Nepal to invite a credible third party, preferably the United Nations, to help facilitate peace talks immediately.
If the Nepalis do not take the initiative for third party mediation or facilitation, I would suggest that friends of Nepal in the international community must do so. We have waited long enough, and allowed the situation to deteriorate dramatically. The time has come for the international community to be pro-active.
In the absence of proactive efforts by the international community, especially the UN, I fear that Nepal is destined to become a failed state like Somalia or Liberia, or Cambodia of an earlier era. The cost to the international community of rescuing Nepal from its ever deepening crisis is only likely to grow.
It is my considered judgment and advice that Nepal should be a prime candidate for a more proactive, preventive conflict resolution approach by the UN without waiting for further deterioration.
The UN is one of the few institutions that is highly respected in Nepal. Outside the top government circles, there is widespread public support for and expectation of UN assisted mediation for peace, reconstruction and humanitarian assistance. If the situation is allowed to deteriorate further, I fear that the international community would one day have to invoke the principles of “the responsibility to protect” civilian population from untold suffering, and rescue the country from violent anarchy.
This is undoubtedly the worst period in the history of modern Nepal. But despite all this, the spirit of the Nepali people remains unbroken. I truly marvel at the fortitude of our compatriots in the most trying circumstances.
Even in these difficult times, we must not give up hope, and must persevere to persuade all of Nepal’s political protagonists and our international friends to seek a non-violent, negotiated settlement to our fratricidal conflict.
We must honour our great martyrs who gave their life for our nation. We must remain steadfast in our faith in democracy. And we must renew our collective hope, efforts and prayers to make our dear Nepal, once again, sundara, shanta, bishal.
(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)