Enhancing Democratic Control of Nepal Army as Part of Nepal’s Security Sector Reform

Statement by Kul Chandra Gautam

At Seminar organized by Nepal Institute of Policy Studies (NIPS)

Kathmandu, 12 January 2010

Article 4.7 of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and article 147 of the Interim Constitution of Nepal refer to “democratization” of the Nepal Army. For this purpose the Interim Council of Ministers was expected to prepare and implement a detailed action plan which would have dealt with the “determination of the appropriate size of the Nepali Army”; making the structure and composition of the army more inclusive and representative of the diverse mosaic of Nepal’s population; and ensuring the training of military personnel on democratic and human rights values.

Given the delays and complications on the more urgent issue of the management, integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants in temporary cantonments, the issue of “democratization” of the Nepal Army has so far been relegated to the back burner.

However, the Constitutional controversy surrounding attempts by the previous UCPN (Maoist)-led Government to change the leadership of the Nepal Army, points to the great importance of addressing this issue seriously.

The term “democratization” of the army is probably a misnomer, since a professional army is a highly hierarchical institution. Similarly, the term “civilian supremacy” has become controversial as it has been appropriated by the Maoist – a political party in command of its own private army in which civilian and military functions are not sharply differentiated.

As per international practice in mature democracies, the real intended meaning of the term “democratization” is to ensure “democratic control of the Nepal Army”, i.e. ensuring that elected representatives of the people in the executive and legislative branches of the government provide effective oversight of the army (and of other security services).

This paper attempts to offer some suggestions on how to enhance democratic control of the Nepal Army as part of a broader, longer-term and comprehensive security sector reform to make Nepal’s security forces more inclusive and democratic.

It should be emphasized that while ensuring democratic control of the Nepal army is of great importance and must be pursued seriously and systematically, it should not be used as an excuse to delay the process of management, integration and rehabilitation of the Maoist combatants.

We simply cannot have two armies in one country. In the spirit of the CPA and the Interim Constitution, it is urgent to complete the process of integration and rehabilitation of the Maoist combatants and to dismantle the temporary cantonments, to create a conducive environment for the completion of the new Constitution which will spell out specific provisions for the democratic control of Nepal Army and other security services.

Ideally, the issue of “democratic control of the Nepal Army” should be elaborated as part of broader security sector reform (SSR), keeping in mind Nepal’s legitimate security interests, but avoiding unnecessary and unaffordable militarization of the Nepalese society.

A key objective of this exercise should be to develop a broad-based national consensus on security policy and institutionalize effective multi-party legislative oversight of security services, thus preventing politicization and factionalization of Nepal’s security forces in the name of “civilian supremacy” by the ruling government of the day.

The Nepal Army has a glorious history of many positive accomplishments for the unity and security of the country, and in international peace-keeping. But reflecting the country’s history of authoritarian political regimes, it has never really been subservient to duly designated civilian authority, nor open to rigorous audit and accounting that is subject to parliamentary scrutiny and oversight.

In recent decades, certain units and senior officers of the (Royal) Nepal Army were accused of being corrupt; unable to provide motivation and boost the morale of the rank and file. There were allegations of the misuse of the Army Welfare Fund established with hard-earned income of ordinary soldiers serving in peace-keeping operations. The Army was also criticized for its inability or unwillingness to hold violators of human rights within its ranks accountable. Occasionally, some senior Army officers were also chastised for openly expressing contempt for political parties and civilian leadership.

On the other hand, it has been a mark of Nepal Army’s professionalism and sensitivity to the winds of political change that, although accused of being “royalist”, it did not attempt to intervene in Nepal’s dramatic political transition in the past 4 years, that led to the abolition of monarchy and coming to power, through elections, of CPN-Maoist against which it had previously fought a bitter war. It is worth noting that in similar circumstances, elsewhere in the world, it is not uncommon to see a restless military staging mutiny, bloodshed and acrimony, if not outright coups d’état.

Nevertheless, the Nepal Army suffers from a negative image which may or may not be fully balanced and fair, but the fact that it has such image calls for a genuine effort to transform both the perception and reality of its credentials as a force that is truly under democratic control and honours civilian supremacy.

Enhancing Democratic Control of Nepali Army

The reference to “democratization” of the Nepal Army in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the Interim Constitution relates to the perception as well as some reality that:

a) the senior officer corps of the NA comes largely from certain well-established “feudal” (bhardari) and aristocratic families,

b) that the composition of the NA is not sufficiently inclusive – e.g. of women, Madheshis, Dalits, and other marginalized groups,

c) that the NA has been historically loyal to the ruling elites – the Rana Prime Ministers and Shah Kings, rather than to the people or elected people’s representatives,

d) that at times the senior officer corps of the army treats soldiers and junior officers as their personal servants and supplicants,

e) that the Army does not always respect the human rights and dignity of its own troops or that of ordinary citizens, and

f) that there is inadequate transparency and accountability in the operations of the Army, leading to much corruption.

While some of these issues can and should be addressed through “democratic control of the army”, others relate to deeper cultural norms that affect many branches of Nepal’s government and society, including the elected people’s representatives themselves who are supposed to provide democratic oversight. It is therefore important to ensure that those who are supposed to provide oversight over the Nepal Army and other security services are themselves regarded by the public as competent and uncorrupt. They too will need to be provided with some training and support to enhance their competence to exercise such oversight effectively.

The following would seem to be some of the ways to ensure democratic control of Nepal Army and other security forces in Nepal:

1. Parliamentary Oversight and Approval of National Security Policy:

The current Interim Constitution, and the Military Act of 2007, mandate the Government of Nepal to control, use and mobilize the Nepali Army on the recommendation of the National Security Council. Such decision of the Government should be placed before the Special Security Committee of the Parliament for approval within 30 days.

For the first time in Nepal’s history, this requirement to put the Government decision to mobilize the army before the parliament has made the executive branch accountable to the legislature. However, in practice, there are still many ambiguities, and the legislative branch of the government is woefully ill-prepared to exercise any effective oversight.

Nepal currently lacks a broad national security policy as well as an effective policy-making mechanism. To get started, I would recommend establishing a small expert task force, perhaps under the auspices of the recently-formed ministerial level committee for the “Democratization of Nepal Army” to draft an initial concept paper on national security policy and policy-making structures.

On the policy-making and oversight structures, such a task force should be asked to review international best practices that are of relevance to Nepal, and recommend what would be the best parliamentary oversight structures and practices for Nepal.

It is important that parliamentary oversight is limited to high level strategic guidance and control to ensure that the government, and in particular the Ministry of Defense and the Nepal Army, are held to account on major policies, operations, organization and financial matters. The parliamentary oversight structures should not be involved in micro-management and political interference in running these institutions.

Currently, very few of Nepal’s parliamentarians have much expertise on military and security matters. And even fewer tend to do their home-work and acquire expertise. There is a tendency for parliamentarians to simply repeat party slogans, to offer simplistic solutions, to vilify proposals from opposition parties, and to engage in micro-management of minor issues rather than focusing on larger strategic issues.

On a highly sensitive subject such as national security that requires sound judgment and discretion, it is important that political parties assign their senior, serious and respected legislators to serve as members of the parliamentary oversight committee on national security.

Arrangements should be made for these parliamentarians to be provided proper briefing and training, and parties should ensure that their parliamentarians serve in the same oversight committees for long enough periods to allow them to develop some expertise.

The proposed expert task force to develop the concept paper and recommendations in this respect might consist of a cross-section of respected security sector experts drawn from current or former officers of the Nepal Army, the police and armed police force, including those who have served in international peace-keeping operations; some academics, civil society leaders and current or former civil servants with experience and expertise on security sector reforms, human rights and related issues.

After initial vetting of such a concept paper by the Ministry of Defense and the National Security Council, it should be presented for review and approval by the Special Security Committee of the Parliament.

The role, structure and function of the Special Security Committee of the Parliament (or whatever new name is given to it), should be clearly spelled out in the new Constitution and accompanying legislation. In the course of time, the Special Security Committee might need to constitute a number of specialized sub-committees in order to exercise its oversight role effectively. But it is important for the Parliament to build its own capacity and competence before expanding its oversight role in order to discharge its responsibilities judiciously.

2. Establishment of a Proper Ministry of Defence

Modern Nepal never had a functioning Ministry of Defense. Many knowledgeable analysts have dubbed Nepal’s Defense Ministry simply as a powerless post-box for the army, with real powers and responsibilities of the ministry vested in and exercised by the Principal Military Secretariat at the Royal Palace until mid-2006.

Since then, during the period of the Interim Government, many of these powers and responsibilities effectively shifted from the Royal Palace to the Army Headquarters, headed by the Chief of Army Staff, who reported on a rather pro-forma basis to the Prime Minister who also served as the Defense Minister.

Under the current Interim Constitution, the President of the Republic serves as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, but the relationship between Army Headquarters, the Ministry of Defense, the National Security Council and the Prime Minister’s Office still lacks much clarity.

The new Constitution and relevant laws will need to make the relative roles of the key players unambiguous so that controversies like the one that resulted from the May 2009 decision of the Prime Minister to sack the COAS, which triggered a subsequent Presidential action to overturn it, will not arise again.

It is now urgent and important to transform and upgrade the Ministry of Defense (MoD) into a modern, well-staffed institution with competent, non-controversial senior officials with some knowledge and expertise of military and strategic affairs to ensure proper civilian oversight over the Nepal Army.

The MoD should have at least the following Directorate/Division/Department staffed with competent professionals with clear job descriptions and accountabilities:


  • Policy and Planning
  • Administration and Management
  • Finance and Budget
  • Human Resources
  • Supply, Logistics and Procurement
  • Legal Affairs
  • Audit and Inspection


Serious consideration should be given to transferring some functions e.g. procurement of arms, ammunition, equipment and uniforms currently carried out by the Military Headquarters to a specialized procurement department run by civilians in the MoD. This would help ensure that military officers are not excessively involved in such non-military functions and that the image of the Nepal Army as a whole is not tarnished as a corrupt institution.

Similarly civilian officers of the MoD must be involved in preparing and scrutinizing the defense budget and ensuring proper oversight of military expenditure.

In the case of the Army Welfare Fund which has come under much criticism and suspicion, its operations should be made completely transparent and its benefits must be shared equitably by all troops, without any preference for senior staff or officers based in Kathmandu or regional headquarters.

In terms of making a visible impact on “democratization”, a key early task of the MoD should be to develop a recruitment and training policy that specifically encourages candidates from communities that are historically under-represented in the Nepal Army to enlist in it.

While there should be no compromise on the basic norms and minimum qualifications required for all new recruits, the Army should be encouraged to develop proactively some affirmative action measures to attract and retain soldiers and officers from groups that are currently under-represented in the Nepal Army.

Such measures could include certain special facilities for women; special language training for people lacking command of Nepali or English; anti-discriminatory measures to overcome any subtle or overt discrimination against Dalits, Madheshis or other marginalized groups.

In trying to make the Nepal Army more inclusive, two things should be avoided: a) there should be no numerical quotas or reservation as such for any group or community, and b) there should be no “group entry” of any particular groups.

On the other hand, the policy of inclusion should seek to offer equal opportunity, including some special affirmative action measures to “level the playing field”.

It is justifiable to have some targeted recruitment drives from time to time, but we should not institutionalize a culture of entitlement and dependence. In a voluntary professional army, as in other voluntary enterprises, it is possible that certain groups might be more attracted than others in certain professions. There is nothing wrong with that so long as the State makes every effort to provide equal opportunity and a level playing field for all citizens to compete. Artificially enforcing equitable representation through quotas and reservations in security forces can be counterproductive in the long-run.

The system of promotion, deployment to attractive assignments, e.g. in UN peace-keeping missions, and access to training opportunities should also be carefully reviewed to ensure that all soldiers and officers have equitable opportunity. Qualifications, ability, performance and potential should not be compromised in this process, but some built-in affirmative action criteria can be added to ensure that staff of all backgrounds get fair consideration, and nobody is granted unequal opportunity.

Finally, a code of conduct should be developed and enforced to ensure that senior officers do not treat junior staff with disrespect or misuse them as personal or household servants.

3. Establishment of Effective National Security Council

The 1990 Constitution formally established a National Defense Council that was supposed to formulate national security policy and provide oversight for the functioning of Nepal’s security services. But this Council never functioned effectively. Indeed, all past efforts to bring the Nepal Army under full democratic control have been rather feeble and pro forma.

The 1990 Constitution did not offer any effective oversight role for the elected parliament in military affairs, vesting all powers in the King as the Supreme Commander of the Royal Nepal Army.

So there is now a need to establish and activate a high level National Security Council as provided for in the Interim Constitution. Such a Council must enjoy the respect and trust of all Nepalis to develop long-term national security policy, to provide guidance for security sector reform, and to advise the government on the mobilization of security forces in times of major security threats.

4. Respect for Human Rights and Human Security

Citizens in open, democratic societies today look at security as a public good which is managed professionally by well-trained, well-equipped and disciplined security services financed with their tax payments. People expect their security services not just to protect their national security, but to help safeguard their human security in times of major natural disasters, epidemics and other calamities.

Security services should, therefore, not be institutions that people fear or are suspicious of. On the contrary, people should cherish them as guardians of their human security as well as national security. The leadership of security services must strive to transform their image as “people-friendly” and trustworthy.

The traditional image of security services as secretive, instilling fear rather than respect must be radically transformed. While a certain amount of confidentiality maybe needed in handling sensitive operations, e.g. in dealing with terrorism, smuggling, etc. even these should be shared in closed hearings of appropriate parliamentary committees so citizens can feel confident that their elected representatives are fully knowledgeable about the need and justification for any secret operations, and that people’s human rights are not violated arbitrarily.

With the above in mind, there is a need to institutionalize:


  • intensive training for all levels of the Nepali Army, including at the officer level, on respect for human rights, humanitarian laws, gender and cultural sensitivity, and zero tolerance of impunity.
  • a strong culture of compliance with these human rights and democratic norms, not only in theory but in practice, through a rigorous system of internal monitoring and external parliamentary civilian oversight.
  • a system of ombudsman and whistle-blower protection is needed to ensure that honest reporting of human rights violations is not suppressed or discouraged.
  • a robust and credible judicial review system whereby security personnel alleged to have violated human rights and humanitarian laws are given a fair trial and that cases that should be referred to civilian courts are duly referred.


5. “Right-sizing” of Nepal Army

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement refers to the need for “determining the appropriate size of the Nepal Army”. This is generally understood to mean a certain down-sizing of the Nepal Army in a peaceful, post-conflict Nepal.

During the decade of conflict, the size of the Nepal Army grew from 46,000 to 96,000. And Nepal’s defense budget increased from less than NRs. 3 billion to NRs. 15 billion+ in 2009-10.

Today, during peace time, most political parties, including the UCPN-Maoist, agree that there is a need to reduce rather than increase the overall size of the Nepal Army. Furthermore, there is a desire to see some of this huge military security budget reallocated to human security priorities.

There is indeed a need for a serious review of the right size of Nepal’s security services in the light of our evolving security challenges. Currently the Nepal Army alone has some 96,000 personnel. With the APF and Police Force, Nepal’s total security personnel exceeds 170,000+. This number is higher than all of Nepal’s civil servants combined, excluding school teachers.

For a peace-loving democratic nation situated between the world’s two most populous and powerful countries, Nepal’s main defense against any possible external aggression can only be skillful diplomacy. Given this reality, it seems excessive and indefensible for a poor country like Nepal to have a 100,000+ army costing nearly $200 million (NRs. 15 billion) annually.

On the other hand, Nepal is likely to confront some new security challenges that were not of much concern in the past. As Nepal goes for a new federal government structure, the possibility of increased internal conflict cannot be ruled out. We are also seeing the growth of many armed groups fighting for various causes, and a deadly mixture of criminality and political activism. These could potentially pose serious problems for the stability, security and even the integrity of the nation.

Given these imponderables, it might be unwise to drastically down-size the Nepal Army and other security forces while the situation in the country is still fluid.

Furthermore, recognizing that military service, both in Nepal and in the Gurkha troops abroad, is an important source of employment and income for many impoverished families in Nepal, great care should be taken to ensure that alternative jobs are created, skill training is provided, arrangements are made for loans and financing for starting small enterprises and businesses by former soldiers, including ex-Maoist combatants, before rushing to large-scale down-sizing of the Nepal Army.

In any case, it would be in the best interest of the nation to undertake any right-sizing exercise in a gradual, thoughtful manner, largely through attrition of existing personnel. With this in mind, a policy decision should be taken not to automatically fill posts, including at the senior officer levels, which become vacant through normal attrition, retirement or voluntary early retirement.

Instead, for the next 3 to 5 years, a special policy should be adopted to fill only up to 25 percent of such “vacant” posts in the Nepal Army, and that too through an affirmative action plan of special recruitment that specifically seeks out and nurtures qualified recruits from among historically under-represented segments of Nepal’s population, including women, Madheshis and Dalits. Some of these could come from among qualified Maoist ex-combatants.

In addition, over the coming decade, we should develop a programme of voluntary early retirement from the Nepal army, and offer the retirees a generous severance package of financial incentives for the next 5 to 10 years. The voluntary early retirement package of financial incentive for NA personnel could be between NRs. 2 to 4 lakhs per retiree, depending on his or her length of service.

It ought to be possible to fund this amount entirely out of Nepal’s defense budget, though some international support might be needed and solicited especially in the early years of the programme.

Such employment creation programmes for ex-soldiers as well as ex-Maoist combatants might include micro-credit and micro-finance schemes to start small enterprises, businesses and cooperatives. One could even envisage a special scheme for foreign employment for demobilized soldiers and ex-combatants, as several countries are known to be very receptive to employing retired security personnel with good professional training, skills and military discipline in certain occupations.

As Nepal is going to need some 100,000 additional primary school teachers, pre-school monitors and health workers in the coming years, demobilized soldiers and ex-combatants, should be given preferential training and placement opportunities in such civilian occupations.

Even the private sector should be approached to help underwrite some of this retooling and to offer job opportunities for qualified demobilized soldiers and ex-combatants.

While gradually reducing the size of the Nepal Army and other security services, we should invest more in improving the living and working conditions of our existing security personnel.

6. Redefining Major Tasks of Nepal Army

While we are embarking on building a New Nepal, it would be timely for us to redefine the Nepal Army’s major role and tasks in the new changing context of our country, region and the world. I would propose that in a new and peaceful Nepal, it would be desirable to restructure the Nepal Army to undertake 4 major tasks:

1) the traditional military functions of defending and safeguarding the nation’s sovereignty and integrity, and maintaining peace and security,

2) serving in international peace-keeping and peace-building operations,

3) supporting disaster relief and rehabilitation, and undertaking some short-term post-emergency reconstruction and development activities, and

4) providing certain specialized security services, e.g. VIP security, protection of vital installations, etc.

The Nepal Army is already involved in such activities to some extent. What is being proposed here is to make this more formal and systematic, including reallocation of the defense budget to reflect these priorities.

For example, Nepal so far has a good reputation in international peace-keeping. It is now the 5th largest contributor to UN peace-keeping missions. There is no reason why Nepal cannot aspire to be the world’s #1 peace-keeping troop contributor. To make Nepal even more attractive in UN peace-keeping missions, it would help if we had more women soldiers and officers which are in big demand internationally, but in short supply in Nepal.

Increasing the number of women soldiers and officers – including by integration of a sizable number of qualified female Maoist combatants – would therefore be in Nepal’s national interest both from the point of view of making the Nepal Army more inclusive and also more attractive as international peace-keepers.

A new, possible drawback for Nepal to become the world’s leading peace-keeper involves some recent instances of human rights violations by Nepal Army personnel. It is important that Nepal’s security forces maintain an unblemished record of respect for human rights and humanitarian laws, both because it is our national resolve and also to remain attractive in UN peace-keeping missions. Nepal’s military leaders and their civilian overseers must not compromise on human rights standards and seriously consider what is in the Army’s and the nation’s longer-term interest when reviewing the appointment, promotion and deployment of any military or police officers with questionable records.

As Nepal itself is disaster-prone, it would be most desirable for us to develop a highly professional disaster relief contingent in the Nepal Army. Besides meeting the needs of Nepal, we could also envisage Nepal Army having a rapid-deployment unit to help in humanitarian emergencies worldwide. This would also help improve the Nepal Army’s rather tattered image nationally and internationally.

While building specialized competencies in each of the 4 key tasks of the Nepal Army as outlined above, to ensure a sense of equity, common experience and shared pride, in the course of their career, all Nepali soldiers and officers should have an opportunity, and indeed obligation, to rotate and serve in all the 4 key functions, including in peace-keeping operations, which are among the most valued assignments.

Both long-term security sector reform and the short-term task of rehabilitation and judicious integration of Maoist combatants in Nepal’s security services or other alternative occupations are highly sensitive issues requiring very skillful handling by competent and credible professionals.

Fortunately, Nepal has a pool of highly regarded retired Nepali army and police officers who have had relevant experience in UN peace-keeping missions around the world, as well as access to well-trained and skilled retired Gurkha officers. Serious consideration should be given to enlisting the support of such professionals in these sensitive but essential tasks.

As Nepal moves towards a peaceful future, with a reformed and right-sized army, resources freed up from military expenses should be reallocated for poverty alleviation and human development, thus offering a genuine “peace dividend” for the people of Nepal, and making human security the true measure of our national security in the 21st century.

(Mr. Gautam is a former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations)