Jimmy Carter and Nepal – Part 2

Jimmy Carter and Nepal – Part 2

In addition to helping observe the forthcoming CA elections, here are four important issues which we hope former US President Jimmy Carter will address during his visit to Nepal:

Human Rights

Carter has been a champion of human rights, even in countries and with rulers who question the universality of human rights, or try to pit civil and political rights against social and economic rights. He should be unequivocal in championing a broad human rights agenda in Nepal.

Transitional justice is a burning issue in Nepal. The recently promulgated ordinance on Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a half-hearted and deliberately deceptive effort to obfuscate accountability for serious crimes against humanity. Sadly, the leadership of the Maoists and the Nepal Army seem to have reached a tacit agreement to protect each other’s cadres and officers from prosecution, artfully defining the terms of “reconciliation” that essentially amount to general amnesty.

The Maoists threaten anyone who speaks about following due process of law in dealing with serious crimes committed by their cadres and leaders as trying to sabotage the peace process. Other political parties trying to protect their own supporters or Nepal Army officers accused of similar crimes tend to go along with a charade of potential white-wash. The end result is that many victims of inhuman atrocities will not get justice while the perpetrators will roam free.

We know from worldwide experience that there can be no genuine peace without justice. Carter should reinforce this message raised by Nepal’s own human rights activists, the National Human Rights Commission and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The social justice agenda

Historically, Nepali society has been highly stratified and large segments of the population have been marginalized and discriminated. Ensuring greater social justice and empowering the marginalized communities must, therefore, be a central preoccupation of all of us who stand for an inclusive democracy.

We know Jimmy Carter deeply cares about the issues of equity and social justice. So do a whole spectrum of activists in Nepal. Some of us speak loudly in revolutionary and militant terms, others favour more thoughtful and effective approaches. It is easy for foreigners who do not understand the complex Nepali social dynamics to misunderstand who stands where.

Like USA and other countries in the world, Nepal has some dark chapters in its history, along with some glorious ones. We must certainly acknowledge and press for rectifying the injustices of the past, not by inciting vengeful retribution, but by inculcating a new sense of unity for shared prosperity for all. We must harness the richness of our cultural and ethnic diversity in a forward-looking manner rather than constantly harping on the negative aspects of our past as the Maoists and some ethnic and Madhesi activists and academics do. We must focus on how to bring future prosperity in greater equality for all Nepalis – with priority to the most deprived and marginalized communities.

As in USA, Nepal has many advocates of radical social change who feel passionately about building a more just and prosperous society. But as Carter would surely understand, there is a big difference between change-seekers like civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr versus a Louis Farrakhan or Malcolm X, or between the NAACP and the Black Panthers. One, therefore, needs to have a nuanced understanding that not all champions of radical change are genuinely progressive or constructive.

Well-meaning but gullible international diplomats, donors and academics with a superficial sense of Nepali history and current complexities, ought to be especially careful not to generalize people’s class and clout, or beliefs and attitudes, based simply on their ethnicity, caste or geographic origin. As Martin Luther King said, people should be judged “not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”. This applies equally to not judging Nepalis superficially by their surnames instead of their true beliefs and character.

Federalism in USA and Nepal

A principal reason for the failure of the now-defunct Constituent Assembly was disagreement on the nature of federalism which is likely to dominate the next election campaign. So far, the debate on this subject has been more divisive in Nepal’s current politics than perhaps any other issue.

On the surface, Nepal’s current debate on federalism sounds like the heated debates at the great American Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 when two competing visions for the future of the US Government as reflected in the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan were eventually merged into the Connecticut Compromise.

But unlike in USA, where representatives of all participating states shared a common vision of democracy, republicanism, and federalism, even as they held differing views on the best modalities to attain their goals, unfortunately Nepal’s political parties have more fundamental ideological differences in their basic values and vision for the country.

Even a visionary document like the American Constitution with federalism as its bedrock, was initially unable to create the kind of inclusive and egalitarian society that we Nepalis aspire to. In America, women had to wait for 130 long years to gain legal and constitutional equality in 1920.

Blacks were not given equal constitutional status until 1870, and most racial minorities had to wait till the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress in 1965 to enjoy full legal protection in all federal states. Some of the special rights given to America’s indigenous Indian population did not help them to improve their status in mainstream American society. Many built-in imperfections of federalism actually led to a bloody Civil War to secure the full emancipation of America’s Blacks. Even today, the ranks of elected officials in the US Congress remain disproportionately white, wealthy, and male.

In Nepal’s new Constitution, we hope to avoid such deficiencies found in the original US Constitution, and the kind of federalism we design will be a litmus test for that. Federalism certainly has many merits, but the American experience shows that addressing the issues of inequality and injustice is not one of them. On the contrary, intervention and leadership of a strong Central/Federal government was often necessary to counter many discriminatory and regressive practices condoned or promoted by the federated States of America.

In Nepal too, federalism has many justifications especially in ensuring genuine devolution of power from a highly centralized state to local levels, but federalism based primarily on ethnic and other parochial considerations is likely to create more problems than solving them as we have seen in many other countries.

Federalism and an inclusive democracy are two separate and valid considerations. Worldwide experience shows that contrary to what many Nepali advocates of identity-based federalism argue, these are not necessarily correlated. Some of the highly inflated promises of what ethnic or identity-based federalism can deliver as deceptively propagated by the Maoists, and more sincerely hoped for by many Madhesi and Janajati activists tend to be instinctive, emotional and faith-based rather than evidence-based.

I trust that Carter will be able to share his world-wide experience and advise Nepalis that our legitimate pursuit of greater equity, inclusion and social justice, must not be equated or confused with identity-based federalism. Indeed, there is no basis to think that Nepal’s most marginalized groups – women, Dalits, Muslims, and poor Madhesis or Janajatis would be better off in identity based federations. As in most other societies, class interests are often stronger than caste, regional or gender interests when it comes to people’s economic behaviour.

International friends of Nepal, like Jimmy Carter, ought to encourage Nepalis to pursue the federalism and equity agenda in a judicious manner, not just motivated by righting the wrongs of the past, but building a brighter future for all Nepalis. And we should be extra careful not to inadvertently create economically unviable “Bantustans” as proposed by the apartheid regime in South Africa, under its philosophy of “separate but equal”, which was soundly rejected by Carter’s fellow “Elder” Nelson Mandela who wisely insisted on creating a vibrant multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society, where there would be no second class citizens in any part of the new South Africa.

Pursuit of economic prosperity

Economic issues are grossly neglected in Nepal’s super-charged political atmosphere. But most Nepalis tend to judge the worth of political changes – democracy, republicanism, federalism, etc – in terms of their economic well-being and human security.

It is worth noting that the main commonality among the thousands of migrant laborers who line up in Kathmandu’s passport offices, manpower companies and international airport is not their caste, ethnicity or geographic origin, but what former US President Bill Clinton said so memorably – “it’s the economy stupid”. Indeed, it is not the identity-smart, but the economy-stupid arguments that unite most Nepalis in a shared pursuit of a brighter future for themselves and their children.

With the influence of globalization, now rapidly penetrating even the remote corners of Nepal, most upwardly mobile Nepali youngsters, regardless of their ethnic, linguistic, caste and geographic backgrounds, aspire to travel abroad for study and work, rather than retreating to their ethnic enclaves. Whether they come from a nominally privileged community or the marginalized one, all Nepalis today suffer from weak rule of law, corruption, tolerance of impunity, too many political parties touting outdated ideologies and slogans as “progressive”, and radicalized and partisan trade unions. These are Nepal’s real problems requiring profound behavioural changes in our political culture, not just the form of government or the structure of state.

Along with good governance and rule of law, brighter prospect for economic prosperity is what Nepalis desire and cherish most. Jimmy Carter would be right on the mark if he were to emphasize this during his forthcoming mission to Nepal.


Published in the Republica daily of Kathmandu 28 March 2013 (http://www.myrepublica.com/portal/index.php?action=news_details&news_id=52200)