Possible Role of United Nations in the Peace Process

Statement by Kul C. Gautam
Nepal World Affairs Council,  Kathmandu, 20 August 2004

Ladies and gentlemen, and dear friends,

Before I speak to you on the topic of my presentation today, on the Possible role of the United Nations in the peace process in Nepal, I want to talk to you about an issue which is dear to my heart in my official capacity with UNICEF.

The issue concerns a big killer – measles. In Nepal 5000 children die of measles every year, more than the total number of deaths caused by the conflict in any one year. Yet these deaths could be easily prevented by a simple, cheap vaccine.

Next month, UNICEF and WHO will be supporting the Ministry of Health in conducting one of the biggest public health campaigns ever launched in Nepal. The aim is to vaccinate 9.5 million children, from 9 months up to 15 years, against measles.

As a result we hope to reduce child deaths due to measles by 50 per cent by next year.

On Monday, together with the National Human Rights Commission, we will be appealing to all parties to provide support for this campaign.

Our children are our future. Let us help them to survive and thrive – and not die or suffer from measles or from the conflict.

Now let me turn to the subject of today’s talk – the Possible role of the United Nations in the peace process in Nepal.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Although I am a UN official, I speak to you today in my personal capacity as a Nepali citizen who, like all of you, is deeply pained by the violence and conflict that is destroying our motherland.

We all want to see Nepal become “sundara, shaanta, bishaal” once again. There is nothing I would cherish more at this point in my life than to contribute to bringing peace in Nepal. And I know all of us here share similar wish and sentiment.

Yes, 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 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 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.

Many friendly countries, international organizations and private groups have offered to help in the peace process in Nepal. All of them have some worthwhile contribution to make if the Nepalis were to avail of their services judiciously.

But today I would like to speak mainly about the possible role of the United Nations.

Let me clarify again that, as the title of my presentation suggests, I will speak about the possible role of the UN. I am not here to propose or offer any specific role for the UN in any official capacity. I am here to share some personal reflection as this topic seems to be of considerable interest to many Nepalis and friends of Nepal.

I am often asked what can the United Nations 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 done precisely that 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.

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.

We must realize that today there are many conflicts and crises in the world clamouring for the Secretary-General’s attention – from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, and many countries in between – from Bhutan, Burma and Sri Lanka in our neighbourhood, to Darfur, Kosovo, North Korea and far away Haiti on the other side of the globe.

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 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.

It is sometimes said or implied that our neighbours, 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 neighbours, 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 neighbours 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 neighbours’ legitimate concerns.

It is perfectly normal and understandable that two good neighbours 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 neighbours. Good friends must be sensitive to each other’s concerns, not subservient to anyone’s wishes.

If it is Nepal’s sincere judgement 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 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 its member states.

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.

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.

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.

Ladies and gentlemen,

While the search for an enduring peace must be our highest and urgent priority, and the United Nations can be helpful in that, Nepal should take greater advantage of the UN even in times of the current continuing conflict.

Many UN agencies already operate in Nepal and they have sizeable programmes of cooperation. These agencies have issued common guiding principles and basic operating guidelines for their work in the situation of armed conflict.

These guidelines emphasize the obligation of all parties to allow the UN free and unhindered access to civilian population in need, so that humanitarian assistance can be provided to women, children and vulnerable groups.

We must ensure that these agencies are indeed allowed to operate without any hindrance to offer life saving humanitarian assistance to people in need.

Monitoring and protection of human rights is another area in which the UN has been actively involved. We need to do more in this area in close cooperation with the National Human Rights Commission and civil society organizations.

Working with many Nepali and international civil society organizations, the agency with which I am most closely associated, UNICEF, has been promoting the idea of “children as a zone of peace” to protect the sanctity of schools, health centres and other basic services for children.

I would like to appeal to all Nepalis, and especially the Maoists, that we spare children from the political games of adults and make the well-being of children a rallying point for unity and solidarity among all Nepalis.

Enough of bandhs and blockades, hartals and hustling that compromise the future of our children and inconvenience innocent people but do not lead to any political breakthrough.

In particular, the Maoists must realize that their practice of forcibly removing children from their schools and communities to participate in their ideological training and using them in armed conflict is clearly in violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the relevant Geneva Conventions to which they profess their allegiance.

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.

Dear friends,

We all hope that peace talks will start soon and a durable cease-fire will accompany such talks.

Nepal’s great festivals of dasain and tihar are coming soon. Let us hope that this year, and in the years to come, we can all celebrate these festivals in an atmosphere of peace and joy.

I would like to suggest that all parties to the conflict in Nepal consider observing “days or weeks of tranquillity” during the dasain/tihar period with two objectives:

a) to allow people to visit their ancestral homes freely without any fear of searches, arrests, kidnapping or extortion, and

b) to mobilize the whole nation to provide some basic services for children, women and vulnerable groups under the auspices of the United Nations.

In many countries in situations of conflict UNICEF and other UN agencies, organize such periods of tranquillity to immunize children and to offer other services such as vitamin supplementation, food aid and other commodities to needy population, especially children. We could do the same in Nepal.

We would ask that all parties to the conflict support such an initiative, and not try to take political advantage or partisan credit for it.

Looking beyond the period of conflict, the UN can also begin to help Nepal make a head start in preparing a post-conflict reconstruction and development plan that will be so essential for Nepal.

This work can begin under the leadership of our UN Resident Coordinator working with the UN country team, other donors and Nepali professionals.

I would personally be happy to help and mobilise international support for such plan.

But if peace does not come, and soon, all of this will be a futile, palliative exercise.

I would therefore urge Nepal’s civil society and friends of the Nepali people throughout the world to continue to put pressure on all of Nepal’s political protagonists for an early and peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Dear friends,

In our life time we have seen many impoverished nations in Asia and elsewhere make great progress in economic prosperity, political pluralism, technological advances and human development. But this senseless conflict is dragging Nepal backwards.

History will judge us very harshly if we allow this conflict to drag any further. In this conflict there will be no winners, all Nepalis will be losers. Let us therefore make ending this conflict as fast as we can our most urgent and sacred, collective effort.

Thank you

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