Questionable Wisdom of Ban Ki-moon’s Visit to Lumbini

Questionable Wisdom of Ban Ki-moon’s Visit to Lumbini

By Kul Chandra Gautam

KATHMANDU, March 9, 2012 (IPS) – Reports of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s planned visit to Lumbini, the birth place of Lord Gautam Buddha, and a UNESCO World Heritage site in Nepal in April 2012, have caused a mixture of excitement and apprehension in Kathmandu.

The people of Nepal warmly welcome the personal interest of the head of the UN to promote the development of Lumbini. It was Burma’s U Thant, the first Asian Secretary-General of the UN, who took a personal interest in the development of Lumbini as a major world pilgrimage site.

At U Thant’s initiative the UN established an international committee for Lumbini, and helped prepare a master-plan for its development, which unfortunately has remained largely unimplemented.

Under normal circumstances, the personal commitment of the UN’s second Asian Secretary-General, and his desire to visit Lumbini to promote its development would be welcomed whole- heartedly, not only by Nepalis but the world’s one billion Buddhists. But these are not normal circumstances in Nepal.

The country is currently struggling to come out of a decade- long violent civil war which ended six years ago, but genuine peace has not yet dawned. The drafting of a new national Constitution has not been completed yet.

Fifteen thousand Nepalis, most of them civilians, were killed during the decade-long insurgency, and horrendous human rights violations were committed, some amounting to crimes against humanity. But not a single individual has been prosecuted for war-time atrocities, and many known perpetrators of heinous crimes are occupying high positions in government institutions.

Instead of establishing a credible Truth and Reconciliation Commission consistent with international norms, the ruling political party, the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-Maoist) is negotiating the terms of blanket general amnesty with other major political parties.

The United Nations’ Mission to Nepal (UNMIN) was asked to leave the country before its task of helping complete the peace process was concluded. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is being thrown out of the country before the core issues of transitional justice and accountability for grave violations of human rights have been satisfactorily completed. And now, Ban Ki-moon has accepted an invitation to co-chair an international conference on Lumbini with the head of UCPN-Maoist, whose officially declared policy glorifies violence with the motto: “power comes from the barrel of the gun”.

Ban Ki-moon’s host and counterpart, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, is the Chairman of the ruling Maoist Party, who was recently appointed as Chair of a national committee for the development of Lumbini by the incumbent Maoist-led Government of Nepal.

Dahal led a violent armed insurgency resulting in the death and disappearance of tens of thousands, and displacement of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Although Dahal’s party signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement, contested elections and became the largest political party and formed a government under its leadership twice, it has not formally renounced violence as a method of political change. It continues to be the Party’s official policy to “capture state power” by any means – either through ballots or bullets, through its actions in the parliament, the government or “people’s revolt” from the streets.

The main rationale for UN’s involvement in Lumbini is to spread the culture of peace, not to condone the glorification of violence. It would be most ironic for the Secretary-General of the UN to co-chair a meeting with an unrepentant leader with blood in his hand in the holy birth place of Buddha, known as the Prince of Peace, who renounced his Kingdom to spread the message of peace and non-violence throughout the world.

If Ban Ki-moon is to co-chair a high profile meeting with Dahal, he must insist that Dahal’s party officially renounce the use of violence in politics in the spirit of the Charter of the United Nations. Otherwise, the Secretary-General co- chairing a conference with a leader who refuses to renounce violence would be contrary to the UN Charter, and to do so at a holy religious site would be a sacrilege insulting not just peace-loving Nepalis but millions of Buddhists around the world.

Ban Ki-moon must also take account of earlier attempts by a rather mysterious Hongkong-based private foundation called the Asia-Pacific Cooperation and Exchange Foundation (APECF), of which Dahal is a Co-chairman, to involve the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) rather than UNESCO which has a more legitimate role for the development of a World Heritage site like Lumbini.

When the highly unusual manner in which the Beijing office of UNIDO was found to have been enlisted to help APECF, without the knowledge or approval of its own Headquarters or the Government of Nepal, UNIDO was embarrassed and promptly disowned its country office’s decision and reprimanded its country Director.

Given this context, it would be most unwise for Ban Ki-moon to lend his name and the prestige of the UN to help white- wash the image of a political leader who refuses to renounce violence. One of the grave mistakes that Kofi Annan made for which he feels forever guilty and embarrassed was to call back General Romeo Delaire, the Head of UN Peace-keeping troops in Rwanda, just before that country plunged into a catastrophic genocide. Ban Ki-moon should be careful not to make a similar mistake in Nepal which he might have to regret.

As Nepal’s peace process is at a critical juncture, the Secretary-General of the UN could help expedite it and regain the lost lustre of the UN in Nepal by insisting on three preconditions for his planned visit: a) insist that Dahal and his Party officially renounce the politics of violence, b) officially announce that the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Disappearance Commission will fully comply with the norms enshrined in relevant UN Conventions to which Nepal is a State Party, and that there will be no blanket general amnesty for heinous criminal acts, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and c) insist that the long-delayed integration and rehabilitation of the Maoist combatants is completed in the next few weeks, culminating in the closure of all remaining cantonments prior to the Secretary-General’s visit to Nepal. Ban Ki-moon must convey such message bluntly and forthrightly, not in the ambiguous diplomatic language calling for “flexibility and compromise by all parties”. He should cancel his trip to Lumbini unless and until these preconditions are fully met.

It is understood that part of the reason for Ban Ki-moon’s strong interest in the development of Lumbini has to do with his devout Buddhist mother’s wishes. We Nepalis deeply respect her wishes.

If that is the case, Mr. Ban is welcome to visit Lumbini any time for a pilgrimage, but without mixing it with the political connotations of hobnobbing with Maoist leaders who refuse to fully abide by the Buddha’s teachings of peace and non-violence.

Published in IPS