Rehabilitation and Integration of Maoist Combatants as Part of Nepal’s Security Sector Reform

By Kul Chandra Gautam

21 December 2008

Following historic elections to the Constituent Assembly, abolition of the monarchy, and formation of a new government, Nepal is now poised to bring its peace process to a logical conclusion and to draft a progressive constitution for a new federal democratic republic.

But a fundamental disagreement among key stakeholders on the highly sensitive issue of “monitoring, integration and rehabilitation” of the Maoist combatants as called for in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the Interim Constitution of Nepal, is threatening to unravel this historic transformation.

A related issue is to make the Nepal’s security forces more inclusive and representative of the diverse mosaic of Nepal’s population by ensuring better representation of women, Madheshis, Dalits and other under-represented groups.

The CPA also speaks of the “democratization” of the Nepal Army and “determination of the right number of the Nepali Army”, generally understood to mean the need to down-size Nepal’s security apparatus.

All of this needs to be done as part of a broader security sector reform (SSR), keeping in mind Nepal’s legitimate security interests, but avoiding unnecessary and unaffordable militarization of the Nepalese society. An even more important objective is to avoid politicization and factionalization of Nepal’s security forces.

An early resolution of these complex issues is vital for bringing to closure Nepal’s peace process, and for lasting peace and tranquility in the country. While some of these complex issues can only be tackled over a number of years, a phased process of reform must begin right away with measurable steps taken in the short, medium and long-term.

This article suggests some specific, perhaps non-conventional, ideas on the issue of rehabilitation as well as selective “professionalization and integration” of the Maoist combatants, and making Nepal’s security forces more inclusive and democratic, as part of a broad, longer-term and comprehensive security sector reform.

The author of the present article is not an expert on the subject of security sector reforms, and the proposals contained in the article are just an outline for further discussion and elaboration by concerned parties and experts.

Recently, there has been much heated debate and controversy regarding the “integration” of Maoist combatants, and recruitment of Madheshis and other under-represented groups to make the Nepal Army more inclusive.

But there has been insufficient debate so far on how to make the resulting Nepal Army a modern, democratic, professional institution that is responsive to Nepal’s genuine security needs; and fully answerable to the elected representatives of the people as in all modern democracies.

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 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.

Since 1990 all of Nepal’s Constitutions have had a provision for a National Defense Council that is supposed to formulate national security policy and provide oversight for the functioning of Nepal’s security services. But such a Council has never functioned effectively.

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 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.

Currently the President of the Republic serves as the Supreme Commander -in-Chief, but the relationship between Army Headquarters, the Ministry of Defense and the Prime Minister’s Office is still evolving and lacks much clarity.

In recent decades, the (Royal) Nepal Army was accused of being rampant with corruption, especially at higher echelons; unable to provide motivation and boost the morale of the rank and file; allegedly misusing the Army Welfare Fund established with hard-earned income of ordinary soldiers serving in peace-keeping operations; unable or unwilling to hold violators of human rights within its ranks accountable, and frequently 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 has not attempted to intervene in Nepal’s dramatic political transition in the past 3 years, that led to the abolition of monarchy and coming to power of CPN-Maoist through elections.

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’etat.

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 the Nepal Army.

The so-called “People’s Liberation Army” of CPN-Maoist also suffers from a negative image. It is accused of forcible or deceptive recruitment, including that of minor children; committing many brutalities and serving as an ideologically indoctrinated “army” of one political party. This makes the “integration” of Maoist combatants with the Nepal Army highly delicate and problematic.

Given the need to reduce rather than increase the size of the Nepal Army, which is the declared position of the CPN-Maoist leadership itself, priority must be given to honourable rehabilitation and management of the Maoist combatants in civilian life.

But as “monitoring, rehabilitation and integration” are explicitly agreed to in the CPA and the Interim Constitution, creative ways must be found for some degree of “integration” in a manner that would actually help strengthen the Nepal Army and other security forces, e.g. to enhance their inclusiveness, professionalization and modernization.

During the decade of conflict, the ranks of the Nepal Army more than doubled from some 46,000 to 96,000. Any large scale “integration” of the Maoist combatants, and additional recruitment from other under-represented communities would make the size of Nepal Army swell well over 100,000 personnel, not even counting the existing sizeable police force and armed police force.

As a peace-loving, democratic country, situated between the world’s two most populous countries, Nepal does not need such a large army. The main role of the military in today’s Nepal can only be to help keep internal law and order, provide VIP security, protect sensitive installations and to suppress internal rebellions and terrorism.

Nepal cannot really rely on its army to protect itself from any foreign aggression, as resolution of any conflict with our mighty neighbours is only conceivable through peaceful diplomacy. At best, the Nepal Army can undertake routine border patrol and provide a temporary deterrence against any foreign invasion, but for that alone there is no need to have 100,000+ army, costing over $100 million a year, in a poor country like Nepal.

Given this reality, Nepal should gradually downsize its army to perhaps half of its current size, or to a level of around 50,000 soldiers, within 5 to 10 years, and reduce its military expenditures accordingly.

In the new peaceful Nepal, it would be desirable to restructure the Nepal army to undertake 4 major tasks: 1) the traditional military functions of maintaining peace and security, 2) serving in international peace-keeping and peace-building operations, 3) supporting disaster relief and rehabilitation, and 4) providing certain specialized security services, e.g. VIP security, industrial security, protection of vital installations, etc.

Moreover, the Nepal army should be sufficiently versatile to support and undertake certain reconstruction and development activities, whenever there is a slack period when large numbers of soldiers are not busy with other assignments. For this purpose, the Nepal army should have a few specialized units, e.g. an army corps of engineers or medical personnel who can be deployed at short notice to development and humanitarian activities.

The Nepal Army is already involved in all 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.

While building specialized contingents 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.

The proposals in this article for the reform of Nepal’s security sector, including limited integration of the Maoists, and recruitment of Madheshis, Dalits, women and other under-represented groups on a priority basis in the Nepal Army are made in this long-term perspective.

Article 4.4 of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement stipulates that the interim cabinet would form a special committee to carry out monitoring, integration and rehabilitation of the Maoist combatants. It appears that the committee formed for this purpose hardly met and made little progress with regard to the question of “integration and rehabilitation”.

There has been an inexcusable lack of progress even on the question of under-age Maoist combatants in cantonments, as verified by UNMIN, who are required to be rescued immediately and adequate provisions made for their rehabilitation according to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

It is especially troubling that the concerned parties in Nepal have taken this serious issue rather lightly even though UNICEF and several other international organizations stand ready to support in the demobilization and rehabilitation of such children, as well as other children affected by armed conflict, in accordance with internationally agreed norms. Adequate funding for this purpose has already been available for some time from various donors but remains under-utilized.

There has also been little progress in coming up with specifics with regard to the modalities for the recruitment of Madheshis as a group into the Nepal Army as agreed between the government and the Madheshi parties in February 2008.

There is an urgent need, therefore, to come up with a set of pragmatic proposals so that these issues do not further derail the writing of the new constitution, and holding the whole peace process as hostage.

Here is a three-pronged proposal for Nepal’s security sector reform, including the professionalization and integration of a limited number of Maoist combatants, making the security forces more reflective of the diversity of Nepal’s population, and democratization of the Nepal army:

  1. For immediate action:
  • a) The CPN-Maoist have already agreed on a clear separation of the military and civilian political functions in their leadership when they formed the current government. This policy must be strictly implemented not just at the leadership level, but all the way down in their chain of command. Accordingly, all CPN-Maoist military commanding officers in and outside the cantonments should not assume any dual military-political functions.
  • b) As there must not be two separate armies, or two separate chains of command, or the mixing of civilian and military functions in a democratically elected government of Nepal, a previous agreement that allowed for some armed Maoist combatants to remain outside designated cantonments to provide special security for senior Maoist leaders should be formally scrapped immediately.
  • c) There is a need to further strengthen the management and monitoring functions in the existing cantonments to avoid illegal, unauthorized and even criminal activities by Maoist combatants and their commanders as has been reported in recent months. Ideally, this should be done in the context of the extension of UNMIN’s mandate, which will now be focused on the issues of monitoring, rehabilitation and integration of Maoist combatants. To ensure greater public confidence that a CPN-Maoist led government does not give mixed signals to its own cadres managing the cantonments, serious consideration should be given to entrusting the overall management and monitoring of cantonments to more neutral and competent administrators, with technical support from senior UNMIN military advisors/specialists.
  • d) Immediately discharge all verified under-age combatants from all cantonments to temporary holding centres far away from existing cantonments. Such holding centres should be managed by respected senior, non-political civilian administrators assisted by UNICEF and other recognized national and international child-welfare organizations.
  • e) Establish a high level National Security Council that enjoys the respect and trust of all Nepalis to develop long-term national security policy, to provide guidance for security sector reform and to oversee other critical short-term transitional arrangements.
  • f) Begin the process of transforming and upgrading a proper Ministry of Defense staffed with competent, non-controversial senior officials, with some knowledge and expertise of military and strategic affairs.
  1. Short-term action (3 to 6 months):
  • a) Under the overall guidance of the high level Special Committee to supervise, integrate and rehabilitate Maoist army personnel formed under article 146 of the Interim Constitution, and supervision of the National Security Council, establish a working group of experts to agree on the required minimum qualifications and criteria for recruitment into the various branches of Nepal’s security services. This working group should determine the eligibility of interested Maoist combatants, as well as all future recruits from various previously under-represented communities to join different branches of Nepal’s security services. (Care should be taken in this context to exclude Maoist combatants known to have committed serious human rights violations – just as action needs to be taken against (R)NA officers with a record of similar abuses).
  • b) With a view to significant downsizing of the Nepal army over the coming decade, develop a programme of voluntary early retirement from the Nepal army, and a severance package of financial incentives (between 1 to 3 lakh rupees, depending on length of service) for the army personnel as well as for those Maoist combatants found ineligible or unqualified to join the security services, and for those who volunteer to take this option.
  • c) This facility for early retirement and financial compensation should be made available for up to 10,000 soldiers and combatants every year for the next 5 years, with priority given initially to the Maoist combatants. Such a package would cost about NRs. 2 billion or some US$30 million per year which could be financed partly through Nepal’s defense budget and partly through international assistance by interested donors.
  • d) Among Maoist combatants who are eligible and opt for recruitment into the Nepal army, organize a special professional training for up to 2000 women combatants, with a view to deploying them on a preferential basis as part of Nepal’s peace-keeping troops with the United Nations. As per Security Council resolution 1325, the UN is actively encouraging the deployment of more women officers in its peace-keeping missions. Nepal could make a very valuable and mutually beneficial contribution to world peace by having a dedicated contingent of women soldiers and officers. This would also help make the Nepal army a more inclusive, gender-balanced and gender-sensitive institution. This would be in Nepal’s larger national interest, and in keeping with Nepal’s new egalitarian, democratic dispensation.
  • e) For the remaining women Maoist combatants (perhaps up to another 2000), arrange for them to be trained as community health workers, pre-school or primary school teachers, or women development officers – with guaranteed employment – based on their qualifications and interest.
  • f) Among the remaining Maoist combatants who meet the minimum required qualifications for various security services, and who opt to join the Nepal army, arrange for the recruitment and professional training, on a preferential basis, of heretofore under-represented communities (e.g. Madheshis, Dalits, etc.). Such recruits should be given special training that combines some basic military/police skills as well as specialized modules dealing with all the proposed four key tasks of Nepal’s security forces, including peace-keeping, community development and disaster relief and rehabilitation.
  • g) Following initial basic professional training of the Maoist combatants, e.g. of 6 months, they should be joined by existing Nepal army soldiers for joint training in various specialized modules so that they all develop mutual understanding, respect, a sense of camaraderie and belonging to one national army.
  • h) For a small number of high ranking Maoist officers, who have not joined the political process or appointed to other civilian jobs, and who have basic officer-level qualifications, arrange for a high level specialized officers’ training partly in Nepal and partly at well recognized institutions abroad. Part of this training should be joint with other NA officers to ensure a sense of camaraderie and bonding as officers of a non-political professional army.
  • i) Negotiate with friendly countries and donor institutions to provide financial, technical and training support for the above programme.
  1. Longer-term action plan:

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 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, who could be very helpful. Serious consideration should be given to enlisting the support of such professionals in these sensitive but essential tasks.

In light of the need to gradually right-size the Nepal Army, 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 through an affirmative action plan of special recruitment that specifically seeks out qualified recruits from among heretofore under-represented segments of Nepal’s population, including women, Madheshis and Dalits.

“Democratization” of the Nepali army as called for in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, should include at least 3 components: 1) gradually changing the composition of the Nepal army, including at the senior officer level, to make it more inclusive of the diversity of Nepal’s population, 2) provide 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, and 3) ensure a strong culture of compliance with these democratic norms, not only in theory but in practice, through a rigorous system of internal monitoring and external civilian oversight.

Such democratization and restructuring of the Nepalese security forces will also help end the vestiges of feudalism and undue influence of aristocratic families that have historically dominated the officer corps of Nepal’s military leadership and perpetuated a bhardari system that has been resistant to true democratic transformation of Nepal.

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 the Maoist ex-combatants, as part of long term down-sizing of the Nepali army and demilitarization of Nepali society.

Such employment creation programmes for ex-soldiers and 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 soldiers with good professional training, skills and military discipline in certain occupations.

As Nepal is going to need several thousand additional primary school teachers and health workers in the coming years, demobilized soldiers and ex-combatants, especially women, should be given preferential training and placement opportunities in such civilian occupations. Even the private sector might be approached to help underwrite some of this retooling and to offer job opportunities for qualified demobilized soldiers and ex-combatants.

In discussing the issue of “rehabilitation and integration” of Maoist combatants, two issues are often raised with much anxiety and concern: 1) the risks of integrating an ideologically indoctrinated armed group loyal to one political party in a national professional army, and 2) the relative merits of the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) versus the Security Sector Reform (SSR) approaches.

These are both very legitimate concerns, but are also quite manageable if we are guided by a genuine commitment to the larger national interest.

As far as the risk of politicization of the national army is concerned, this must be factored in the manner in which integration is handled and the type of professional training that is provided. The Maoist combatants who join the national army should do so as individual Nepali citizens. The CPN-Maoist, as a political party should have no special links with these new recruits. While individual soldiers and officers can enjoy their political freedom and civil rights as all citizens of Nepal, there should not be any political party affiliated units within Nepal’s security forces.

While it is true that the Maoist combatants are ideologically indoctrinated, and politically partisan, most of them joined the Maoist armed groups not out of ideological conviction but out of economic necessity or to escape social discrimination and exploitation. Besides the ideological baggage they might have acquired, they are also likely to have some positive attributes such as holding generally progressive views with regard to many issues concerning social justice and equality in Nepal.

After a period of professional training, having steady employment and income, working in the structured and disciplined environment of a national army, there is good chance that their ideological fervor will rub off and that they will become responsible professional soldiers. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but this is a calculated risk worth taking for the sake of national reconciliation and lasting peace.

On the issue of DDR versus SSR, for understandable reasons the Maoists do not like DDR and the Nepal Army does not like SSR. The Maoists suspect that the DDR approach would lead to neutralizing and dismantling their army, as if it were a defeated force. The Nepal Army fears that SSR is a ruse to weaken a professional army, and possibly allowing partisan political interference in its work and organization in the name of reform.

All these concerns are justified to some extent, but they are also exaggerated. Objectively speaking, we need elements of both DDR and SSR – and the two are not mutually exclusive.

I have made the case above for SSR, which also includes elements of DDR.

While a conventional model of full scale DDR may not be applicable in Nepal, we should still try to apply some elements of the UN’s Integrated Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Standards (IDDRS), based on best practices of UN agencies and missions, to ensure proper psychological counseling, job training, educational opportunities and to promote reconciliation in the communities where demobilized soldiers and combatants return.

There should be no delay and reservations whatsoever, for example, in implementing a full-scale DDR for children, as that is a matter of children’s human rights, and should not be subject to political maneuvering or negotiations.

It is inexcusable that two years after verification by UNMIN, some 3,000 child soldiers remain in Maoist cantonments under various pretexts, and that CPN-Maoist remains in the UN Security Council’s list of shame as a non-state party guilty of employing child soldiers.

Now that the CPN-Maoist leads the Government of Nepal, continuing presence of child soldiers, and the neglect and plight of other children affected by armed conflict, amounts to the Government of Nepal itself being a violator of its international treaty obligations. It is worth recalling that employing child soldiers is a war crime and crime against humanity under a number of international conventions to which Nepal is a State Party.

As recently promised by the Prime Minister to the visiting Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, all verified minors in the Maoist cantonments must be released and rehabilitated immediately, without any further ifs and buts.

As we embark on building a New Nepal, the CPN-Maoist in particular, and Nepali society as a whole in general, must embrace a culture of peace and non-violence, and instill this ethos in the children of Nepal.

During the period of conflict, one of the saddest things introduced by the Maoists in their school curricula in areas under their control was militaristic education starting at a very young age in primary schools. In a subject called “military science” children were taught skills in making and using guns, explosives, grenades and booby traps; serving as sentries and informers, and glorifying revolutionary violence.

In the New Nepal, we must teach our children education for peace and non-violence. All militaristic training and indoctrination, including the Maoist proposal for compulsory military training for all adults, with regular refresher training, must be discarded as vestiges of a bygone era.

An exception to this might be to offer opportunity for all Nepali youth between the ages of 19 and 22 to join some kind of national service, mostly for community development activities, but which could include a stint in national military service, as an option.

To protect children and civilian population, as well as to prevent Nepal from further descending into lawlessness and criminality, as has happened in many post-conflict situations, de-mining, mine awareness education and a vigorous programme to stop the proliferation of small arms and light weapons must be made an important part of security sector reform and the “arms management” programme.

The recent emergence of many armed groups in the Terai, and continuing resort to threat of arms, intimidation and violence by para-military groups and militia, and youth organizations aligned with various political parties and fringe groups in different parts of Nepal, point to the urgent need for a tighter control of small arms and light weapons.

Without such measures, the future of democracy itself will be in peril, as democracy cannot thrive in an atmosphere of insecurity and impunity.

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. This holy land of Gautam Buddha, should aspire to offer a genuine “peace dividend” for the people of Nepal, and make human security and prosperity the true basis of our national security in the 21st century.

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