United Nations: a Partner in Peace and Development of Nepal

Keynote speech by Kul Chandra Gautam
at a Programme Organized by the UN Association of Nepal
Kathmandu, 21 October 2009

At a programme organized by UN Association of Nepal

I wish to thank and congratulate the United Nations Association of Nepal for organizing this gathering to celebrate the 64th anniversary of the United Nations. It is very fitting on this occasion to reflect on how the UN has been a partner in peace and development of Nepal, and indeed how the work of the UN relates to the daily lives of ordinary Nepalis.

Many of us think of the UN as a distant organization that organizes big conferences in New York, Geneva, Paris and Rome. We see it on our television screen when big powers of the world discuss issues of war and peace at its Security Council, or when our own leaders address its annual General Assembly.

More recently, closer to home, Nepalis have seen the UN in the context of the peace process, in the high visibility work of UNMIN, with its officials frequently meeting with our political leaders; its fleet of vehicles seen everywhere; and its work of monitoring the arms and combatants in Maoist cantonments.

Many ordinary Nepalis – and even not so ordinary ones like most of us in this hall – might wonder how does the UN help ordinary Nepalis in our native villages and local communities; or is the UN only relevant for big people, in big cities with power and influence?

Well, unbeknownst to most of us, the UN actually has great influence in all of our lives. In one way or the other, the work of the UN touches the life of every Nepali.

Other speakers at this function, especially the UN Resident Coordinator, the Foreign Secretary and former Vice-chairman of the National Planning Commission will certainly share with us many specifics of how the UN is currently helping Nepal.

Since Nepal joined the UN in 1955, it has sought and received much technical, financial and policy advisory support for various development activities. Some of these activities reach every Nepali household.

Examples of some of the greatest success stories have been the eradication of smallpox, polio and drastic reduction in vaccine preventable diseases such as measles, tuberculosis, etc. carried out with the help of the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

Today, the vitamin A distribution and de-worming campaign for children carried out by Nepal’s 50,000 Female Community Health Volunteers, with the support of UNICEF and other donors, is considered one of the best in the whole world. With coverage of over 90% of Nepal’s families, this programme alone saves the lives and protects the health of millions of Nepali children.

The UN’s Population Fund helps in programmes involving family planning and women’s health. The World Food Programme provides support for emergency relief and food for work. UNESCO helps with teacher training, curriculum development, and preservation of cultural heritage. The International Labour Organization helps us combat the worst forms of child labour. The Food and Agriculture Organization helps us with agricultural training and food security. UNDP helps with issues of good governance.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees helps Nepal cope with the burden of caring for Bhutanese and Tibetan refugees. The office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights helps monitor and publicize human rights violations – whether by rebel groups or by government forces, and supports our National Human Rights Commission to protect people’s human rights.

UNCTAD, WTO, ESCAP and other agencies help us with issues of trade and transit. Many specialized UN agencies and bodies help us develop and apply internationally agreed norms and standards on legal and regulatory matters.

The UN system as a whole helps us during natural disasters and in coping with dangers of pandemics such as HIV/AIDS, the bird flu and swine flu. The UN also helps us in raising awareness about our fragile environment and how to protect it from the impact of global warming and climate change.

Various UN conferences offer Nepal an opportunity to present its views to the world and to benefit from the outcomes of such conferences on issues ranging from the Millennium Development Goals to special measures for the benefit of the least developed and land-locked countries.

Besides contributing to world peace, service in UN peace-keeping missions helps Nepal’s military and police personnel improve their professional competence. And remittances of Nepali soldiers and police who serve in UN peace-keeping operations are of great help to our local economy in many communities.

Thus we can see that the UN has far more impact in our daily lives than most of us realize. Its role extends from technical assistance in science and technology, agriculture and industry, trade and commerce; to material help for health and education; policy advice on development planning; humanitarian assistance, and protection of human rights and prevention of human wrongs.

Nepal has been an active and loyal member of the United Nations for 54 years. And the United Nations has been a true friend and supporter of Nepal.

Besides receiving support of the United Nations, Nepal also contributes to the work and success of the United Nations globally.

Nepal puts great faith in the principles and purposes enshrined in the UN Charter. In fact, the current Interim Constitution of Nepal states that the UN Charter will be a source of guiding principles of Nepalese foreign policy.

Nepal firmly believes that besides its primary responsibility of promoting peace and security in the world, the UN should play a central role in addressing the emerging issues of 21st century – such as increasing threat of terrorism, disarmament, human rights, poverty alleviation, sustainable development, and climate change.

Small countries like Nepal can play a disproportionately big role in the UN system and multilateral organizations. So far, Nepal has played a reasonably active and constructive role at the UN. But looking to the future, I would hope and recommend that Nepal should aspire to play an even more proactive and strategic role at the UN, for the benefit of Nepal and Nepalis.

Madam Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, as we are about to send our Foreign Secretary, one of Nepal’s finest diplomats, as our new Permanent Representative to the UN, I would like to recommend to you, that we send him with some specific, ambitious goals and objectives to achieve at the United Nations to secure greater visibility and influence for Nepal in the coming years.

By the way, what I am about to recommend for our Ambassador to the UN could serve as a template for all new Ambassadors.

We have another highly competent development professional, Dr. Shankar Sharma going to the US as new Ambassador. We are opening new embassies in Brazil, Canada and South Africa. Have we given our new Ambassador-designates to those countries clear marching orders, with ambitious, measurable and achievable goals?

Let us try to do so to take full advantage of our tax-payers’ money which we will be spending to establish and run these embassies.

It is widely known that the caliber of many of our diplomats, especially the political appointees, is often mediocre. In an age where we speak about economic diplomacy, most of our diplomats are barely capable of handling even routine, conventional, political diplomacy.

The resources available at the disposal of our diplomatic missions are often meager and inadequate. But the biggest problem our diplomats face is not lack of resources, but that of unclear guidance, un-ambitious goals, no accountability for results and no encouragement for innovation and creativity.

This leads to a situation whereby even the best and brightest of our highly competent ambassadors – like Gyan Chandra Acharya and Shankar Sharma – might end up performing well below their potential.

This, of course, reflects the overall situation of the country, and it is not easy to have an exceptionally well-performing foreign service, when the rest of the country is caught in the quagmire of political instability and administrative inefficiency.

Still, I believe that it is possible to have a few islands of excellence even in a chaotic national situation. And I would suggest that, taking advantage of a very capable ambassador like Gyan Chandra Acharya, we try to make Nepal’s relations with the UN a test case of what Nepalese are capable of achieving when we set clear national goals and a national resolve to excel.

So, in addition to performing all the routine, house-keeping representational functions at the UN, I would suggest that we set the following 6 major goals for Nepal at the UN in the next 5 years.

1. In 2011 it will be Asia’s turn to select the President of the UN General Assembly. Nepal should aspire to this high profile position, and lobby hard from now on to achieve this goal. Objectively, Nepal is very well qualified and deserving of such position. But I understand that although Nepal has officially put up its candidacy, we seem to be very shy to undertake any public diplomacy in support of this effort.

I bet hardly anyone in this room knows that Nepal is a candidate for presidency of the GA in 2011. At least I have not seen or heard of any written position paper or talking points that our leaders can use to make a compelling case in support of Nepal’s candidacy.

Such an effort cannot succeed through the quiet efforts of our Ambassador to the UN alone. It requires the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister seizing every opportunity of their high level contacts, especially with leaders of Asian countries, to lobby.

It requires the Foreign Minister to instruct all our Ambassadors to lobby with their counterparts in the capital cities of Asian countries.

If I may add, it requires you, Madam Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, to call a meeting of all foreign Ambassadors in Kathmandu – urgently, perhaps next week – to present to them our case.

It also probably requires a full-time seasoned diplomat to work on this assignment to support the efforts of our Foreign Minister and Permanent Representatives in New York and Geneva.

Madam Deputy Prime Minister, I do not know what, if any, legacy you wish to leave behind as Foreign Minister of this country. I would urge you to take on this, as well as several other suggestions I will make shortly, among the legacies of your tenure as Foreign Minister.

2. Nepal has a good reputation in international peace-keeping. Currently, Nepal is the 5th largest contributor to UN Peace Keeping operations. Let us aspire to be the world’s #1 peace-keepers by 2015.

This would also be a smart way for us to make good use of our over-sized army. We should aspire to be the largest contributor for international peace-keeping, not only numerically, but qualitatively as well.

For example, let us make our peace-keeping troops highly professional as well as more inclusive by enlisting a large contingent of women soldiers and officers, which are in big demand at the UN, but in short supply in the Nepal Army and police.

With this in mind, let us explore creative ways to enlist and train qualified women, including from among the Maoist combatants for such role. Let us make this a win-win proposition in Nepal’s best interest to help our internal peace process, to better contribute to international peace-keeping and to make our security forces more inclusive of historically under-represented communities, such as women, Dalits, Madheshis, etc.

3. While Nepal has been a member, and occasionally Vice Chair of the General Assembly and its various Committees, Commissions, Councils and Executive Boards; it has rarely been the Chair or President of such bodies.

It has been a long time since Nepalis played a high profile role in the UN, such as when Rishikesh Shah led the investigation of the circumstances under which Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold was killed; Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay took a lead role in negotiations at the Law of the Sea Conference; and Sambhu Simkhada chaired the Human Rights Commission.

In future, every year, Nepal should aspire and systematically compete for not just membership, but to become the Chair or President of at least one governing body of a key UN council, commission, or board of specialized agencies and funds and programmes based in New York, Geneva, Rome or elsewhere.

Small countries like Jamaica, Guyana, Ghana, Singapore, Sweden, etc manage to acquire such high profile positions regularly. And Nepal should be able to do so too.

4. Quite a few Nepalis now work in the UN system, but it is becoming increasingly harder to get more Nepalis to be recruited by UN agencies. In promoting Nepali candidates for UN positions, don’t try to push for tired old bureaucrats who are some politicians’ friends or relatives.

To be more competitive, Nepal should encourage young Nepalis, including our diplomats, to acquire skills that the UN is looking for – e.g. knowledge of multiple UN languages, better writing and communications skills, basic IT skills, experience in working not just in government but with NGOs, the media and academia.

Nepal should also groom and present more women candidates for UN positions.

5. So far the highest ranking Nepali in the UN system has been at the Assistant Secretary-General level. Within the next 5 years we should strive to get at least one Nepali citizen to be appointed or elected at the Under Secretary-General or equivalent level.

To achieve this, we should identify at least half a dozen promising Nepali candidates, including several women, who can be groomed for such positions, and launch a coordinated lobbying effort involving all Nepali diplomatic missions.

6. At this time in Nepal’s history, perhaps the most important help we should seek from the United Nations, would be to help us prepare an ambitious, long-term reconstruction and development plan, and to help mobilize international support for it.

Elsewhere in post-conflict countries, the UN has played a leadership role to support governments to prepare such plans and to mobilize international support by organizing major donor conferences for countries such as Cambodia, East Timor, Afghanistan, Liberia, Mozambique, etc.

But this has not happened so far in the case of Nepal, partly because our political transition and the peace process have been long and convoluted, and our focus continues to be on political issues, while economic issues have been left for future consideration.

The time has now come for us to bring up the economic issues to the fore-front. If we delay addressing the economic issues for too long, our own people will be disenchanted with the political process, and we might miss an opportunity to mobilize international support while we still have the world’s attention on Nepal’s unique peace process.

Nepal has very good prospects for achieving quite a few of the UN Millennium Development Goals. But for that, first we Nepalis need to come up with a clear, ambitious roadmap, with the support of the United Nations. Then we can seek well-coordinated international support.

Now, if we were to ask Ambassador Acharya or any other Ambassador to undertake such ambitious tasks, as I have outlined for our role at the UN, they would very legitimately ask that we need to provide them with many more staff and more budget.

Certainly, we should try to do that. But I would also advocate that instead of sending more mediocre staff from Singha Durbar, Shital Niwas or now Narayanhiti, who may or may not be suited for such challenging tasks, let us give our Ambassadors some more budget and authority with which they can enlist the best talent they can find locally.

For example, in duty stations like New York, Geneva or Washington, DC where there are excellent universities, we can get first-rate graduate students, and even professors, including Nepalis, who would happily help the Nepalese embassies, as interns and research fellows, often free of charge, if we reached out to them and offered them a mutually beneficial professional experience.

When I was at the UN, we used quite a few bright young interns from various universities. I have also seen, for example, embassies of many Latin American, Caribbean and European countries tapping into the pool of their expatriate compatriots as interns and volunteers to supplement the staffing shortage of their embassies and missions.

I am sure that creative use of such bright, young interns will help our Ambassadors better than more Government bureaucrats in our embassies.

Let me give you an example. Today, if any scholar or researcher wanted to find out more about Nepal’s role at the UN, how would they find such information? They would Google and come across www.mofa.gov.np/nepalandun .

And what would they find there? The list of heads of Nepal’s delegation to the UN General Assembly stops in 2005 when it was headed by Ramesh Nath Pandey.

You would have to go elsewhere in the website to find out that since then we have had a historic Jana Andolan, and that KP Sharma Oli, Sahana Pradhan, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, and Madhav Nepal headed Nepal’s most recent delegations.

Now, a bright young university under-grad in New York could easily update that website in a few hours. But if we rely on a civil servant posted from Kathmandu, who may or may not be internet-savvy, we might have to wait till a Third Jana Andolan before the website is updated!

And there is one more thing we must do to make our Ambassadors more productive. We must develop some guidelines and code of conduct whereby visiting delegates and politicians (and their family members) from Nepal are not allowed to stay at the residence of our diplomats or to ask or expect our Ambassadors to provide them with unofficial hospitality or help for their medical care, sight-seeing or shopping expeditions. That would allow our Ambassadors to focus on their job.

Since the theme of our celebration today is UN as a partner for Nepal’s peace and development, I would like to make a particular point about peace and non-violence.

The United Nations is the world’s paramount institution to promote peace. Peaceful resolution of conflict and non-violent methods of pursuing all worthy goals – for development, for justice, for human rights – are at the heart of the United Nations.

Therefore, I feel particularly sad to hear some of our political leaders in Nepal disingenuously invoking the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights to incite and justify violent, at times armed, revolt.

I have here with me a compendium of 25 key human rights treaties, including the Charter of the United Nations, and this Nepali language booklet on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nowhere, absolutely nowhere, is there any provision in these documents that justifies violent and armed revolt.

Yes, in a democracy people have a right to protest, to agitate, to demand and fight for justice and equality. But such right must be exercised peacefully. Article 20 of UDHR and article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights do affirm people’s right to peacefulassembly and association. They do not confer any right to violent and armed revolt.

Sometimes, I hear people referring to the use of arms in the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and anti-colonial liberation movements to justify armed revolt in Nepal. I would totally reject that any such comparable situation exists in Nepal.

Sometimes we hear people citing how deeply unjust, unfair, discriminatory and oppressive the Nepalese society has been against certain communities and marginalized groups, and therefore to combat such deep-rooted “structural violence”, counter-violence maybe justified.

Yes, development in Nepal has been uneven and unequal, and none of us is satisfied with its pace or quality. But I can cite dozens of countries in Africa, other parts of Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere who find themselves in a similar situation or even worse than Nepal.

Would we justify a violent revolution in all those countries as a response to their inadequate and in-egalitarian development?

I know from many UN studies that at least half the Member States of the UN – nearly 100 countries – could be said to have the kind of structural violence that Nepal suffers from. Would we consider it normal and acceptable if violent insurgencies were unleashed by armed groups in every other country of the world? The UN would never sanctify engulfing the whole world with such violence.

Human history shows that justice pursued through violent means, rarely helps build a just and peaceful society. On the contrary, it often sows the seeds of hatred, distrust and revenge afterwards. A semblance of justice achieved through unjust means, is not real justice but only a temporary revenge.

People of goodwill seeking social justice, political freedoms and economic progress must, therefore, reject a culture of violence as an acceptable means for achieving any worthy goals.

Most importantly, we must inculcate in the minds and hearts of our children and youth the values of non-violence and peaceful pursuit of all worthy goals. Our children must not be socialized in an atmosphere where violence is accepted as a part of everyday life.

Various agencies of the UN in Nepal are rightly involved in movements of ‘Children as Zones of Peace’, or ‘Schools, Hospitals and Religious institutions as Zones of Peace’, and in campaigns against domestic violence, violence against women, children and innocent civilians.

Peace and development are two sides of the same coin. We cannot have development without peace, and we cannot sustain peace without development.

Some of us, concerned Nepali citizens, recently started a “rollback violence campaign” – himsa antya abhiyan. I would call on everybody here, including the UN system in Nepal, to support this campaign, as a way of building a solid foundation for lasting peace and development of Nepal.

Thank you.

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