Jimmy Carter and Nepal

Jimmy Carter and Nepal

The late Dr. JW Lee, Director-General of the World Health Organization, and I as Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, joined former US President Jimmy Carter on a 3-day field visit to Ghana in February 2004. It was a memorable visit to observe progress being made in a global campaign to eradicate one of the most debilitating diseases to afflict humankind: drcunculiasis or Guinea worm disease. UNICEF and WHO had teamed up with the Carter Center in this global campaign which has now become one of the great success stories of public health affecting some of the poorest people in Africa.

Ghana was an epicenter of this disease at that time, and Carter was our most prominent and effective global advocate. In my many informal conversations with Carter, whenever we were not talking about Guinea worm eradication in Africa, we spoke about Nepal.

Carter’s Interest in Nepal

I was deeply touched by Carter’s strong interest and genuine concern for Nepal. I shared my perspectives on the Maoist insurgency which was at its height in 2004, and encouraged him to lend his support to ending the conflict in Nepal. Subsequently, I was happy to learn that the Carter Center became deeply engaged with Nepal, and Jimmy Carter has taken very personal interest in our peace process.

Carter is visiting Nepal again this week. At a time when Nepal is gearing up for a new round of elections, Carter’s wise advice based on his world-wide experience and credibility in election observation, conflict resolution, and “Waging Peace, Fighting Disease, and Building Hope” could be very timely and helpful for Nepal.

Over the years, the Carter Center has produced several excellent analytical reports on Nepal dealing with issues related to the peace process; election to the Constituent Assembly; challenges in drafting Nepal’s new Constitution; functioning of Local Peace Committees; land reform and return of private land seized by the Maoists; and identity-based political activism in Nepal. The Carter Center’s reports and recommendations on the work of Nepal’s Election Commission have been particularly insightful.

I tend to instinctively support and give benefit of doubt to Jimmy Carter’s noble efforts to promote peace, democracy and development throughout the world, including Nepal. I reject the facile insinuation of some who see him as representing some parochial American or Christian values. I admire the fact that he has boldly taken some positions that are contrary to the official policy of the US government, and he has publicly repudiated and severed his ties with his Church because it justified discrimination against girls and women.

Carter Center’s Fallibility

Having said that, Carter is, of course, human and fallible, and some aspects of the Carter Center’s analytical reports may not always be fully balanced and accurate. In Nepal, I believe Carter was too quick and uncritical in certifying that Nepal’s Constituent Assembly elections in 2008 were largely free and fair. There is now sufficient evidence to suggest that there was high degree of intimidation in many rural constituencies outside Kathmandu valley where candidates of non-Maoist parties were prevented from campaigning, and voters as well as candidates were threatened with physical violence in the days and weeks preceding the actual voting.

In the Shaktikhor video recorded before the election, but released two years later, Maoist leader Prachanda himself acknowledged how his Party had deliberately inflated the number of its guerilla fighters, and tried to hoodwink the UN mission, partly with the intention of influencing election outcome.

Some Carter Center reports like the 2010: “Land Commitments in Nepal’s Peace Process:Only Partially Fulfilled” make seemingly “balanced” recommendation equating illegal, violent seizure of private property with centuries-old practices of land ownership which may not be fair, but was not illegal, and needs to be addressed more thoughtfully and legally as in many other countries that have carried out successful land reform programs.

This is one among many examples of well-intentioned but wrong interpretation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and of the Nepali society in general, that not only the Carter Center but other organizations including the International Crisis Group, and even the United Nations, have resorted to in their effort to appear “balanced and even-handed”. A book published in 2012 entitled Nepal in Transition: From People’s War to Fragile Peace is replete with such gratuitous analyses basically endorsing the Maoist characterization of Nepali society as sharply divided between “progressive” and “regressive” forces.

Most of us who are liberal and progressive, instinctively sympathize with the poor and down-trodden, the historically marginalized and excluded. We are and want to be seen on the side of the under-privileged when it comes to issues of social justice, equity and inclusion. Since the Maoist rhetoric is very loud about these issues and they present themselves as the champions of the oppressed, one can easily fall into the trap of giving greater credence to the Maoist interpretation of the CPA.

A discerning reading of the CPA, and its interpretation by the original non-Maoist negotiators makes it clear that on several key issues the kind of conditionality, linkage and simultaneity that the Maoist claim to exist, which some members of the international community tend to buy, is actually a wishful and self-serving interpretation based on selective quotes of the CPA. These include, for example: that return of seized lands and land reform should be simultaneous; that completion of drafting the new constitution and integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants should proceed simultaneously; that the Nepal Army and the Maoist “PLA” have equal standing, and that “democratization” of NA was to be considered equivalent to “professionalization” of the Maoist combatants; that there is a quid pro quo between the Maoist acceptance of democracy and other parties’ acceptance of the Maoist agenda for certain types of socio-economic change.

While it was understandable and appropriate for the Nepali actors to negotiate pragmatic political compromises for the sake of ending the conflict, the international community, particularly respected personalities like Jimmy Carter and global institutions like the United Nations must not compromise on or equate such universally agreed norms as pluralism, democracy and human rights as being conditional on the acceptance of one particular party’s seemingly progressive agenda. This is not to say that land reform or democratization of Nepal Army or progressive social transformation of Nepali society are not needed or important. Indeed, these are all very important and must be addressed seriously. But the international community need not accept or condone any implied quid pro quo equating political compromises negotiated by some contending national parties with universally agreed values and norms.

Agenda for Carter’s visit

During his visit to Nepal this week, Carter will notice that two sets of issues preoccupy Nepalis most: for politicians preparing for the next election to the Constituent Assembly, the biggest issues are the nature of democracy itself, and federalism to be enshrined in the new Constitution; whereas for most ordinary people, it is their economic well-being, the rule of law and human security. Let us hope that Carter will address these issues forthrightly and offer clear messages to his Nepali interlocutors.

Democracy and elections

The Carter Center has been a pioneer in election observation having monitored more than 90 elections in nearly 40 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America in the past three decades. While competitive election processes and results are never without some controversy, the Carter Center’s professional reputation is quite impeccable. We count on the Carter Center to help monitor the next round of CA elections in Nepal, and hopefully learning from its previous experience, not rush to judgment ignoring what happens in constituencies beyond its direct observation on Election Day.

Democrats in Nepal hope that besides the CA, Carter will impress upon all Nepali leaders to organize elections for local governments soon, as the foundations for democracy must be built closest to where the people live. Nepal has not had local elections now for over 15 years. The highly divisive armed conflict and lack of any elected bodies accountable to the people at the local level have meant that ideological rhetoric, and wheeling and dealing by political parties are undermining the true spirit of a functioning democracy. Early local elections are no less important than national elections if democracy is to take roots in Nepal.

As a respected elder statesman and global advocate of democracy, Carter should also not hesitate to give a blunt message to his Nepali interlocutors that while democracy is imperfect, there is no such thing as a perfect “people’s democracy” as some of our demagogic leaders propound citing some outdated ideologies.

Published in Republica 27 March 2013  (http://www.myrepublica.com/portal/index.php?action=news_details&news_id=52157)