October 25, 2007
UN's Matthew Kahane
The Nepalese government is poised to ask the United Nations for a year’s extension of the term of its UN Political Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), following the postponement of national elections previously scheduled to begin in late November. The elections, which were postponed indefinitely several weeks ago, would have chosen a constituent assembly to rewrite Nepal's constitution and decide on the future of the monarchy. It’s been reported that the Maoists also support the extension.
The UNMIN—headed by Ian Martin, Special Representative of the Secretary-General -- arrived in Nepal, almost a year ago, on the request of the Nepalese government following a peace agreement with the Maoists. Under the deal, the UNMIN would store Maoist weapons and monitor the Maoist combatants confined to 28 camps spread across the country. Since then, UNMIN has also been involved in verification of Maoist combatants to check if they are underage.
Never before-- not since Nepal became a member of the United Nations in 1955 -- has UN presence been more needed in this floundering Himalayan country. Nepal's fragile peace process is plummeting toward a new confrontation between the ruling parties and the Maoists.
According to Senior Maoist leader Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, “As of now, chances of a compromise are not bright. Efforts are still on to reach an understanding. But if they fail, the peace process will be in grave jeopardy.”
The Maoists are pressing for the immediate abolition of King Gyanendra's throne through a vote in the interim parliament. They also want a fully proportional system when the twice-stalled election finally takes place. Dr. Bhattarai said if the ruling coalition agreed to concede one of the two demands, his party could compromise on the other. But he also warned: “We have tried to implement our demands through a three-pronged struggle -- via the government, the interim legislature and street movements. If we are unable to push our demand through Parliament, we might be forced to quit it and concentrate solely on a street struggle.”
Compromise from the Seven-Party-Alliance seems dubious, at least at this point. Prime Minister G. P. Koirala maintains that the demand for an all proportional voting system will further divide the country into several smaller segments and will encourage communal discord, which might further aggravate the political situation in the country.
Nevertheless, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has urged the political parties to iron out their differences through a public debate: The peace process in Nepal is facing "unprecedented challenges," he told the Security Council in a report yesterday in which he also called on the parties there to reach agreement, “set aside their lesser differences and maintain their unity in the interest of the common national agenda” and create a "realistic time-table" for the postponed elections.
Ban Ki-moon also painted a grim picture of human rights situation in the country. He said the overall situation in the Himalayan nation had grown "more worrying" with "increasing violence, instability in parts of the country. The police have mostly been unable to protect the civilian population and curtail the activities of the groups. A pattern of repeated human rights violations and continuing impunity will not only have the cumulative effect of diminishing the prospect of a free and fair electoral process, but could also negatively impact the possibility of a more democratic and inclusive society that many Nepalese hope for."
Interview with Matthew KahaUne
UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, Nepal
In the past year, I’ve had had several opportunities to talk to the United Nations Resident Representative and Humanitarian Coordinator, Matthew Kahane. Below, are excerpts from two interviews I conducted in Kathmandu, in Mr. Kahane’s offices at UN Headquarters.
DUNHAM: Perhaps we could begin by identifying the United Nations priorities for Nepal and how the UN goes about implementing those priorities.
KAHANE: The UN’s principal priority in Nepal, as in any member state, is to help the betterment of the lives of the people. And where there are conflicts, offer to help solve those conflicts if possible. And that has been the overriding concern since I’ve been in Nepal. How do the operational activities of the UN and the UN Developing Program, in particular, help maintain space for people to live and work normally, when most of that space has been taken over with fighting for ten years Are we being successful? I think in some areas. But many activities have been affected by a conflict, which has been fairly brutal, from all sides.
DUNHAM: When did you come to Nepal?
KAHANE: September 2003.
DUNHAM: Specifically, what were you confronted with when you came aboard?
KAHANE: I had my briefings for coming here during the 2003 ceasefire [between national armed forces and Maoist rebels]. My briefings ended the day the ceasefire ended. So I came here with a great deal of background knowledge, but with a perspective, which was different from the perspective I had been given to understand. And until very recently, it has been downhill all the way. The conflict has been getting more difficult, people have been suffering a great deal more and, while one was trying to see if one could be helpful on a political level—and there, there was very little receptivity until the success of the People’s Movement—our Development Programs were also trying to bring electricity to isolated villages, get people some help to set up small businesses, find markets for their small businesses, sink tube wells for water supply, put in toilets, help people to build tracts and bridges to get to isolated villages—that kind of thing—could these continue? And, if they could continue, were the poorest people getting the most advantage from it? Or were, in some way, the resources going to those who were better off and more powerful in society?
Also, part of the work was drawing attention to the gross violation of human rights that were going on by both sides and trying to help national institutions to record these properly and bring them officially to the attention of the perpetrators. That, of course, continues to be a problem even now.
DUNHAM: Moving forward, from 2003 to April 2006: The 19-Day Uprising. It had a huge impact on the Kathmandu Valley, but it also took place in all the major towns. Did the UN play any role during the 19-Day Uprising? Did you, for instance, act as a go-between for the conflicting parties?
KAHANE: I think we were all astounded that the movement went on so long. It was announced originally to be three days- - that it could last nineteen days, that the country could shut down completely for so long, was beyond anything, I think, that any of us could have expected in advance. I know many of us look at it: Could our own home countries have shut down for nineteen days? And we all said, “No, we doubt it could be done,” which shows the strength of the feeling among the people of Nepal and the organization that also went into this effort. And finally, finally, thank goodness, enough people in the armed forces saw that this was going nowhere and made it clear to the king that it had to stop.
DUNHAM: When, in that 19-day period, did the army finally realize that it was time to pull the plug on the king?
KAHANE: I think, I think, that they heard the first of the two royal proclamations on the evening of the 21st of April and understood that the king did not understand anything about the mood in the country, in the sentiments of the people, and that what he had said just did not address anybody’s needs and it had to be overtaken by a new proclamation that actually addressed the issues.
DUNHAM: So, it was in fact, the generals who persuaded the king to reassess the situation?
KAHANE: That’s my impression. And I think they told him what he had to say. Because it was fairly clear what he had to say. And some of us, in very very informal contacts, had understood what everybody else had understood. Somebody had to tell the king. Who tells the Commander-in Chief?
DUNHAM: The generals. Still, it’s commonly believed that many high-ranking members of the army are royalists—as are certain members of the Seven Party Alliance. I’m assuming that at least some of the army commanders—who currently sing a different tune—are nonetheless secretly in favor of some sort of constitutional monarchy. Does anyone have figures on the proportion of royalist in Nepal?
KAHANE: No, I don’t think that is anything one could estimate or put a figure on or even a finger on. I do think that the senior army officers were the ones who tipped the balance so that we did not have a completely bloody showdown at the end of the People’s Movement, which could have been infinitely worse—not only for anybody who might have been killed, but for the country as a whole. And that would indicate that the senior officers were beginning to think the monarchy wasn't working as well as it was supposed to be working. I think there has been a lot of soul-searching, in that sense.
DUNHAM: Well, that would be a huge shift and change—
KAHANE: But you know there is something else I noticed when I came in 2003, which was, you know, after the Parliament had been disbanded and all political authority had ceased to exist-- when there was an appointed Prime Minister and a group of ministers who were considered to be fairly strongly loyal to the idea of monarchy: I never heard anybody in this county talk in respectful tones or with reverence of His Majesty, apart from a few people in the palace. So I think that respect had gone, actually, quite a long time before. And that what we heard, in the way of reverence, during the period of the king’s direct rule, was very, very hollow-- or very foolish.
DUNHAM: I doubt that King Gyanendra’s son, Crown Prince Paras, helped the image of the monarchy either.
KAHANE: No, that is one of things about monarchy and, you know, I happen to be a citizen of a monarchy: Monarchies are about the past and myths and legends, which are important. All countries have myths and legends, whether it’s the Star Spangle Banner or whatever. But monarchies are also the future because of the principle of succession. You can have a terrible elected president of a country—the president goes and has no effect on the future. But if one has a Crown Prince-- and I happen to be from a country that has a Crown Prince who is the same age as I am. All my life there’s been speculation about what the next king is going to be like—and very differing views. And there have been times when in Britain there’s been the thought, “We couldn’t possibly have that chap as king.” I think that is a very important element. And I’ve never heard any respect or reverence for the Crown Prince here.
DUNHAM: After the 19-Day Uprising and the resultant peace agreement, the Maoists agreed to relinquish their arms and temporarily reside in cantonments, with the UNMIN overseeing the situation. To what extent has the UN been successful in this task?
KAHANE: Under the comprehensive peace agreement, both sides-- the Maoists and the National Army-- put an equal number of weapons into storage, registered by the United Nations, in containers whose keys are kept by their own commanders, but access by which is monitored by the UN twenty-four hours a day, which is a slightly different way of phrasing your question. In that sense, it has been completely successful. The People’s liberation army registered roughly 3,500 arms. Those were put in containers, keys of which are kept by the Maoist Unit Army commanders and the UN monitors. The same applies to the Nepali army—same number of arms of the same type—all have been registered and put into locked containers in one of the army barracks here in Kathmandu.
DUNHAM: On the surface it looks good. You have 3,500 weapons. But, really, does that number jive with the number of Maoists who were supposed to have had weapons?
KAHANE: The Maoists have registered about 31,000 members of the People’s Liberation Army in the 28 cantonment sights. There are those who say, “But there’s a discrepancy.” I’m not sure that there is terribly much of a discrepancy because the PLA never worked on the basis of weapons allocated to people, but weapons used by units. There are possibly more arms out there. I am sure there are more arms out there but not necessarily held by political parties. There are certainly arms out there in the Terai held by people who are, presumably, essentially criminal. The killings in Gaur demonstrated that you don’t have to have good quality firearms to kill people. An awfully lot of the deaths and injuries in Nepal have been socket bombs, cookeries, stoves, lathis—all sorts of things. So I think one needs to focus on the use of violence in society, rather than the particular weapon that’s being used.
DUNHAM: I come from America, so we only talk about firearms.
KAHANE: We’re talking about here. I mean, look: These people in Gaur were all killed by bamboo sticks, essentially. I mean there may have been one gunshot wound or something. And when the first phase of the arms registration was completed, Prachanda was quoted as saying, “Oh, but we have lots of weapons that we didn’t register,” meaning, socket bombs. Well, no, socket bombs were never meant to be covered by the agreement, but they were an important weapon for the Maoists. Yes! And if what you are doing is NOT fighting another army in the field, but trying to exercise control through fear over an unarmed population, a couple of socket bombs, an old .303, a few cookeries, are just as good as a lot of M-16s or AK47s. They may not be any good if you’re facing an army. So I think that getting away from the use of violence and force is going to be terribly important: Those habits, once learned, take time to die down.
DUNHAM: Which brings me to a related question: How much control do the Maoists really have over their ex-rebels?
KAHANE: I have always been struck by the fact that the leadership of the communist parties in Nepal, including the Maoists, has remained the same for a dozen years now, with very minor changes and functions and roles and mutual relationships. Given communists parties of the world over—they have a tendency to re-align and regroup fairly frequently, often with considerable internal dissention. There’s been remarkably little of that here, which, I would imagine, means the leadership, including of course the Chairman [Prachanda], have a good party structure, which works well. And to add to that, during the period when the Maoists were underground and we had to be in touch with the leadership to try and resolve issues where the UN and other donors could work, I was always impressed by how effectively they could communicate, given that they were underground and didn’t have tremendously sophisticated technical means of communication. But they could get their messages out.
DUNHAM: But now, with the postponement of elections, one wonders how the delays are working on the people’s patience, including the Maoists in the camps. Could patience—or a lack of patience-- become a critical factor? And how can the UN best help Nepal while it remains in this precarious holding pattern?
KAHANE: The UN’s role, under the mandate of the Security Council, is very well defined: It is to monitor the management of arms and armies for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights—to monitor the human rights elements of the comprehensive peace agreement, to provide assistance to the electoral commission on technical matters of elections.
So, beyond that, the UN’s role is to be patient. We are an intra-governmental organization at the service of member States—to be patient, and to continue with the advice with the electoral commission of the technical aspects of preparing for elections; making sure the arms stay where they are—we’ve not had any indication that they’re not going to stay where they are—to verify the PLA combatants and, if there’s any way we can assist those tasks, to do so effectively.
Now, of course, there is also the rest of the UN, I mean, the part I particularly represent, the operation of funds and programs. And we believe that there is a great deal that we can be doing in amending our own programs to support the peace process. Some programs continue regardless: Things like polio eradication, or roll back malaria—those don’t need to reflect the political situation so much. But many of the UN operational programs were [designed] to support local authorities—either in how they run, or how they did their planning, or how they implemented their programs.
Right now, for five years, we haven’t had elected local authorities. Right now, it is not clear if we have local authorities in any real sense. But people living—whether in municipalities or villages—they still need schools, water supplies, sewage, transport, maintenance of roads, maintenance of markets, things like that, to see how we can adapt programs to deal with the current reality, without saying, “Sorry, there’s no elected representative, therefore we can’t do anything.” There aren’t going to be elected representatives for some time, presumably. And I think there, there is a great deal we can be doing.
DUNHAM: I’m wondering if the UN has more patience than the people in Nepal. I just got back from Madesh, talking to Madeshi, some of whom are fairly radical, and, you know, the spot light suddenly swiveled over to the Madeshi—a year ago, I didn’t even know they existed. For me, this was a new phenomenon. So many of the headlines are being grabbed by the Madeshi.
DUNHAM: And the people I talked to down there were not patient.
DUNHAM: They think that things have to be changed now. This may be the proper time to express dissatisfaction, one’s sense of marginalization, etc.—however, these things can’t be fixed, in my opinion, before the elections. At some point you have to move on. So I’m wondering: What is the UN’s notion of the Terai situation? And how important is it to thoroughly address Madeshi grievances right now?
KAHANE: A constituent assembly should be the forum in which all issues of restructuring a State—looking at social and economic priorities and [how] policies are settled. And if Nepal is going to have a constituent assembly, it would not be normal to try and settle all of the issues before the constituent assembly meets. I think that’s the fairly fundamental point, which we believe is rather important.
Indeed, we are very struck by the level of expressed frustration and impatience among the Madeshi communities. My colleagues, particularly in the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, have been engaged very frequently in discussions.
And it’s hard to understand these issues for ourselves, because as you say, one was aware of them, in general terms, but they were never a visible part of the national agenda until recently. And we keep urging—in private and in public—all sides to get together and discuss these issues because they need a lot of discussion. They cannot be dealt with by a couple of generalized statements: “Yes, the Madeshi situation will be taken care of.”
No. Many people are not going to put up with that. And it’s completely natural that these citizens of the country are more impatient about their political process than the UN because, in a sense, we are not here to be patient or impatient about things, we are here to support what the people of Nepal are doing. And if it takes them a long time, we measure our interventions to support them over a long time. If it goes quickly, we run to try to be sure that we are there to support them as they go quickly.
But if we were to say, “Come on, you guys, we’ve got to—you’re lagging behind,” then, we’re interfering in a political process. And I think the lessons of ALL peace processes is that outside friends can’t affect the speed very much because it’s got to be an internal process. One can encourage, one can suggest, one can advise, and usually, the quieter that is done, the more effective it is.
DUNHAM: Do you have the ear of the more radical factions of the Madeshis?
KAHANE: We talk with and listen to everybody. We try to get some sense of who our more political groups and which are, perhaps, more violent groups who maybe—calling on the Madeshi or other community concerns to cover their activities—there is a certainly amount of that. But yes, yes, we are in constant contact with everybody.
DUNHAM: Since you’ve been in Nepal—
KAHANE: Sorry, sorry to interrupt but it is striking that, for instance, in Parliament, one begins to have the impression of a sort of Madeshi caucus that cuts across parties—that members of Parliament who are Madeshi, or who identify themselves as Madeshi, are taking common positions in regarding the rostrum, regardless of the political party they belong to. This impatience is very visible to everybody and, in particular, to those who are in Parliament and in government.
DUNHAM: Do you think the politicians are trying to out-Madeshi one another? I’ve heard jokes on the streets about everyone eager to hop on the Madeshi bandwagon.
KAHANE: Well, I think the original case of identification had great resonance when John Kennedy said, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” The trouble is, the more often you repeat that, the less effective it is.
DUNHAM: Since you’ve been here, what UN initiatives or programs have been most successful, in your opinion, and which ones have been less than smooth sailing?
KAHANE: I might be tempted to say, “What do you mean by UN?” but one of the most obvious and most successful UN programs has been the response to the invitation of the government of Nepal to open an office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. I think that has been enormously successful. It’s had great public recognition among a lot of people in Nepal. It has been very effective in getting out and establishing that there are universal standards, which meant—not words—but not hitting people and not killing people and not throwing them in jail and things like that. And that had a real effect on the streets and throughout the country.
During the king’s direct rule, and of course during the people’s movement, and since then, I’m now very glad that this is continuing—we now have the largest human rights commission in the world, here.
DUNHAM: And more to come, right?
KAHANE: It will expand a bit: to carry out the tasks laid down by the Security Council, to monitor the human rights aspects of the peace agreement. We need a greater presence. At the same time, we do very much look towards the responsible national authorities to appoint commissioners to the National Human Rights Commission, so it can continue to build up its capacity to do its monitoring itself.
But to go back to some of those programs I mentioned on the local government—a lot of those were very successful. It’s not terribly fascinating work, in a sense. You don’t have great opportunities for making a splash by doing it—by setting up procedures that people respect. And of course there were—a lot of those procedures got a bit interrupted by the lack of elected representatives. But that framework is essential if there is going to be real bottom-up government in this country.
DUNHAM: And programs that have had a hard time? What programs have been most difficult in carrying out?
KAHANE: Some of those that are set up to develop national capacity: The Ministry of Health, for instance, where the constant turnover of ministers, secretaries, directors, general directors of national institutions of health campaigns means that you have seemed to build something up and then they all get dispersed. You virtually have to start again. That is one of the most frustrating aspects-- not only in Nepal-- but it’s been very clear here. I would say I’ve lost count of the number of directors of the National AIDS Center I’ve known that we’ve introduced ourselves to, to explain what we think is important, how they should be working. And they’ve gone. Some of them have been excellent persons, some of them have been, you know, maybe less qualified. But dealing with something like HIV/AIDS, that needs a deep psychological understanding. It’s an issue of human beings with medical implications—it’s not [just] a health problem. It needs all sorts of approaches. And that gets a little frustrating. And the same thing can apply to other fields; that is, perhaps, the one I’ve been more exposed to and, perhaps, feel the most strongly about, because that’s not just a technical issue. That’s fundamentally an issue of people-- dealing with people in full respect of them as individuals.
In the end, all the UN can do in any country is to support the initiative and efforts of the people in that country to the extent that they want it. The outside world can only support and encourage. But it can’t push people to do things. Where the outside world tries to push, usually things don’t last very long. An agreement reached—even if it’s not exactly under duress—but with too much outside push, doesn’t last terribly long. And then we start again.