Print Edition - 2014-11-09  |  Free the Words

Two frantic letters

  • A look back at the beginning, on how the UN got involved in Nepal’s peace process
Two frantic letters

Nov 8, 2014-

Girija Prasad Koirala, Prime Minister of the 2006 Interim Government, already had it in his circumspect roadmap that the United Nations must be involved as a witness during Nepal’s peace process. Koirala’s understanding was that the presence of the global body would not only dissuade the legitimate Nepal Army from any kind of deviant behaviour but would also place adequate pressure on the then CPN-Maoist leadership to refrain from illicit conduct. Besides, he supposed that the strategic move might be helpful in drawing attention as well as ensuring the participation of the world community, including that of the UN’s Security Council. In order to translate this vision into reality, he had to painstakingly persuade not only the Maoists but also neighbours and other global forces.

Assent, no; knowledge, yes

Once the government and the Maoists in principle agreed to invite the UN to help with Nepal’s peace process, the former initiated the process of writing a letter of request to the organisation. As that had been the practice elsewhere, the government was certain that it did not need the rebels’ consent before writing to the UN. With this conviction, the process of drafting a letter to the UN began. In the process, mainly then Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister KP Oli, Finance Minister Ram Saran Mahat and another Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Amik Sherchan were recurrently consulted. As Sherchan was an ally from the Seven Party Alliance and also widely regarded as being intimate with the Maoists, consulting him was presumed to be indirect communication with the rebels.

At one point during the letter-drafting phase, we sat together with Oli at his ministry in Shital Niwas. Matthew Kahane, then UN representative to Nepal, was also invited to solicit advice on the modality and content of the letter so that the world body would not have any kind of reservation. We discussed at length and finally spelled out the modality and substance of the letter. The term ‘combatant’ for the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was suggested by Kahane. Later, as the government was reticent to share the content of the letter with the rebels formally, the final draft was shared with Sherchan at his office in Singha Durbar. The rationale behind this was that the Maoists would know about the areas on which the Government of Nepal intended to solicit cooperation from the global organisation.

Signed and sent

The scrupulously prepared letter was printed on July 2, 2006 and presented before Koirala at his official residence at Baluwatar at around 11 am the next day. After being assured of the essence of the letter, Koirala at once signed it and instructed that it be handed over to the UN representative in Kathmandu as soon as possible. He was informed that the UN office in Nepal had already been contacted about the possibility of a letter being handed over to them. It was also brought to the Prime Minister’s notice that since Kahane was on vacation, UN’s Acting Resident Coordinator might receive the government’s letter.

Later, in the late afternoon, the UN’s Acting Resident Coordinator, Junko Sazaki, arrived with her colleagues and received the letter at the office of the PM’s external affairs advisor.

While receiving the letter, Sazaki welcomed the Government of Nepal’s move and informed us that she would immediately forward the letter to the UN Secretary General, who had been following developments in Nepal very closely. That same evening, Prime Minister Koirala fell seriously ill and was admitted to the Shahid Gangalal Hospital. Obviously, the Prime Minister’s letter to the UN caught the attention of the national and international media. The UN responded positively and quickly. We were instantaneously informed that after then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan returned from his tour of Africa, the organisation would send a five-member high-level pre-assessment mission to Nepal led by Staffan de Mistura.

Maoists’ denunciation

The Maoists were quiet and did not react for three days. Then, on July 6, the party’s spokesperson, Dinanath Sharma, responded, “We strongly disagree with the government sending the letter to the United Nations without consulting us first.” It astounded the government. The Prime Minister concluded that either Sherchan did not properly communicate with the Maoists on the content of the letter or the latter had found a pretext to slander the government in the eyes of the public and the international community. Oli outright rejected the Maoists’ denunciation. But the government was worried. In an interview with the BBC’s Nepali service, Maoist leader Dev Gurung said, “Both parties have to reach an understanding first on how to involve the UN since it was a sensitive issue related to nationalism.”

Gurung’s statement indicated that there were dissenting voices within the Maoists. The ailing prime minister was seriously concerned about this as he could not imagine that the nascent peace process—given its constituents, intricacy, and international political dynamics—could be taken forward without the UN’s involvement. As the content of the letter was not made public, the Maoists, engrossed with anxiety, exerted pressure on the government to produce the letter to the Parliamentary Peace Process Monitoring Committee. The Committee, headed by Subhas Nembang, even summoned and grilled Oli.

Essentially, the Government of Nepal had felt an urgency to seek the UN’s assistance in five major areas: in monitoring human rights through the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; in monitoring the Maoists combatants and in the decommissioning of their arms to ensure free and fair Constituent Assembly (CA) elections; in ensuring that the Nepal Army is inside its barracks and not being used for or against any side to ensure free and fair CA elections; in monitoring the code of conduct during the ceasefire; and in observing the CA election process.

Track 1.5 diplomacy

It took almost three weeks for Maoist Chairman Prachanda to ascertain the content of the government letter. As the UN team was already scheduled to arrive in Kathmandu on July 27, he hurriedly lodged a formal disagreement with the UN on July 24. The Maoist leadership had reservations against the government letter mainly in two areas: that the government sent the letter unilaterally and that it employed two different standards, vis-a-vis the PLA and the Nepal Army.

In his letter to the UN, Prachanda wrote, “Such arbitrary and unilateral application of two different yardsticks to the two armies is highly objectionable and totally unacceptable— particularly, the decommissioning of arms of only the PLA is unthinkable.” Besides, he also alleged that the “so-called Nepal Army’s loyalty [still lay] with the autocratic monarchy” and emphasised that the “Nepal Army’s democratic restructuring and keeping [it] under credible international monitoring” was more important for free and fair CA elections. Prachanda, at the end of his letter, nevertheless, assured the UN Secretary General of his cooperation “in any manner with the UN team planning to visit Nepal”.

In New York, at the UN’s headquarters, for some reasons, Prachanda’s voice was heard. As a consequence, the pre-assessment mission of the UN to Nepal, led by Steffan de Mistura, exerted pressure through track 1.5 diplomacy for consensus between the government and the rebels on the issue of arms management as a precondition before the UN would formally get involved. So ended the first phase of getting the UN involved in Nepal’s peace process.

Chalise was foreign relations advisor to Girija Prasad Koirala

Published: 09-11-2014 09:12

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