Regional Conference on Humanitarian Access and Negotiation in Asia
Panel II: Government and Security Force Perspectives on Humanitarian Negotiations
His Excellency Mr. Moazzam Malik (Moderator of this panel),
Distinguished Panelists (Lt. Gen. Noboru Yamaguchi, Col. Wiriya Rujinichakul, Ms. Dina Wisnu)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very delighted to be a part of the Regional Conference on Humanitarian Access and Negotiation in Asia. And, I would like to thank the organizers for providing me an opportunity to share my experiences with you all.
Taking into consideration the format of this session, I shall take some cue from the talking points suggested to us by the organizers beforehand. I will try to address the questions that fit the Nepalese context and my own experiences.
1. The first concern is regarding balancing humanitarian obligations with security and political considerations. I shall link this concern with some likely mistakes that some governments as well as non-government organizations should avoid when dealing with humanitarian negotiations.
I would first like to underscore the significance of understanding that any conflict or crises in society is primarily political in nature. To look for answers or solutions, we first need to diagnose what the problems are and dig into the root cause. The rulers of Nepal for a long time considered the decade long armed revolution as a security concern. The prescribed solution therefore was largely fixed upon militarily crushing the rebels through armed police and army deployment. The human cost was 13 thousand lives, of which more than eight thousand were rebels and civilians killed by state actors. Contrary to the expectations of many, the revolution spread even more widely and deeply. The mistake made by the government, politicians, scholars and at times even the international community was their failure to understand that the Maoist armed struggle was principally political in nature. It was driven by the quest for a more democratic, just and equitable society. It was an outburst against the autocratic monarchy, against a feudal, unitary, centralized state structure under which majority of people were marginalized and oppressed on the basis of class, caste, gender, region, religion and language. It was an upheaval against a moribund economic system that made the poor poorer and the rich richer. The movement acquired a violent nature only in retaliation against state violence.
So, my main point is that security aspect is only one dimension of a political crisis. It is a symptom, not the cause. Therefore, any consideration for humanitarian access in cases of civil war such as in Nepal, must be sensitive towards the political roots of violent conflicts. Organizations devoted to humanitarian assistance, negotiation and human rights should not fall into the trap of failing to see the wood for the trees.
Otherwise, negotiating humanitarian access could be perceived as interference in a nation's or community's internal affairs. Or humanitarian organizations could end up on one particular side of the political spectrum instead of providing a neutral and independent action.
2. This leads me to the question of whether there is space for neutral, independent humanitarian actions or must they submit to greater governmental control. In my capacity as not only the former Prime Minister but also a former leader of an armed revolution, I must say that there is definitely a need for impartial, autonomous bodies that cater to humanitarian needs and rights. Humanitarian organizations must carve out space for such neutral, non-partisan actions to fulfill this need. Sometimes there may be ample space, sometimes the opening is too small. You need to grasp it and expand it nevertheless.
Let me give you an example. I myself had drafted a special letter addressed to the international community during the heydays of the people's war. We had made an appeal to not be misled by the one-sided propaganda imparted by the then ruler of Nepal, Gyanendra Shah to hoodwink the international community and justify its brute military dictatorship. We exposed the indiscriminate killing of innocent people, rape of women, gagging of the free press, imprisonment of dissenting citizens, etc. perpetrated by the state. During the 2003 ceasefire negotiations, one of our demands was for the "impartial investigation of the abuse of human rights in the course of the civil war". By 2004, the Maoist leadership had made a statement supporting an international mediation and monitoring role. We later publicly committed to abide by the Geneva Conventions and entered into a ceasefire Code of Conduct which made reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In some regions, the ICRC and other human rights monitors were invited to witness the release of prisoners from Maoist custody to show our observation of humanitarian law.
Because our movement was political and not solely military, we were able to recognize that credible nongovernmental and other external actors had the potential to contribute towards reducing the level of people's sufferings. Gradually, even amidst severe government control, human rights defenders became active in their public advocacy. After the February 2005 royal coup, when the parliamentary parties themselves became targets, their leaders began to call for international intervention. With rising number of reported disappearances and extrajudicial killings, the UN, the National Human Rights Commission, the ICRC and a number of other international organizations and governments helped set the base for a more assertive and united international stance. All these actions complemented the attempts being made by the Maoists and the mainstream parliamentary parties to build an alliance against the autocratic monarchy. This eventually culminated in the April 2006 people's movement which toppled the king's regime. Thus began the peace process in Nepal which had two major components—namely, integration of the Maoist army and the Nepalese army, and producing a new constitution through an elected constituent assembly. The United Nations Mission in Nepal was invited to (monitor the commitments of the peace agreements regarding both these tasks) facilitate the completion of both these tasks.
I do not have time to go into the details of the role of the UN Mission and other international organizations. I am only stating that Nepal has shown that there is indeed a space for neutral, nonpartisan humanitarian negotiation and monitoring. There is still one important promise of the peace process that remains unfulfilled, the task of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Alongside the lack of political will to activate transitional justice mechanism, there also exists a tension between the pursuit of justice and the pursuit of peace. So, the constructive role of humanitarian organizations is still relevant.
Having said this, I must emphasize that Nepal's peace process has been both led and driven by Nepalese themselves. It was truly homegrown and not mediated by any international actor. The role of external actors is contributive, not conclusive.
3. This leads me to my last point which is regarding the critiques against international organizations and non-government bodies, their limitations, and the task of building trust. Suspicions towards international humanitarian organizations may appear for different reasons depending on the social, political and historical context. In Nepal some doubts have been raised at times about "outside interference", about the legitimacy, mandate and utility as well as lack of financial transparency of international organizations and their domestic partners. At times there may be rhetorical claims. However, one should also take into consideration the genuine desire of a nation and its people to not become dependent on international organizations for resolution of political conflicts or even for humanitarian assistance. If organizations are not sensitive towards the general mood of the host nation, it may lead to negative public perception. Also, too many offers of assistance may raise people's doubts. A prominent political commentator had once warned us against a "conflict tourism season" in Nepal (CK Lal).
Another form of resentment against humanitarian organizations may emerge if their tasks are in conflict with a particular section of the population. For instance, in Nepal, international pressure to reform state institutions—such as the UN's attempt to play a larger role in good governance and security sector reform (which in fact were an integral part of the peace agreement)—was not taken positively by the political elite because it clashed with their entrenched interest to retain the status quo.
Another area that requires attention, particularly in case of countries like Nepal, is the geopolitical realities. Nepal has powerful neighbors—India and China, and their influence cannot be ignored. One cannot afford to ruin the balanced relationship with both countries while welcoming international assistance.
Finally, let me end by saying that Nepal's political experience suggests that humanitarian negotiations through international organizations can be productive if the context is correct and the moment is not lost. Moreover, no humanitarian negotiation can be effective without domestic support and people's ownership/participation.
08 March 2018