| Packing it up: UNMIN chief Karin Landgren oversees the mission’s flag-lowering ceremony, 14 January
Photo credit: UNMIN
In 2007, the euphoria over having achieved something substantial was palpable in Nepal, even though the differences between the major political parties had already begun to surface. After all, the decade-long Maoist-led insurgency had come to a formal end with the people’s movement. The two-and-a-half-century-old monarchy had been effectively abolished. And the UN political mission in Nepal, UNMIN, was about to begin a one-year term on 23 January, vested with supporting the nascent peace process. The ‘New Nepal’ was about to unfold. Four years later, the UN mission has been forced to leave after a tenure that had some notable successes, a few controversies and a big goof-up, leaving some important peace-related tasks still pending. It was an exit that neither the UN bigwigs in New York and UNMIN officials nor the Nepalis had anticipated.
There was hardly any opposition to the UN mission being set up except some perceived resistance from India. The man named to head the mission, Ian Martin, had earned goodwill and respect as Nepal chief of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Thereafter, the UN Security Council established UNMIN with a fourfold mandate to: a) monitor the management of arms and armed personnel of the Nepal Army and the Maoist army, in line with the provisions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of November 2006; b) assist the parties through a Joint Monitoring Coordinating Committee (JMCC) in implementing this agreement; c) assist in the monitoring of ceasefire arrangements; and d) provide technical assistance to the Election Commission for the election of a Constituent Assembly, which eventually took place in April 2008.
This mandate was never fully understood by the Nepali people, for several reasons. Politicians, journalists and members of civil society seemed hardly to read documents before making their opinions public; this was coupled with a motivated misreading by vested interests and growing and unmanageable differences between the Maoist and non-Maoist parties, who always found the UN mission an easy target. None of this was helped by UNMIN’s late response to any misconception, its dogged refusal to acknowledge mistakes, and its inability to shake-off a developing pro-Maoist image.
Of the two main tasks entrusted to UNMIN – support to the elections and verifying former Maoist combatants – one was accomplished and the other generated huge controversy. Whatever the fairness of the 2008 elections (in which the Maoists came away as the largest party), UNMIN lent valuable material and expert support, though critics later condemned it for failing to advise against an election when one political party still had its own fighting forces. Positively, however, the meetings of the JMCC (chaired by UNMIN official and manned by representatives from Nepal Army and Maoist army), were largely cordial and fruitful.
The verification process of the registered Maoist personnel was also discussed at the JMCC. And yet, it has by now become clear just how deeply flawed the verification actually was. The mistake was not deliberate, but UNMIN still could not escape criticism for the manner in which it conducted the verification of over 32,250 ‘registered’ ex-combatants and the result it finally announced. After a year-long verification in the Maoist cantonments, the UN came up with a number of verified combatants – 19,602. Yet in January 2008, the Maoist chief, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka ‘Prachanda’), admitted in a subsequently leaked videotape that the actual number of Maoist soldiers had been around 7500, but that the party had ‘fooled’ UNMIN by registering nearly five times that number. Clearly this constituted a significant blow to UNMIN’s methods and competence, if not its objectivity, out of which it was never able to adequately explain itself.
Lax or hamstrung?
The bigger blow has been to the peace process, for the verified combatants are to be either integrated into government security forces or given support to rehabilitate themselves into society. The Maoists and other political parties have been at loggerheads over the specifics of integration into the security forces, and the monetary support to those who might opt not to join the state’s security organs. This implies that it is up to the ex-combatants to join or not to join the security forces. It is more complex than that, perhaps, as there is a need for the Maoists and the political parties to come up with numbers to be integrated.
Another significant controversy erupted in May 2009, with charges of bias being levelled against the UN mission. During a briefing before the UN Security Council that month, UNMIN chief Karin Landgren (who took over from Martin in January 2009) claimed that all the political parties had consented to then-Prime Minister Dahal’s attempts to dismiss the army chief, Rookmangud Katawal, before backtracking. In fact, the Nepali Congress had never consented to the sacking, having vehemently cautioned Dahal from doing so. Obviously Landgren had been incorrectly briefed, but the mission chief did not admit to the mistake. UNMIN never recovered from the damage caused by this briefing, and charges of bias intensified thereafter.
There were also questions about UNMIN’s monitoring capacity, some details of which are discussed below. But those levelling such charges – the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and various journalists – had either not read the mission’s mandate or were plain lazy. Either way, these accusations held no water, as UNMIN had specifically been given no enforcement role in its mandate. Instead, all its monitors could do was to publicly raise any breach of violation.
Still, it was not difficult to understand the reason behind such charges being made in the first place. In May 2008, a pro-Maoist businessman from Kathmandu, Ram Hari Shrestha, was kidnapped from his home by some Maoist combatants and their commander from the Shaktikhor cantonment, in Chitwan district. Shrestha was said to have been tortured over alleged theft, and eventually succumbed to this treatment. The Shrestha family accused the Maoists of murder. The party initially denied any role of its combatants, but later admitted that some ‘errant’ combatants had been involved. Today, only one of the five accused combatants is in prison, and the commander involved, Kali Bahadur Kham, remains free. Unfortunately for UNMIN, this brought its monitoring capacity into question. A man had been kidnapped, taken inside a cantonment, tortured and murdered by Maoists combatants right under UNMIN’s nose. There was nothing much the UN mission could do, but the mood across the country was unforgiving.
Among many incidents that raised questions over the mission’s monitoring of the cantonments was an incident in Kapilvasu district in August 2009. Nineteen Maoist combatants based in Kapilvastu came out of their cantonment with weapons, and were later arrested. Nine of the confiscated weapons had been registered by UNMIN, meant only to be used for security on the cantonment perimeter. UNMIN noted that the combatants had acted against the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and later claimed that, as the police in Kapilvastu refused to detain the combatants, it took custody of the combatants. However, the fact that armed combatants from a main cantonment site (there are seven main cantonments and three satellite camps throughout the country) could have left carrying weapons reinforced the suspicions over UNMIN’s monitoring.
UNMIN also did not cover itself with glory by coming out with a 60-week integration plan for the Maoist soldiers in July 2010. After it was leaked and the government formally lodged a protest, the UN mission defended its move by saying that the plan was merely a ‘reference document’; UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s office also defended it. The plan would have meant completing the integration process after the deadline for the constitution – 28 May 2011 – something that the Maoists have insisted on, while other parties want this finished before the constitution is promulgated. The plan came to light when just two of the four months of the mission’s sixth mandate extension were remaining, and many saw the plan as both an indirect attempt to prolong the mission’s stay and toeing the line of the Maoist leadership.
When the heat on UNMIN started to increase, it started to argue that it was being expected to do much more than what its limited mandate allowed. It might have served the mission well to seek a revision to its mandate when the first of the six-month extensions was decided upon, in January 2008. Having not done so, however, when UN officials finally called for a broadening of the mandate in March 2010, it was far too late. By that time, the mood of the government and the non-Maoist camp had hardened against the mission, and suggestions to halt it were starting to grow. For the first time in Nepal, a UN mission’s activities were threatening to besmirch the good name of the UN itself.
By then, UNMIN had lost much of its aura, and even its symbolic presence as guarantor of Nepal’s peace process was losing relevance. Just before a major Maoist plenum was to begin in November 2010, the other political parties objected to the Maoist leadership’s decision to include the participation of a thousand ex-combatants and commanders. UNMIN too objected to the plan. But the Maoists simply ignored all such objections, demonstrating not only that they still effectively controlled their combatant force but that they could also breach peace-related agreements with impunity. However, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the other parties, since many of the combatants and commanders ended up rebuking the party leadership for using them as ladders to gain political power.
On 15 January, UNMIN officially lowered its flag and left. While it must be praised for several things – its election-time support, working hard for the successful exit of child soldiers from the Maoist cantonments, ensuring cordial atmosphere at the JMCC meetings, and making the political parties abide by peace agreements – its tenure was beset by controversy. The UN now needs to study the Nepal experience and address the shortcomings that surfaced. Meanwhile, Nepalis have no time to lose. Some, especially Maoist supporters, have expressed anxiety over the possible collapse of the peace process, but all such fears currently appear unfounded. The tussle over whether to extend UNMIN’s term revealed something hitherto unknown in Nepali politics: that if the non-Maoist parties remain firm, they can make the Maoists honour past agreements.
So far, the most significant positive outcome of UNMIN’s exit has been the agreement between the government and the Maoists over sticking to a previous pact on allowing the Special Committee to monitor the arms and the armies. This has raised hopes that, finally, a thorny issue that has created such animosity between the Maoists and the non-Maoists will be settled amicably. The road ahead in post-civil war Nepal remains bumpy, of course, but it is now solely in the hands of Nepalis themselves.
Damakant Jayshi is a Kathmandu-based columnist with Nepali Times and a correspondent of Inter Press Service.