In The News

Can the UN Mission’s Exit Do Some Good for Nepal?

January 19, 2011

A general nervousness around the exit last week of the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), which monitored Nepal’s struggling peace process since 2007, was evident in political commentaries as early as last November. Perhaps because political pundits expect more from politicians than most of us do, most commentators were hoping that Nepal’s political parties would defy their history of brinkmanship and initiate a planning process early enough to fill the void created by UNMIN’s exit on the implementation of the Agreement on Arms and Armies, which keeps the Nepal Army and Maoist combatants within the confines of their barracks.

By the time January 15 arrived, Nepali authorities had taken no concrete steps to formulate a “domestic alternative” to UNMIN. True to style, hours before the deadline, the government and the Maoists agreed to a three-point deal that would hand over the cantonments to a governmental Special Committee and deploy joint observers drawn from government forces and combatants to monitor the cantonments and weapons containers. While the details still need to be worked out, it looks like a post-UNMIN void on compliance monitoring of the Agreement on Arms and Armies has now been more or less filled.

Most agreements that currently frame the Nepali peace process, including the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) between the government and the Maoists, are 11th-hour deals, not unlike the one that transpired hours before UNMIN’s exit. But the extraordinary brinkmanship practiced in Nepali politics is not the only problem that plagues this 4-year-old peace process. An extra-constitutional agreement between key political parties extended the Constituent Assembly’s (CA) tenure by 12 months last May after failing to write the constitution within two years. But, eight months later, the CA is nowhere near a draft constitution. The integration and rehabilitation of former combatants that was meant to be completed six months after the April 2008 elections still remains unattended. None of the transitional justice measures such as the commission on disappearances or the truth and reconciliation commission envisioned in the CPA have seen the light of day, and the country has failed to produce a prime minister after 16 rounds of elections.

These are essentially political problems, not the post-conflict “management” problems that foreign assistance of one kind or another can help resolve. Therefore, the impact of UNMIN’s absence on the prospects of peaceful transition in Nepal remains minimal. UNMIN’s departure has, more symbolically than materially, left the Nepali peace process to its own devices. For better or for worse, this is a turning point and there is a faint chance that UNMIN’s departure may make the otherwise insulated and unresponsive political leadership in Nepal more responsible.

The Nepali peace process has long suffered from near-total lack of responsibility on the part of its leaders, who are consumed by the politics of a hung parliament that has perpetually failed to elect a stable government. For nearly two years, at least six leaders from three political parties with the largest number of seats in the parliament have spent more or less every waking moment trying to become the next prime minister. The games played in bargaining for the premiership have sometimes degenerated into outright acts of insincerity toward the peace process. The Maoist, for instance, agreed to a “final” extension of UNMIN’s term in Nepal four months ago with renewed commitment to complete the rehabilitation and integration of combatants by January 15. But, after deciding that giving up the cantonments in a hurry would in fact weaken their claim on the government, about a week prior to UNMIN’s scheduled departure the Maoists unilaterally sent a request to the UN asking for an extension of UNMIN’s term until May 2011. For their part, the Nepali Congress and United Marxist-Leninists, sensing an opportunity to corner the Maoists further, saw the departure of UNMIN as a way of lifting restrictions on the Nepal Army under the Agreement on Arms and Armies and refused to cooperate with the Maoists. While both sides failed to get what they wanted, the propensity to hold nothing sacred in politics was clearly demonstrated.

On January 12, the political parties were in a complete deadlock on the issue. Despite the political games that continued on the sidelines, when UNMIN’s departure became undeniably certain the situation took a completely different turn and in a rare demonstration of responsibility, Prime Minister MK Nepal and Chairman Prachanda signed a last-minute deal on January 15 to formulate an alternative mechanism to monitor the arms and the cantonments. I attribute this turn-around to a point I made earlier: as long as UNMIN was around, Nepali political leaders were free to behave as if keeping the country’s fragile peace process intact was someone else’s responsibility. Now that UNMIN is no longer present, there is a growing sense that someone has to step up, and something has to give. That, by far, has to be the most hopeful transformation seen in Nepali politics in a long time.

Sagar Prasai is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Nepal. He can be reached at sprasai@asiafound.org

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