Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Rising Nepal, 15 September 2013

"Ethnic identity tends to be exclusive, not inclusive."

You have closely watched Nepal’s ongoing political process. As a conflict resolution expert, how do you see Nepal’s conflict resolution process following a turbulent period in the country’s history?

I have actually not watched the details of Nepal’s ongoing political process that closely. My interest was more in supporting Nepalese who are occupying the “middle space” as citizens who promote dialogue. Nepal has indeed taken great strides since the peace agreement to put the country on the path of peace and development. But I get the sense that, generally speaking, people are worried about the apparent lack of new and creative thinking about how to respond to the ongoing impasse.  

Nepal recently completed integration of former Maoist combatants into Nepal Army that was a part of broader peace process. Isn’t it unique to the world?

It was indeed a huge achievement to integrate combatants into the state’s security apparatus, but it is not unique to Nepal. It has also happened in my own country. 

However, the crucial task of truth revelation and reconciliation has not yet begun. The key players have been divided over the provision of amnesty in a proposed bill aimed at forming the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Some political parties and rights activists have expressed their strong reservation about ‘the blanket amnesty’ provision. Could you share your South African experiences in the reconciliation among the conflicting groups?

You are right that maybe there is still a lot to be done to bring truth to light. For many people the path to reconciliation, which is not a one-off event but rather a life-long journey, starts with the first steps of telling the stories of what actually happened. One can understand the fears of those who fought on the front lines that getting to the bottom of the truth could open up a Pandora's box of demands for justice, but what about those who were on the receiving end? In the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission amnesty was only given to those who could prove that they acted on the basis of a political ideology or struggle (in other words, ordinary criminal deeds did not qualify) and who then disclosed the full truth. Blanket amnesty is not a good idea at all. It will not prevent a repetition of the conflict and it does not help the victims to bring a painful history to a closure. 

There is another contested issue that the conflict-era cases should be dealt through a separate mechanism, i.e. the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But, when such commission has not been formed and many victims feel they have been deprived of justice and say they could not wait for a long time, can the regular criminal justice system be invoked to give them justice?   

A credible and well-functioning regular criminal justice system only pronounces on who was guilty according to the law. It seldom delivers “justice” in the true sense of the word. It cannot heal relationships and does not restore the equilibrium. A credible alternative is a voluntary process of mediation and dialogue in a restorative justice context. Experienced Nepali community mediators have already mediated 22 000 cases with a 85% success rate. When I asked them why they were involved in the Asia Foundation community mediation programme they all replied that people at local level find much more satisfaction when they are able to resolve conflicts through mediation than when they have to rely on the courts. Maybe the question should be asked how the perpetrators and victims of human rights violations could meet each other at local level in the presence of local mediators to close a painful chapter in our history. It will be painful, but some form of reparation could prove to be one of the most important healing processes that we can undertake. 

South Africa and Nepal have one strong commonality – the diverse ethnicities. The ethnic groups here have demanded the creation of states on the basis of ethnicities in new federal set-up. How did South Africa, known as rainbow country, resolve this issue? Would you offer some insights to our politicians?

South Africa was isolated and its policy of apartheid was declared a crime against humanity for its efforts to establish independent ethnic states. It was only accepted back into the international community after accepting a constitution that emphasizes the human rights of individuals, including their right of free association, respect for religious and cultural diversity, and the supremacy of the rule of law. This constitution enables the rich diversity of people to co-exist fairly harmoniously – though serious problems remain. Nepali politicians could do better than their South African counterparts by emphasizing an inclusive, overarching identity—a Nepali identity—as opposed to an identity of ethnicity, which tends to be exclusive, rather than inclusive. All of us have multiple identities, so why do we have to elevate the ethnic identity at the cost of our common identity as citizens in a sovereign country?

Identity politics has swayed the country’s transitional politics and it was also a factor for the dissolution of the first CA. Is it compatible with the universal values of democracy? How can it be addressed?

Identity politics is a world-wide phenomenon and it is a major source of conflict. However, it does not have to paralyze a country’s political processes. The key is to have deep sambaad, dialogue through which the underlying roots of identity politics can be examined and replaced by values of unity in diversity. The ground rules of sambaad are much different from that of barta or badbibaad.  In the case of barta and badbibaadthe atmosphere is quite often hostile and confrontational. The question is “who is right and who has the most power?” In sambaad we create safe spaces where the question “what does the future ask of us and how can we join hands to achieve that future?” can be explored in depth. It is not a question of giving up our differences, but making our differences a source of strength, rather than a source of division. These are the questions that political leaders should ask. 

The Nepalese political parties demonstrate their own style of dialogue and negotiation. They forge agreements after lengthy debates and discussions. But, they often falter when it comes to the implementation of the accords in letter and spirit. Sometime key parties to the deals backtrack from them under the exterior pressure, posing a question of legitimacy to them? As a practitioner of dialogue facilitation, what do you suggest?

It is necessary to build on what has been working well in the Nepali style of dialogue and negotiation, but, as you rightly point out, there are also shortcomings. I often use the metaphor of the need to “step sideways”, which means that we take time to reflect on the process. Why is implementation weak? Why don’t parties own up to the solutions that were agreed upon?  Maybe stronger emphasis must be put during the negotiation phase on the feasibility of solutions and the political will to implement them. This is a reason for the failure of many peace agreements – almost 50% of all peace agreements. One option is to make use of a professional team of mediators who can ask the appropriate questions and facilitate the type of dialogue that is necessary to produce sustainable solution. 

Nepal is heading toward the second CA polls amidst the threats of ‘violent boycott’ by some parties. How do you see the prospect of getting an inclusive constitution through another CA?

Can Nepal afford to just go through another round of a CA process that is similar to the one that was inconclusive? If not, what needs to change?  This is why, in my view, it would be tremendously helpful if key Nepali role-players could take a step sideways to get consensus on what you have learned from the failure of the previous CA and what needs to change in terms of process. In other words, think process first, then substance and format. One can expect that the substance or issues to be negotiated will be more or less the same, but if the process is creative and more responsive to the tough negotiations that will follow, the chances of success are bigger. 

You have to say anything at last?
Nepal has some of the best minds in the world. Think about the  tremendous potential that can be unlocked when politicians, civil society leaders and economic actors get together to design a Nepali-driven process that is fresh, authentic and forward-looking. This would require an interim suspension of strong ideological positions for the sake of forging consensus on the process. It is not that hard to come up with a few scenarios of what may happen in the future, but if you are in agreement on how to prepare for these scenarios, the what (the issues) can be negotiated safely. I look forward to the day when the international community will again flock to Nepal, not to help you, but to learn from you. Ethnic identity tends to be exclusive, not inclusive"

"Ethnic identity tends to be exclusive, not inclusive." Interview in The Rising Nepal, 15 September 2013

Monday, September 2, 2013

Interview on dialogue in Nepal


2 September 2013 

Chris Spies is a mediation practitioner who specialises in the facilitation of dialogue processes in conflict and post-conflict scenarios. A pastor for 10 long years, Spies is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and has worked in diverse settings, from Kenya to Guyana and his own South Africa, helping societies come together and hold dialogue. He makes a point of distinguishing dialogue as a very different process from negotiation and emphasises the need for safe spaces where people and issues are heard, instead of just talked about. Here in Nepal under a UNDP programme, Spies has held workshops, consultations and meetings with political leaders, leading editors and civil society leaders on facilitation and dialogue. Akhilesh Upadhyay and Pranaya SJB Rana spoke to Spies in his personal capacity (not as a UNDP personnel) about the need for dialogue in Nepal, the creation of safe spaces and the lessons from post-apartheid South Africa.
What exactly is dialogue and do you see us as a nation that is lacking in dialogue?
People have engaged in dialogue for centuries but somehow we have lost the true meaning of deep listening. In Nepal, when we started exploring the concepts of dialogue, people heard the word barta, which is negotiation. Sometimes, they would even mix up the word badbibad (debate) with dialogue, which is a completely different concept. Both barta and badbibad operate in a context where somebody needs to win and others need to lose. So when we started digging deeper around the word sambad, people said that word is almost dropping out of the vocabulary. In every country, there are two spaces. One is the competition space, which is politics. The rules of that space are that you need to win and often, when you win, somebody else loses. You don’t bring your argument in such a way that others truly listen. So when you provide an alternative space where people can listen with an intent to understand, then you talk with an attitude of inquisitiveness and discovery.
For a nation as fragmented as ours, where do you start this process of sambad, dialogue?
The sad thing is that such processes are often not started unless blood is flowing in the streets. Dialogue is often the last option when things fall apart. One definite point is for key, credible people to stand up and say there is an alternative way that can be explored. Those people, which could also include the media, need to raise the consciousness that we are unable to get out of the trap we are in because we bathe in our pain all the time. An alternative is to create a type of prototype for the future that is different from the others. But as long as people have negative experiences of di-alogue and of feeling humiliated, then your chances of valuing dialogue are not good. In our workshops with politicians, the media, youth leaders and community-level facilitators, what they say is that we have never had a space like this, that this space is special. When we explore why it is special, it comes back to the issue of good process.
International conflict experts more often than not look at a society from a Western political science framework. Do you think this adequately explains the nuances inherent in another nation, such as ours?
I will always be grateful to a Nepali collegue of mine who has been very helpful in reminding me that we are outsiders and do not understand even the first layer of complexity in Nepali society. My knowledge of political science will not get me very far. There is much more of a human element that we could be working with. I was helped in this, ironically, by a book by a political scientist from France, called The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Emotions of Hope, Fear and Humiliation are Shaping World Politics. If you want to look at humiliation, take the former Russian federation or the Muslim world today, which was once a huge influence in the world with culture and moral values. Look at how they are being treated today. If you want to look at hope, you can look at China, India or Malaysia. Things are not perfect but they are picking up, at least there is progress. Their emotion of hope determines the way they do business and interact with the global world. If you want to look at the impact of fear, look at the West and how fear is driving their politics. Coming back to Nepal, you were never colonised but what Nepalis are asking now is: are we being humiliated by our own politicians or by our own neglect? What gives us hope as a nation and how can we generate hope? What are we afraid of and how is fear driving our politics?
Where do you see the mass media fitting into this whole process—of dialogue—if you may?
The media is one of the few places in the country where dialogue can be assisted in a big way. You have the university but that is a very small component. The political field is a winner-take-all system. You have your protest movement but that is an activist voice. So the media is the best mechanism to step into the middle ground and shine a light on different perspectives. If the media can succeed in amplifying voices that are silent then it can serve the wh-ole nation. The media can elevate mudslinging and tit-for-tat debate to a level where people can engage with key driving forces. In Nepal, I have seen thoughtful practitioners and a media that has a tremendous awareness of its role and wants to take the country forward.
Easier said than done, how do create this safe space for dialogue where everyone’s views are listened to?
The first thing to do is to try to achieve the political will to create that space. The secret lies in ongoing conversations with credible people that the politicians will listen to. These type of conversations can help us explore scenarios for the future. Civil society, business and academics need to come together and think process, not so much content. Let me give you an example of what happened in Guyana. There were deep differences between people of African descent and people of Indian descent. But we formed a multi-party process committee whose task was to just think process. They were briefed on the kinds of conversations we had, not what was discussed. After many months, parties agreed to a conflict transformation workshop. Up to the last moment, there was some hesitation because they thought it was a negotiation. But we sat in a circle; there were no opening statements and no speeches. We saw that they rediscovered the ways of being together that they had when they were children and students. They lost this when they became politicians and opponents. They said they wanted this kind of conversation to happen across the country. So in about four months, we had about 141 conversations, which then became a national conversation. Unfortunately, this wasn’t sustained and the programme ended. But think about the potential when the conversation grows from the bottom up, where people can get together about issues that are more pressing than politics—water, climate, violence against women, development and education. The flow of the conversation must be reversed, instead of politicians telling people what they will do, the people themselves must say this is what we want to see happening in the country.
How do you reverse this hierarchy between the people and the politicians?
Politicians worldwide think that they know best. The tool to change this hierarchy lies in citizens finding their own voice in a practical way by organising themselves so that they can call politicians to their meetings instead of only going to meetings that politicians are calling. Another lesson we’ve learned is that it does not help to hammer politicians all the time. The louder you shout, the deafer people become. It is important to understand that in politics, not everyone is a devil and not everyone is an angel. It is not helpful to paint every politician with the same brush.
South Africa has become an international model for truth and reconciliation. How well has it handled the reconciliation component?
The TRC was an important event and the hope was that truth would lead to reconciliation and that justice would prevail. Mandela himself set an example of not hanging on to the past but he has been criticised that he sacrificed economic and social justice on the plate of reconciliation. I’m not sure we could have done it in any other way. If we had not emphasised reconciliation during the early 90s, I think we would’ve fallen apart. My black colleagues and friends would say that there cannot be reconciliation without social and economic justice and I agree with that. Our country is the second most unequal country in the world, next to Brazil. So if you have a majority of people who are still poor and suffering, you cannot talk about reconciliation. They will always look at who has the most, who are the rich and question why are they are still suffering.
Despite all the tremendous progress on electricity, water and healthcare, in terms of poverty and the quality of education, we are not making it. We are in a deep crisis. I think the African National Congress is at a very interesting stage. The tendency to blame apartheid for everything is still there but they can’t be doing that for too long.
Can our political class continue to blame history for long?
They should never have blamed anything on the past. You cannot change anything in the past. You can only learn from it and make things better. Blame tends to put guilt on one side and innocence on the other. It’s more helpful to say we are in this thing together so what can we do as a nation to get out of it. Justice has to be served, you cannot get away with impunity but sometimes there are tough calls to make. Even though what happened was atrocious and mistakes were made, what about our children and grandchildren 15 years from now? What will they blame us for?

Posted on: 2013-09-02 09:22