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

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