Shortage of intellectual objectivity

Murari Sharma

A few deeply worrisome foreign policy developments have occurred in Nepal in recent months. Before the dust stirred by Prime Minister KP Oli’s visits to India and China has settled,  the India-EU statement and Mohana Ansari’s statement have put Nepal into sharp and unflattering diplomatic focus. However, much of it is a storm in a teacup generated by partisan arm-chair generals.

Sure, there are serious issues in which Prime Minister Oli should be held to account. For example, Oli has bragged big, but delivered little in the post-earthquake reconstruction, in bringing piped gas to your kitchen, and in phasing out river crossings on a single cable within two years.  He deserves criticism for his failure.

But he has also accomplished a few things. For instance, he has eased the Indian economic embargo without compromising Nepal’s vital interests, the embargo that was imposed before he became prime minister. He has signed the transit treaty, and opened the door for greater connectivity, with China.  He deserves credit for his success.

Strangely, that is not what you hear in the media or conversations. Some portray Oli as a spectacular success and others as an ignominious failure. Where has objectivity gone in Nepal?

More specifically, although the India-EU statement is unfortunate, it has been blown out of proportion. India, which has been facing minority revolts in Kashmir, West Bengal and elsewhere, should have resisted the temptation to display in the India-EU statement its heavy-handed dissatisfaction with Nepal’s new constitution, in solidarity with a small section of the Nepali population. But Indian politicians and diplomats are not always in their wisest.

At the same time, if Nepal’s diplomacy was proactive, it could have prevented the unflattering portrayal of Nepal in the India-EU statement. Unfortunately, our diplomacy is passive, and reactive at best. When I was new there,  a senior official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had advised me to keep my boss happy, my mouth shut, and my hands folded if I wanted to earn desirable postings, timely promotions, and a respectable retirement.

In other words, our system penalizes initiative. No wonder, our political parties look line personal fiefdoms of the leader; our bureaucracy and diplomacy are unresponsive, unproductive and inefficient; and our country is underdeveloped.

Once the India-EU statement came out, there is nothing wrong in expressing our displeasure through diplomatic statements, private conversations, and public speeches. I do not understand the fuss being made about it even by some established scholars, unless they have a political axe to grind.

That brings me to the issue of Ms. Ansari’s statement. A member of the National Human Rights Commission, she criticised the government of Nepal in the 31st session of the United Human Rights Council. Prime Minister K. P. Oli expressed his dissatisfaction with Ms. Ansari and the NHRC about the statement. The incident has unleashed a huge uproar in the NGO community.

This is genuinely the storm in a teacup. Let us start with a little background. Democracy is designed to be imperfect by building many checks and balances into  it. Government has the power and responsibility to protect and promote the country’s vital interests; courts, constitutional bodies, NGOs, the media, and international organizations work as watchdogs to prevent the government from straying away from democratic values and norms.

Democracy works best when all these important actors remain within their mandates and limits and tell each other when they think that the other has crossed its boundaries. There are very well established legal and conventional procedures for these actors to express their objections and reservations, but such sensitive communication should never be channelled through the media.

There is a very well established procedure for national independent public agencies, such as the NHRC, to present their reports and statements to United Nations bodies. They should first raise its concerns with the government and ask for a response. If the response satisfies them, these independent agencies should drop the concern. If the response is found inadequate or inappropriate, then they must present their case as well as the government’s response together to UN forums.

Against this background, Ms. Ansari and the NHRC are at fault on two counts. First, they either did not follow the due process at all or failed to reflect it in the statement given to the UN Human Rights Council. The statement raises several grave concerns about the human rights situation in Nepal, but it does not mention what the government response to them was; neither does it say that the government refused to respond. Therefore, Prime Minister Oli is right in reminding Ms. Ansari and the NHRC to follow the due process.

This happens elsewhere as well. For instance,  British Prime Minister David Cameron was accused of exercising political influence even over court sentencing of the 2011 London rioters, following the death of Mark Duggan in a police shooting.

Second, Ms. Ansari flouted her oath of office in which she had pledged, among other things, to maintain confidentiality of sensitive communication. Rather, she shared the content of the prime minister’s conversation with the media and international and domestic non-governmental organizations. Doing so would have been a culpable crime in any advanced democracy. Unless said otherwise, the communication of head of state and government to government officials is confidential.

It appears that Ms. Ansari and her organization have a distorted sense of independence. Even the Supreme Court is a branch of government in a broad sense; but it is independent of the executive branch. Similarly, the NHRC is part of the government but independent of the executive branch. Constitutional bodies are accountable to the parliament, which has established them, which appoints its members, and which fires its members through impeachment.

The bottom line, no taxpayer-funded organization, no matter how independent, should wash the dirty linen in public — in this case, in international forums — without reflecting both sides. Similarly, neither the government, nor the NHRC should be above the constitution and due process.

As BP Koirala has suggested, we the so-called intellectuals often fail to see right from wrong. It happens perhaps because many of us are pro-this or pro-that before we are pro-Nepal, pro-people, and pro-due process.  This is reflected in the write-ups of the many pundits who have written about Nepal-India and Nepal-China relations, the India-EU statement and Mahana Ansari’s statement.




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