Come back, Ian

From Nepali Times, ISSUE #307 (21 JULY 2006 – 27 JULY 2006)

There was a tremor of anticipation in Kathmandu when Ian Martin was appointed Nepal Representative by Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). For a country that had descended the hellish pit over the years, it was hoped that the former head of Amnesty International would bring his diplomatic skill and humanitarian sensibility to bear to extricate the country from the brutal Maoist war and the dreadful state reaction.

Ian Martin did not disappoint. Arriving in Kathmandu last year even while the OHCHR office was being set up, he began high profile meetings and pronouncements to try and contain the situation. With the staff in place, the work turned to fact-finding.

Arbour had made a good choice, having realised that the damage being inflicted on this fair-sized country of 26 million could well be irreversible. Acts of impunity including extrajudicial executions, torture and disappearances had become the norm. But the very presence of the OHCHR made a difference: the rebels and the army became somewhat restrained. Hundreds of lives were saved. The OHCHR was beginning to be proactive, as when two months ago it confronted the army about 48 disappearances at the Bhairabnath Battallion.

Ian Martin was yanked off even as the Bhairabnath report was made public, and assigned by Secretary General Kofi Annan to firefighting in East Timor. The UN’s peace-building effort there was suddenly in jeopardy and he apparently was the man for the job. Unfair though this was from the perspective of the Nepali public, the expectation was that Martin would be back by mid-monsoon. There is now talk he might be permanently shifted to East Timor.

Well, what of the peace process in Nepal? It is poised on a razor’s edge and requires full UN engagement. Is not Nepal as important as East Timor (population 1 million)? And is this not one of those places where the UN can be pre-emptive for peace? How does the geo-strategic significance of East Timor compare with that of Nepal?

Martin’s absence rankles because the UN should today be actively working to avert a crisis here, at a time when civil society is polarised and the National Human Rights Commission minus commissioners. In what is looking like an extended transitional phase, many things could go wrong, with sullen and confused rebels on the one hand and badly-led soldiers lacking motivation on the other.

Meanwhile, there is a right-wing flank that is licking its wounds and looking for slippage. If the present round of peace talks fails, there could well be a bloodbath across the land.

This is the time to be working intensively with the belligerents on the ultra-sensitive matter of ‘arms management’ as the country proceeds in a zigzag towards an interim government, interim constitution and constituent assembly.

The coalition of political parties in government and the Maoist leadership need the backing and oversight of an effective OHCHR mission, headed by someone with moral authority and diplomatic acumen. Martin has the trust of all sides, including among other things for the role of his office at the time of the April People’s Movement.

The fact that India is willing to accept UN involvement in ‘arms management’ is a welcome departure which helps promote peace-building. And Martin should be here to help define the deliberately ambiguous term, for in the correct and principled definition and implementation rest the people’s visions of a post-conflict Nepal. Using his skills, standing and contacts, Martin was expected to work with politicians and the rebel leadership to provide Nepalis with hope.

Is this how the members of the UN Security Council would reward the citizens of Nepal for standing up for pluralism and peace? Do they understand the significance of the democratic upsurge that was the People’s Movement of April 2006? If the gentlemen in New York are so keen in diverting Ian Martin to East Timor, it is time for his boss in Geneva, Louise Arbour, to get on the phone.

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