Nuwakot - On Kakani, paramilitary troops of the Armed Police Force (APF) are going through grueling training: they jog for miles with heavy guns, work their minds at rigorous academic sessions and sometimes even learn a smattering of Serbo-Croat or Swahili. This is all part of Nepal's tradition of joining UN peacekeeping forces in the world's conflict zones.
But today, the question is: how practical is it to train for international peacekeeping when Nepal itself has become a hotspot? Nepali troops have earned international appreciation for the calibre of its peacekeepers in the Middle East.
More than 40,000 officers and soldiers have served in peacekeeping operations abroad since 1958. At present, there are about 2,300 Nepali soldiers serving in Sierra Leone and Congo and the figure includes observer groups of army officers in Liberia, Ivory Coast, Israel, Eritrea and several other countries. Another battalion between 600-800 troops will probably be dispatched soon to Burundi. In addition, there are police officers serving in Kosovo.
But Kakani is where it begins with 120 officers and junior rank police selected out of more than 15,000 APF hopefuls to qualify for a UN mission to Liberia, the second time for the force. The first batch was sent to Kosovo in 2002. The new team is waiting for UN officials to inspect them before they leave on 29 June.
"Many join the army with a dream of participating in peacekeeping. In six months they earn more than what they would make in 10 years of service at home," says an ex-army officer who asked not to be named. For the Royal Nepali Army, money from peacekeeping is an important source of income for its welfare fund. It is an equally lucrative posting for the Nepal Police and the APF as the pay is several times their salary at home.
"We use international peacekeeping as a reward for our troops," one senior army general told us. "And, yes, it is an important source of revenue for the army as well."
The UN salary is about $1,000 a month. There was a time when 80 percent of this was deducted for the army's welfare fund, but today less than 50 percent is taken. "Missions are like prizes," says an army officer on his second international stint. "It is the best way to boost our morale and earn money."
But there are critics who question the army being busy elsewhere when they are needed at home, and also crossing the self-imposed 2,000 limit for troops abroad at any given time. "The RNA promises to send even more, and this is surprising considering the insecurity in our own country," remarks a retired army officer.
The RNA dismisses this. "It is a small portion of the army, and doesn't affect our full operational strength," says army spokesperson Brig Gen Rajendra Thapa, who was a peacekeeper to Lebanon in 1978. The army's strength has grown and is now approaching 80,000, which means more soldiers can be sent. "We have a larger force today, enough to spare for non-military activities like maintenance, disaster relief and Maoist rehabilitation programs," adds Thapa.
The UN's demand for Nepal's contribution to international missions has grown also because developed countries prefer the involvement of nations like Bangladesh, Kenya, Fiji, Pakistan and Ghana in Third World peacekeeping. In 2002, Nepal was among the top 10 troop contributor nations.
It costs the UN $4 billion for the upkeep of an estimated 50,000 soldiers and police personnel from all around the world. There are plans to raise 70,000 additional troops by year end-more soldiers are needed as conflicts crop up. "The international community is keen on Nepal because we are a non-Muslim country and can be perfectly neutral, especially in the Palestine-Israel conflict," says a military analyst. "Israel would never accept troops from Muslim countries as they may harbour sympathies towards Islamic militants."
This could be why the UN has not followed the Europeans in coming down hard on the RNA's human rights record. At the 60th session of UN Human Rights Commission in March, the Swiss government sponsored a harsh resolution against Nepal citing secret detentions, torture, harassment of civilians and indiscriminate arrests.
There was fear that this would tarnish Nepal's image and affect the RNA's involvement in UN peacekeeping. But Nepal seems to have benefited from the UN's own bureaucracy, which has separate departments for peacekeeping missions, political affairs and policing of human rights. It usually takes the UN a long time to address a common agenda and agree on similar grounds, say analysts. Nepal also received strong backing in Geneva from the US and India, which helped soften the resolution. "Nepal would be in big trouble if the Geneva Convention had been approved at the UN," says a former senior army officer. "Former US Ambassador Michael Malinowski played a key role too."
Critics, however, believe that future international peacekeeping missions by the RNA will be affected if reports of human rights abuses continue. But as long as there is great financial benefits from peacekeeping, it will probably also help the army be more conscious of respecting the Geneva Convention back home.