Nepali Times spoke to the Head of Delegation of the European Union to Nepal, Ambassador Rensje Teerink, about the objections from the Nepal government to European envoys recently meeting a Madhesi leader espousing separatism.
Nepali Times: Were you surprised by the reaction from the government about your meeting with a Madhesi intellectual?
Rensje Teerink: At the outset, let me clarify the background of our meeting with Dr Raut, as there have been many rumours and allegations circulating in the press. We were apprised of Dr Raut’s case via local human rights organisations that pointed out that he had been the victim of serious human rights abuses. When Dr Raut approached several EU embassies with the request for a meeting we discussed the possibility of meeting him weighing the pros and cons. We were aware that he was seen as an agitator.
n the other hand, there was the human rights issue and the fact that Dr Raut was not convicted of any crime yet. As you know, the EU is a staunch defender of human rights principles worldwide. Most times, human rights law is needed precisely to protect those who are rejected and unpopular. Refusing a meeting would not have been very consistent with these principles. We therefore decided to grant him an appointment to hear his grievances, which is something we routinely do with people from many different groups, be they Madhesis, Janajatis, Dalits, etc. And to be clear, contrary to what is being repeated in some media, we saw him as EU heads of missions. It was not a meeting exclusively held by the Danish Ambassador and myself. In fact, the Danish Ambassador was not even present, she was represented by her DCM.
To be honest, we were more surprised by the reactions in the media. Numerous allegations were doing the rounds: that it was a ‘clandestine’ meeting, that I had travelled to Chitwan to meet Dr Raut in jail, that we had some sinister agenda by kindling the fires of separatism in the Tarai, etc. What is disappointing here is that no journalist thought it necessary to pick up the phone to hear first-hand what was going on. As to the Government, there was no immediate reaction after these press reports.
It was only during the briefing session with the international Community on 22 January that the Honourable Foreign Minister referred to the obligation to respect diplomatic norms, pointing out that MOFA should be informed of meetings with political leaders and activists. This prompted us to seek a meeting to explain the background to him. This meeting took place on the 26th. We were not surprised by the government’s reaction. It’s only natural that they reacted the way they did, after all, the rumours flying around were quite serious. We had a cordial and frank discussion both with the Honourable Minister Pandey and with the Honourable Prime Minister.
What has been the response from top government leaders, including the prime minister, to your clarification?
The top leaders made their point very clear. The MOFA pointed out that it grants a lot of freedom to diplomats accredited to Nepal compared to other countries. We asked whether we had breached diplomatic norms when meeting with Dr Raut. The response was that they didn’t think we had breached the norms but they would have appreciated being informed about the meeting. The MOFA also highlighted the particular sensitive timing at which the meeting had taken place. The way Dr Raut is perceived in Nepal at this particular juncture means that a meeting should better have been avoided. We fully acknowledged this.
But can a meeting with a political activist really be described as ‘apolitical’?
We never referred to this as an ‘apolitical’ meeting. When a breach of human rights is discussed the meeting is per definition political. But the issue at stake was not to discuss the situation in the Madhes or to condone Dr Raut’s ideas of separatism. We made it very clear from the outset that we would be in listening mode as his ill treatment was concerned but that it was not our role to comment on or endorse his political agenda.
Would you agree that on this issue you crossed the line of diplomatic propriety? In hindsight would you have done things differently?
There is perhaps a grey area here. The Vienna Convention states in Article 41: ‘1. Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State. They also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State. 2. All official business with the receiving State entrusted to the mission by the sending State shall be conducted with or through the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the receiving State or such other ministry as may be agreed.’
Does meeting a political activist mean that we interfered in the internal affairs of the State? If yes, then we indeed breached diplomatic protocol, but then so have numerous other diplomatic actors, who have also met Dr. Raut and many other actors. Moreover, if we have to conduct all our business through the MOFA it would make our day-to-day work effectively impossible. As mentioned earlier, MOFA didn’t think we had breached protocol but highlighted the sensitivity of the case and the unfortunate timing. Ultimately, MOFA’s stance should be our guiding principle. Would we have done things differently? The EU will always be willing to listen to people’s grievances if so requested, except if these people are convicted criminals, which is not Dr Raut’s case for the moment. In this particular case, in hindsight, we should have probably waited for a less sensitive moment. In the past, Dr Raut has held public conferences with the presence of many international actors. His ideas were well-known at the time; that he talks to people does not mean that interlocutors agree with him.
It’s a pity that the EU is now associated with ‘meddling’ and ‘interfering’. Those who are familiar with our work here know that we always have tried to play a constructive role. We support a stable and prosperous Nepal and we try to do our bit by providing development cooperation and by fostering investments. As we said in various public statements, we have no specific views on the Constitution: that is something for the Nepali people to decide.
The government is reacting to public opinion pressure on issues like proselytisation, so why would European ambassadors be defending conversion?
That is another misunderstanding. The EU absolutely does not support conversion. The reference by the British Ambassador concerned the right to choose one’s religion, as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That is something completely different. If I want to become a Buddhist tomorrow, nobody should be able to stop me. That said, I will be frank in saying that I’m not comfortable with so-called NGOs who exploit people’s poverty in order to lure them into converting. This is unacceptable to the EU and we would never support such NGOs or religious organisations.
What is your assessment of how the constitution process is going, and what in your view would be the ideal outcome?
It’s a moving target at the moment. We’re of course disappointed that a deal could not be reached although the parties seemed very close on the eve of the deadline of 22 January. But we remain optimistic. As for the outcome, I look towards the long term: with the promulgation of the Constitution Nepal will be able to move on with other urgent issues, such as local elections, economic growth and development. That will be Nepal’s moment and the EU is committed to continue supporting this process.
Leave us alone