Nepali Times
Plain Speaking
Mandated monitoring


UNMIN has finally confirmed what was suspected all along. It wants a greater political role so that it can openly intervene in areas where it has been active covertly over the past few months.

The public declaration of its ambitions and desire to steer the present process is positive because the UN\'s motives are now on the table. Unfortunately, such transparency has been the exception rather than the norm of UNMIN\'s style of functioning. Its inconsistent interpretation of its mandate, shadowy behind-the-scenes activities, and secret internal reports combined with a dismal failure in its outreach department together make the word \'opaque' more suitable to describe UNMIN.

UN officials like us to believe that the Nepali people themselves want UNMIN to be more active but can't because of its restrictive mandate. That is a convenient, and inaccurate, interpretation. There is no way of knowing at present what the Nepali people really want.

UNMIN bears prime responsibility for the mis-conceptions that have cropped up about its role. For one, its visibility far exceeds its mandate or output. Ian Martin cannot get away with blaming this on the structure of UN missions all over the world. If this disproportionate relationship between appearance and work profile was so inevitable, it was the job of UNMIN\'s public information office to clarify the mission\'s role more effectively.

But the information department must rank as an unmitigated disaster. Producing a radio program in typical monotonous UNese and bringing out a newsletter that is even more boring was never going to be enough.

To be fair, it is difficult for the information office to run around picking up the pieces behind UN officials in flashy cars travelling all over the country meeting politicians and civil society actors, and asking direct questions about the political situation.

People on the ground naturally started thinking the foreigners were powerful people who would address their grievances. Little did they know that the purpose of the field visits was just to prepare daily, weekly, and fortnightly reports for Ian Martin.

Come to think of it, there is no reason why these reports should only be for the consumption of top UNMIN brass. The political and civil affairs officers of UNMIN meet a range of people. What is the nature of these interactions? How is it linked to the given mandate? Nepalis have a right to know.

Some briefings may have to be secret, but there is no reason why detailed reports on key areas like the situation in the eastern tarai, YCL activities, evolving dynamics within cantonments, and Kapilbastu riots, should not be made public.

Then there is the presence of certain people who go around town introducing themselves as Ian Martin\'s "unofficial advisers". This is particularly true of a gentleman formerly with OHCHR whose ambiguous relationship with the UN allows him to keep alive links in the tarai, including with some militant leaders.

They are understood to have prodded Goit to write a letter asking for UN mediation. Such moves by UN-supported internationals have made the madhesi situation more intractable. Militant demands have escalated and they have got a chance to play the UN off against Kathmandu and India.

While UNMIN's mandate doesn't explicitly include a role in the tarai, it is likely that \'public security\', which is weakest in the tarai, is a cover for direct activity in the plains. However, the UN must realise it can do nothing to address the systemic issues of state insensitivity, the political vacuum, a weak administration, cross-border crime, fragmentation and unity of madhesi actors, and increasing radicalisation - all of which come back to Kathmandu\'s political elite and the tarai\'s leadership.

Come to think of it, who will the UN mediate between? How is it going to use its good offices between the 22 madhesi groups? Who decides which one is political and which is criminal? These are issues for the Nepali political class, not New York-based parachutists.

UNMIN has amassed wide expertise, and some of its officials are competent and committed. The government must make the most of this. But it should remember that prolonged international missions which want to enter areas that should be the preserve of national actors harm the polity in the long run.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)