Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai's address to the UN General Assembly in New York on Saturday was among the rare moments in recent times when a Nepali national leader has actually presented what can be called a foreign policy statement.
Speaking for almost 20 minutes from the GA podium with its distinctive green marble backdrop, Bhattarai not only talked about the epochal transformations back home, but delved into the lessons others could learn from us. The quest for sustainable peace, he said, can only materialise if protagonists address inequality, deprivation and marginalisation within their societies. In a moment of irony, Bhattarai questioned the rationale for "war-mongering". He said: "How can one justify the spending $1.5 trillion on war every year while more than two billion people across the globe lack basic necessities like food and medicine?"
No other Nepali prime minister we can remember has given a speech at the UN that is such a cogent critique of the negative side of globalisation.
The chronic global economic crisis, he said, called for deeper soul-searching and the creation of a new, just and scientific economic order.
Being a PhD as well as the ideologue-in-chief of a Maoist party, our prime minister may have the tendency to lecture, but at least the speech at The New School on Friday did not sound like a Marxist harangue. Some eyes rolled over when he used words like "imperialist capitalism" leading the world into a recurring global financial turmoil. But given the crises besetting the global economy there were quite a few takers. Bhattarai's "21st century Marxist model" explained the unbridled greed that is at the heart of global capitalism, and how the gap between the rich and the poor globally and within countries can breed conflict.
As the chairman of the Group of 49 'Least Developed Countries', Bhattarai's speech drew loud applause from member nations, who were clearly more impressed with him than the pro forma speech delivered by his predecessor in Istanbul in June. Bhattarai even had problems with the label "least developed" and suggested "underdeveloped".
Civil society groups and experts had termed the Istanbul declaration 'toothless'for failing to ensure adequate aid, reform unjust trade rules, and remove the burden of debt on the LDCs and subsequently came out with their own Istanbul declaration.
After joining the United Nations in 1957 and taking a proactive role in the Non-aligned Movement, what little international influence Nepal had has steadily eroded. Chairing the LDC group is seen as an opportunity for the country to find its foreign policy voice. But the conflict and protracted transition have not only weakened our national economy and polity, we have often found our foreign policy pragmatism at odds with our geo-political realities.
The failure to clearly negotiate border and security issues with India is a case in point. We have failed to convey urgency in our position on climate change and highlight the meltdown of the Himalaya. While other countries took a stand, we kept quiet even after the Copenhagen Declaration was exposed.
We have betrayed the trust of 100,000 Bhutanese refugees, by getting rid of them in the name of third country repatriation, instead of voicing their cause strongly and pressurising the Bhutanese government to ensure their dignified return. Our foreign policy does not reflect the high sounding principles we tout when we tell Bhutanese or Tibetan refugees that their issue is not our foreign policy priority. And we readily undermine our democracy and international credibility by mistreating, prosecuting and deporting Tibetan refugees in the name of pragmatism.
It is not a surprise that in the last two decades of our "democratic" foreign policy exercise we have somehow managed to balance the interests of our neighbours. And that may be the problem: our foreign policy reflects their interests, not ours.
Bhattarai's statement on "freedom of transit as the right of a landlocked nation" is therefore a refreshing departure from our previous wishy-washy stand. Is Nepal finally trying to get over the conventional mindset of a geographical handicap?
Bhattarai also met with Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh in New York, and got himself an invite to visit New Delhi in October. It may be in our national interest to be "pragmatic", but Bhattarai will be wise to remember that for our self-respect there are certain non-negotiables.