Nepali Times
"Nepal should not be allowed to be a failed state."

Last week's London International Conference on Nepal was a closed door meeting between senior officials from the US, India, China, Russia, Japan, France, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Australia, the United Nations and the World Bank. Britain chaired the conference. The five-member Nepali delegation was lead by Shankar Sharma from the National Planning Commission and also included the prime minister's wife, Arzu Deuba. Nepali Times asked Charge' d'Affaires Andrew Mitchell of the British Embassy in Kathmandu, who attended the London meeting, to tell us what happened.

Nepali Times: It was originally designed as a small, high-level meeting. How did it become so big?
Andrew Mitchell
: In essence, the initiative originated in an idea of the British Development Secretary, Clare Short, who identified, rightly I think, the need for a form of concerted international thinking around the challenges posed by the current crisis. She envisaged a small, private, international brainstorming meeting, which would develop creative thinking on responses to the crisis. But the crisis deteriorated very rapidly in the early part of the year, particularly as a result of the Maoist attacks on development and civilian infrastructure. We saw the impact on civilians, on the ordinary people of this country, becoming a real and direct issue. And so we saw the need to accelerate, and to widen and deepen the initiative. We discussed this with our Nepali friends, and with our partners. And we ended up with the London meeting.

Q: Which you attended. What was the overall atmosphere inside?
: Excellent. It was a positive, constructive encounter. Every delegation shared a very real, very direct concern for the welfare of the people of Nepal. There was a genuine willingness to explore new thinking, new ideas. The Nepali delegation, led by Dr Shankar Sharma, played a strong and constructive part. It really could not have been better.

Q: But were there differences in approach between Nepal's immediate neighbours and the western powers vis-a-vis the insurgency?
: This, I think, was the most significant achievement of the meeting. Our first priority was to explore the thinking of partners on the core issues around the conflict. We were encouraged by the discussions, which delivered broad and unanimous agreement on the key priorities. These were reflected in the Chairman's Statement. We condemned terrorism and expressed support for the Government of Nepal's efforts to combat Maoist violence. We noted that the conflict posed a threat to regional stability, and the human rights of the people of Nepal. We discussed possible assistance to a future peace process. And we noted the need for an integrated approach to security, reform and development, stressing the urgent need to tackle poverty, exclusion, poor governance, discrimination, corruption, livelihoods and human rights.

Q: Your Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien said after the meeeting last week that Nepal must not be allowed to become a "failed state". Did the participants see signs of that happening?
: That's right. We believe it is imperative that the international community should coordinate its efforts to assist the government of Nepal in its struggle against terrorism. Nepal should not be allowed to become a "failed state". I realise that this is strong language, and an horrendous prospect. We may be a long way from this prospect today. But the dangers exist. We have all lived through the process of restoring peace and security to Afghanistan. And we recognise that it is better to choose to resolve difficulties than to be forced to address catastrophes.

Q: We hear that the British International Development Secretary Clare Short reiterated her concerns about Nepal's weak governance and corruption, and called for "radical reforms". What kind of reforms are
we talking about, and do you think the message sank in?
: Clare Short said that there was an urgent need to address the underlying issues of corruption, discrimination and weak governance. These are genuine weaknesses, and have provided the fertile ground in which the conflict has taken root and flourished. Clare Short's view is that radical reform is needed to prioritise delivery of services to poor people. And that issues of corruption, exclusion and poor governance need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. We believe that there must be a peaceful, political resolution to the crisis in the country. And we ardently hope that such a resolution will be possible. But we believe that, even if there is such a resolution, unless the underlying issues of corruption, exclusion and poor governance are addressed, the problem of conflict will re-emerge in some form, at some point
in the future.

Q: And did the issue of human rights violations come up?
: This was indeed discussed. The meeting expressed its solidarity with all the victims of the conflict, and recognised the needs in particular of those bereaved, dispossessed and displaced by the conflict. The meeting expressed the view that the conflict represented a threat to the human rights of the citizens of Nepal, and recalled the obligations on both parties to the conflict to ensure respect for human rights, international humanitarian law and the safety of civilian non-combatants. We also discussed the central role of civil society in monitoring and developing responses to the conflict.

Q: How about concerns of some delegates that the insurgency may be a broader threat to regional security?
: Yes. The meeting expressed its concern at the possible impact of the conflict on wider regional stability. I think we all recognise that a deepening conflict is a very negative influence in regional terms.

Q: The UK chairman of the meeting called for "the strongest possible political leadership" in Nepal. What kind of leadership was he talking about?
: We all recognised that strong leadership was a pre-requisite. This was not a coded reference to any particular political construct. That is a matter for Nepal and the Nepali people alone. But I think we recognise that Nepal needs the focussed guidance of enlightened leadership if it is to plot a course out of crisis. This is in the interests of all of the people of Nepal. Now, more than ever, is a time for stable governance.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)