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Nepal can be Brussels of South Asia
Dec 5, 2016- On November 21, 2006, the Nepal government and the then rebels, the CPN (Maoist), signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the country’s decade-long armed conflict. The European Union (EU) has been a partner of Nepal during and after the conflict. We recently marked the 10th anniversary of the signing of the CPA; but, the peace process is not complete, with the two transitional justice bodies formed only in February 2015 working to register and investigate conflict-era cases. Akhilesh Upadhayay and Apekshya Shah Rana spoke to Rensje Teerink, Ambassador and Head of the European Union Delegation to Nepal, about the EU’s role in Nepal’s peace process, the accusations against the donor community that they have tried to rush Nepal’s peace process through ‘social engineering’ and what kind of fallout the recent rise of the right in the Western world will have on their engagement with the world, including Nepal.
The EU has been an important stakeholder of our peace process, and we recently marked a decade since the signing of the CPA. How do you see the peace process evolving?
I would not call us a stakeholder, rather a supporter of Nepal’s peace process. We were here when the conflict started and we have supported the government ever since. Once the CPA happened we continued our support. Our main priority after the CPA was peace-building, and in 2006 we even drew the strategy paper for Nepal. But most of the development partners were not in agreement on how to put peace-building in practice. Then we proposed giving a sector budget support to the Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction (MoPR). Not to blow my own trumpet, but we were the trailblazer who convinced other donors to help the MoPR to set up the Nepal Peace Trust Fund (NPTF). We provided 30 million Euros from the European taxpayers’ money for the Fund, so it was a big commitment.
Looking back at what has been achieved in the past 10 years, I feel that the peace process has been successful. There has been a successful integration of the PLA soldiers into the Nepal Army, the ex-combatants have been given care packages, and we have carried out many reconstruction projects with the police to rebuild barracks, among others. All this does not mean that there are no challenges left. A lot of ground still needs to be covered on the transitional justice front. But what we have learned from around the globe is that peace processes take time.
On the other hand, one of the accusation against the EU and other donors is that they tried to rush the peace process at the cost of Nepal’s social cohesion.
I think that is not a fair accusation. Nepal’s peace process is a home-grown process. Mainly the discussion between the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists has guided the process. We just wanted to know what the Nepali people wanted and only tried to ‘conflict-sensitise’ whatever was being done, so that the process was not disrupted. What people wanted at that time was crystal clear. There were talks of a new Nepal, groups that were traditionally marginalised for centuries such as Dalits and Janajatis were coming out to claim their rights. So people agreed that the revolution gave them a voice. This was the discourse, and like everyone in Nepal we welcomed it.
In hindsight, the discourse has shifted because it took a long time. It is very easy to blame the donors, but when you look back, it was honestly the people of Nepal who made the decisions since the conflict ended.
Another accusation against the Europeans is that they actively support proselytisation. Your views?
The issue is about the values that Europe is defending. We stand for freedom of religion and secularism. They are completely different from defending evangelist ideology, which is something, and I cannot stress this enough, we strictly object to. We have never supported evangelist groups in Nepal.
In Europe, we make a distinction between Catholic and Protestant Christians and in Nepal there are evangelist groups that are spreading Protestantism. And these groups are mostly from South Korea, Brazil and America. Maybe some Europeans are also involved at the NGO level, but we do not support them, as it is not what the EU stands for. The EU is a diverse society that is becoming more secular by the day. Churches have been converted to cultural centres and sometimes even mosques. ‘We are white so we want everyone to become Christians’ is a very simplistic way of looking at the EU.
How do you assess Nepal’s truth and reconciliation process?
We have been quite cautious about the transitional justice process because if the process does not respect international norms, then we can easily be criticised for it. We have made it clear to the MoPR that we are ready to work with the USAID to support the process; we are the only two donors left that are still committed to the NPTF, but none of our funds should go to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). We have decided to continue our work till summer next year, and we are happy to help conflict-affected people, victims of sexual violence and reconstruction, if needed. The TRC is a national instrument and the government should see to it that it is working best to its capacity until we can do something to actively fund it.
With Donald Trump winning the US presidential election and the Brexit vote earlier, populism seems to be on the rise in the West. With donor countries increasingly looking inwards, how will your relations with countries like Nepal be affected? 
I do not think there will be any changes until 2020, as we have already allocated our money, although I cannot say that it is set in stone. I think it is too early to predict that the right will win in Europe. As for the US, we will continue to work with it, no matter who heads the government, as it is our strategic partner. My fear is that certain populist ideas will be acceptable in the US now, which might embolden far-right groups in Europe. Populism is Europe’s biggest enemy. But I remain hopeful, as the younger generation have rediscovered their love for Europe since the Brexit referendum, and there have been spontaneous expressions where youngsters have carried the EU flag. Even in the UK, the youngsters voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU.
With age-old universal values like human rights, mutual tolerance and good governance coming into question in the West itself, don’t you think your moral highground to talk to the rest of the world on these issues looks compromised now?
That is certainly a valid point. If we do not work in our own countries to uphold these values, then it will be difficult for us to promote them abroad. But I would like to emphasise that Europe is not inward looking. A lot depends on the outcome of many upcoming national elections, such as in the Netherlands, France and Germany. But I hope they will not swing open the door for right-wing forces.
Our aim in Nepal is not to lecture. There are certain principles we are bound by, which means that our work here is also bound by the same principles. It is not that we want to dictate, but there are some issues that our support and development assistance need to be mindful of. To give a concrete example, in April 2005, when the then king took power, we stopped all our support to Nepal, because we could not justify working with a country without democracy.
To look at the broader neighbourhood, we have two big economies to our north and south. Where do you see EU’s work in Nepal in this larger theatre of South Asia?
Everyone knows Nepal is between India and China, which are EU’s strategic partners, but I see less interest in Nepal to be honest. So whenever I read that we have some axe to grind in Nepal like spreading Christianity or trying to push Nepal towards India, it could not be further from the truth.
Is the waning interest in Nepal because of Europe’s preoccupation with its neighbourhood, or is it because of Nepal’s prolonged political instability?
People do not realise how strategic Nepal can be and this is what I am trying to convey to Brussels. We should not give up on regional cooperation in South Asia, and be a staunch defender of Saarc despite the challenges. And Nepal can be a good vehicle for moving Saarc forward. Even small countries can make a difference, and Nepal can be the Brussels of South Asia. It is not that Brussels is unhappy with the governance in Nepal, but with India and China as its neighbour, it is difficult for a small country like Nepal to attract European policymakers’ attention.
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