Humiliating defeat: Who is to blame?

Guatemala and Venezuela locked horns on October 25, 2006, for the fourth day of an inconclusive election at the UN for a non-permanent seat in the Security Council from Latin America. But Nepal shamefully lost the vote to Indonesia for the Asian seat in the very first round on October 16, 2006. This has triggered a blame game that needs to be put in perspective.

Indonesia was a strong contender. It is the largest Muslim nation in the world, has contributed troops to UN peacekeeping operations and resolved the Aceh insurgency. Nepal too has been contributing troops to UN peacekeeping operations since 1958; it is one of the six largest contributors, larger than Indonesia, and its peacekeepers have been serving in over a dozen countries. Nepal’s march towards full democracy and Maoist conflict resolution were plus points. The fact that Nepal was on the Council during 1988-89 as opposed to Indonesia’ 1995-96 stint was also a strong factor.

The 14-month royal rule was a debilitating setback for Nepal’s candidature. But the situation changed as the King retreated from his rule and South Korea, the third candidate, withdrew from the race to promote its foreign minister, Ban Ki-Moon, for UN secretary general. It was a golden opportunity for Nepal to make up for the last 14 months.

Nepal has in the past been able to beat or do better than Indonesia and the Republic of Korea in UN elections. This time too, the Security Council was within a striking distance of Nepal. Yet, the verdict was swift and cruel. Nepal lost by getting just 28 votes to Indonesia’s 158, considerably more than two-thirds required to win the seat in a 192-member General Assembly, on the very first day. As election between Guatemala and Venezuela continued for over 36 rounds and four days and still counting, Nepal should have been able to go to the second round and make its loss less painful.

Everyone with the duty to advance Nepal’s candidature did their best. However, the election was lost badly and it needs to be analysed so that such debacles can be avoided. The government of Nepal did its utmost to seek votes from UN member states by approaching the capital-based diplomatic missions and using high-level visits to garner support. Deputy PM K P Oli met many of his counterparts and made a strong pitch to rally votes during his sojourns, including to Cuba for the Non-aligned summit and to New York for the 61st session of the UN General Assembly. So did some other senior Nepali delegates. However, the government could have done considerably more by appointing ambassadors to fill over a dozen vacancies to gather support. By reassigning the sitting ambassadors to new places, it could have given them the opportunity to make a fresh start without the baggage of extending their diehard support for despotism one day and for democracy the next. The deputy PM and some ministers should have visited a number of Asian, African, Latin American and Eastern European countries that do not maintain diplomatic presence in Kathmandu or do not have Nepali embassies.

Besides, the Maoists’ refusal to disarm and disband their “people’s government” did not help Nepal’s candidature either. The government could not convince a sceptical international community that Nepal would be able to preserve the democratic set-up, achieve lasting peace and play a constructive role in the Council. The Permanent Mission of Nepal to the UN, too, tried its best to secure votes. Mission officials met their counterparts, hosted receptions for New York-based diplomats, established diplomatic ties with a couple of countries and fixed appointments for the deputy PM to meet his different counterparts in New York.

Nonetheless, the humiliating defeat has made it amply clear that the mission was not able to pull off enough votes. It faltered in fours areas. Firstly, it wasn’t quick enough to benefit from Korea’s withdrawal. Secondly, it was not robust enough to convince diplomats in New York about regime change in Nepal. On election eve, several ambassadors were under the impression that Nepal was still under a despotic king. Thirdly, the mission leadership suffered a serious credibility crisis due to their pendulum-like loyalty to the royal rule and democratic government. Fourthly, and most damagingly, the mission demonstrated a serious error of judgment and gravely undermined Nepal’s prospects. It should not have taken the chairmanship of the Fourth Committee and vice-chairmanship of the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly in the same session as it was also trying to win a Council seat.

Countries like Nepal with limited political and economic strength do not seek other opportunities and do not divert their attention to something else when they are vying for a challenging Security Council seat. By avoiding these shortcomings, Nepal could have won the election. At least, the defeat would not have been so devastating. The country should learn from this debacle.

Pokhrel is US-based political commentator