Thursday, April 30, 2009

I am an optimistic person

Dr. Surya P. Subedi has just been appointed the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia by the Human Rights Council, a tough job by any standard. The UN and the Cambodian government have had thorny relationship on the issue of human rights. Although the mandate remains the same, the Special Representative position was changed to the Special Rapporteur, following the resignation of Yash Ghai last year. Ghai suffered personal attack and even a visa ban at the hands of the Cambodian government. Dr. Subedi is a Professor International Law at University of Leeds and a practicing Barrister in England. He was appointed an honorary OBE in 2004 by Queen Elizabeth for his services to international law and Britain-Nepal relations. Dr. Surya Subedi spoke to John Narayan Parajuli about his new role and lessons Nepal can draw from Cambodia. Excerpts:

Why were you appointed the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia?

I believe it was because of my standing as a truly independent, impartial, and objective academic; my expertise in international law in general and international human rights law in particular; and my familiarity with legal, political and human rights issues in Asia in general and Cambodia in particular.

I worked as a General Editor of an annual pan Asian publication – the Asian Yearbook of International Law - for six years. It enabled me to interact with academics and other intellectuals from many Asian countries, including Cambodia. Perhaps as a Nepali citizen too. Nepal has no axe to grind against any nation. We Nepali people are generally liked in international circles for our friendly nature and hard working and sincere character. I believe a well-qualified, hard-working and sincere Nepali is well placed to serve in any high international positions.

UN and the Cambodian government have been at loggerheads over the issue of human rights for quite some time and that makes your job very challenging, doesn’t it?

Yes, it does make my role challenging. But again the very position of a UN Special Rapporteur is a challenging one – to perform a difficult and at the same a noble task. I regard this as a huge privilege and a great opportunity to make my contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights. Promoting human rights and speaking for the oppressed, marginalised and disadvantaged people is always a challenge. I am committed to human rights and the rule of law nationally and internationally and I would do whatever it takes to promote and protect the rights of Cambodian people. That is my main objective. But my approach would be a constructive one – designed to achieve results rather than unnecessarily antagonizing people.

Your predecessor Yash Ghai resigned in frustration. There is a growing concern among the civil society leaders in Cambodia that you might receive the same kind of hostile treatment from the government just like your predecessors.

Let us wait and see how the people and the government of Cambodia will deal with me when I begin my task. I am by nature an optimist person. I was encouraged by the tone and content of the speech delivered by the Cambodian ambassador to the UN after the decision by the UN Human Rights Council to appoint me to this position. His approach was a constructive one and he said his government would co-operate with me. I hope the government authorities realize that the progress, prosperity and peace in Cambodia lies in the greater respect for human rights and the dignity of each and every Cambodian citizen.

Does your understanding of conflict in Nepal add value to your work in Cambodia, and vice versa?

Yes I believe that my study and analysis of the situation in Nepal for a long time as an independent and objective person will help me to understand and appreciate better the situation in Cambodia and the plight of the people there. I have been writing quite frequently and for a long time in both the Nepali and international media on the constitutional, legal and political situation in Nepal and have advanced my own views on how to make the constitutional, legal and political system in Nepal a fair, inclusive and equitable one for all. Likewise, I hope the experience that I will gain from my work in Cambodia will enable me to make a contribution to improve the human rights situation in Nepal, and to encourage political leaders to embrace democracy and democratic culture both in their words and deeds. I think I have said it elsewhere that democracy has come to the people and the country of Nepal but not to the political leaders.

I do not think Nepalese leaders have been able to articulate any foreign policy of the country. The time to go out with a begging bowl to foreign countries should be over. It only lowers Nepal’s standing internationally and exposes the naïve and shallow character of Nepal’s political leaders. No foreigners will build Nepal. Foreign countries have their own agenda behind whatever assistance they may provide to Nepal. People in Nepal should start believing in themselves and put their act together to build the nation.

Cambodia has had a long period of political transition with occasional setbacks between the Paris Peace Accord signed in 1991 and now, how would you describe the process, and is there a lesson Nepal can learn from it?

The lesson Nepal can learn from the Cambodian experience is to abide by the letter and spirit of past agreements reached among the major political actors. Once people start deviating from their own commitments then they lose the trust and confidence of other people. Such a breakdown in trust and confidence costs the country and the people dearly. This is what seems to be happening in Nepal. Political leaders should lead the way and set good examples at least in their public life. You are right to point out the commitments expressed in the Paris Peace Accord concerning the situation in Cambodia. But the process to implement the commitments has been frustratingly slow. That is why Cambodia finds itself in this situation. In my personal opinion, both Cambodia and Nepal should honestly honor and implement the provisions in the past agreements to move the country forward so that they can achieve higher economic growth, political stability and social harmony in order to ensure that the fruits of democracy reach to as many people as possible

Is there a chance that the current transitional period in Nepal will drag that long?

No it should not last that long in Nepal. I am hopeful that the constitution will be written and promulgated within the stipulated time frame. There is no way out here for any body and any sensible political leader should have realised this. However, writing a new constitution is not an end itself. It is a vehicle to advance the society in a more civilised manner. For this, the political process should take the issues of impunity, transitional justice, and respect for human rights as seriously as the process of writing the new constitution. It is where people like us with independent and objective minds and no party political ties have a role to play in applying more pressure on the government and all political leaders and assist the UN agencies such as the OHCHR in playing a more meaningful and effective role in Nepal.

What is your take the ongoing debate and controversy surrounding the issue of army integration in Nepal?

The issue relating to the integration of the Maoist fighters into the Nepal army is basically a political one and should be resolved on the basis of the past agreements reached. The rank and file of the foot soldiers in both camps are the sons and daughters of the same poor Nepali people. They both have same aspirations for themselves and for their country and have similar traits. It should not be a problem to bring them together. There should be a programme of training to depoliticise the mind-set of Maoist fighters fit for a professional army loyal to the nation and the people as a whole rather than to their political masters. The problem may lie in the integration into the upper levels of the military hierarchy as the people in the existing Nepal Army would like to safeguard their current position and their prospects for promotion etc. But the number at the top end of the scale is small and a political solution should and could be found to address such concerns.

What are your hopes and fears for the Nepali peace process?

I am optimistic. In terms of the political change, so much has been achieved in Nepal. Some of them have been unprecedented in the world. Now the time has come to capitalize on this political achievement and focus on the overall nation-building process in unison. The fears would of course be not necessarily the derailment of the peace process because it is not a viable option for anyone, but the lack of foresight, wisdom and vision on the party of political leaders resulting in constant bickering and squabbling.