Saturday, December 19, 2015

Creating Nepal’s own Quartet

By John Narayan Parajuli
The current conflict between the state and Madhes, the polarisation of the society between Madhesi and Pahadi communities has put a spotlight on the absence of a national conflict resolution mechanism. 
Civil society institutions and leaders could have played the role of a healer. But unfortunately, they are divided along the regional lines. On both sides, civil society leaders have become cheerleaders. Both sides have engaged in cherry-picking anecdotes as evidence of the other sides’ lack of humanity—demonising the other, rather than finding common grounds for a compromise. 
Echo chambers 
In this age of social media, everyone has a microphone and that has truly empowered the people (those who have access to social media)—giving them their own platform to voice their opinions. Gone are the days when journalists alone were gatekeepers of what was disseminated. While technology has democratised the public sphere, it has also created echo chambers that reinforce one’s own beliefs and prejudices. The anonymity that social media allows encourages knee-jerk and highly insensitive conversations that often add fuel to the fire. Civil society leaders have not remained immune to this phenomenon.  They have been split along partisan and regional lines—doing more to fuel the conflict and less to bridge the divide.
It is important that we take actions towards creating a credible national mechanism to help facilitate dialogue for this and other subsequent conflicts.
Significant investments have been made by national and international non-governmental organisations in the areas of early warning, conflict mitigation, and resolution. But a large portion of these investments has supported smaller organisations to organise grassroots level dialogue. Except for a few ad hoc Chatham House style sessions, very little systematic dialogue facilitation has been organised at the national level. 
Non-state actors, who often have international funding, are reluctant to boldly push towards the creation of a national level entity to fear of a backlash. So they self-censor themselves from doing what is needed, to doing what would be less risky. There is also a tendency of doing the easiest things or picking the low hanging fruit, as they put it.
Now, I am not suggesting supporting grass roots organisation is bad investment. Local dynamics are important too. But discord at the national level has the potential to do so much more damage than a localised conflict. Once you can facilitate dialogue at the national level, the leaders at the centre can influence the sentiment on the ground. The question here is of priority, not the degree of importance. If civil society leaders take initiative, some of the resources from the conflict resolution projects can be easily diverted to this national task.
Tunisian Quartet
Before it was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was virtually unknown outside Tunisia. In its citations, the Nobel Committee praised the Quartet for providing an alternative political process to avert a civil war. In the words of some of the members of the Committee, the Quartet convened peace conferences that Alfred Nobel mentioned in his will.
The Quartet, which comprises of the country’s labour union, confederation of industries, human rights league and association of lawyers—hence the Quartet—was formed in the summer of 2013 in response to the political assassinations of two key politicians and the outbreak of violent clashes between the Islamists and secular parties. While Tunisia is still a long way from institutionalising democracy, civil society organisations, nevertheless, were able to come together to bring opposing sides to the table to provide a semblance of peace.
What the Quartet achieved was immensely dramatic. They were able to force the resignation of the entire Cabinet and to usher in a non-partisan government. They prepared a roadmap to transition Tunisia into a stable democracy and persuaded all the major political forces to agree to it. 
Given the legitimacy of the organisations involved, the Quartet was able to force its decisions on the political parties. Though it may not be possible to replicate what they did in Tunisia, it certainly should inspire civil society organisations everywhere to think outside box in using their leverage to steer the country towards a corrective path.
There has been some attempt in Nepal to facilitate dialogue by civil society organisations. Professional’s Alliance for Peace and Democracy (PAPAD), an umbrella organisation of civil society organisations, including the Federation of Journalists and the Bar Association, has from time to time taken initiative, but it has never been a sustained effort that bore any significant results.
PAPAD has the potential to become Nepal’s own Quartet. But given that its leaders primarily come from the one side of the current divide, it will not be seen as neutral force, at least in the current conflict. It can then join hands with Madhesi civil society leaders to improve its credibility.  Given the sporadic nature of current negotiations, an improved PAPAD can force both sides to hold all-nighter negotiations, night after night, until a solution is found. If the parties fail to find a solution, it can draw up a roadmap and formulas for compromise after consultations with moderates on both sides. 
There is a strong possibility that another conflict will eventually emerge even after the current one is resolved. This would require civil society initiatives that would stand above the partisan and regional leanings and facilitate dialogue and compromise.
First Published in The Kathmandu Post

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