UN political engagement in Nepal between 2002 and 2018 has long been considered a successful example of sustained and innovative support to a critical peace process. Many governments in the broader region, however, have largely eschewed international assistance in resolving conflicts, perceiving it as an unnecessary infringement on state sovereignty or a threat to regional balances of power. Thus, examining how the UN established a political presence in Nepal, and how that presence eventually concluded, has important lessons for the UN more broadly.
The UN’s political engagement in Nepal can be divided into four phases. First, from 2002 to 2005, the UN began fostering relationships with the parties to the conflict and other actors in the region. Second, from 2005 to 2006, the UN leveraged human rights to increase accountability and begin moving the parties toward a negotiated solution. Third, the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) was deployed in 2007 and remained in the country until 2011 to support the implementation of the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
Finally, a UN political liaison office remained engaged in Nepal following the mission’s departure through 2018.
UN actors have been heralded for a range of best practices during these sixteen years of political engagement. The UN effectively used its good offices to engage early in the conflict and used a human rights mission to lay and then maintain the groundwork for peace talks. UNMIN used innovative approaches to monitor arms and armies while deploying rapidly. It also reached out to Nepalis across the country and collaborated with the wider UN system to ensure the sustainability of its efforts.
At the same time, the UN’s ability to contribute to peace in Nepal was limited by several challenges.
Over time, UNMIN lost support among an influential portion of Nepal’s traditional political elite.
Rapid turnover made it difficult for the UN to engage with the Nepali government. Both India and China opposed efforts to enhance the role of the mission. There was a mismatch between Nepalis’ expectations about what the UN, and UNMIN in particular, could and could not do. Finally, the UN was faced with the constant challenge of maintaining impartiality, both real and perceived.
Taking the story of the UN’s sixteen years of political engagement in Nepal, its innovative practices, and the challenging environment into consideration, this paper offers eight lessons:
Foster relationships with key conflict parties before there is a need for an active UN political role;
Use indirect means to keep the regional players positively engaged, when direct means fail;
Draw on or generate high-quality, fast, actionable and representative conflict information;
Design UN missions according to context;
Manage a mission’s (perceived or real) footprint in order to maximize leverage;
Build a dedicated communications strategy to help set and manage expectations regarding what a mission can and cannot do;
Consider using human rights monitoring as the groundwork for conflict resolution; and • Be willing to make unpopular decisions, if they are the right decisions for sustaining the peace.