COVID-19 is laying waste to international cooperation as well as health systems, as countries raise barriers and retreat into themselves. Or is it?
A shorter version of this article was published in the Nepali Times, but this one includes the role of the media, a point I had to cut from the published version because it was too long. Please let me know if you agree.
COVID-19 is laying waste to international cooperation as well as health systems. Countries have retreated into themselves, barring makers of medical equipment from exporting goods and in some cases hijacking shipments en route to other countries. The Trump administration has exited the World Health Organization (WHO) and is leading an attack on the organisation’s credibility. Internationalism is on its deathbed.
Or is it?
It’s a conclusion you can easily draw from media reports, which thrive on drama and conflict. “During this global pandemic there’s been precious little sign of intergovernmental collaboration and collective leadership. Instead the worldwide response has been characterized by national self-interest, mutual suspicion and recrimination,” intoned Stephen Sackur, host of BBC’s HardTalk, while interviewing former UK Foreign Minister David Miliband recently.
We can only hope that other human rights experts are correct in asserting that the new role will mean greater scrutiny of Nepal’s government in meeting all of its human rights obligations.
Nepal has successfully won a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, the senior-most human rights body among the world’s governments.
The Himalayan nation was elected for a two-year term during the recent UN General Assembly, despite a rocky human rights record at home. This includes setting up commissions to probe alleged human rights abuses during the 1996-2006 Maoist uprising that fail to meet global standards, and ignoring orders from Nepal’s Supreme Court to fix them.
15-20 percent of Nepal’s forests (roughly one million hectares) are managed by community forest users’ groups (known here as CFUGs). Now, a consortium of 21 CFUGs from Dolakha district east of the capital Kathmandu, and Bajhang district in Nepal’s Far-West, have become the first ‘group’ in the world to be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Certification signifies that the groups have developed a management plan and adhere to guidelines concerning, among other issues, conservation, workers’ rights and the rights of Indigenous People. Certification also translates into increased international demand for the non-timber forest products (NTFPs – tree bark, medicinal plants/herbs, etc ) harvested in the forests. To profit locally from that demand, Dolakha’s CFUGs joined hands with established businesses, local individuals, and others to purchase three processing factories in the district. Two of the factories make handmade Nepali paper from the bark of the lokha tree, while the other processes wintergreen leaves to make essential oil.
Some of the former owners were also brought in as partners, and poor members of the community who harvest the NTFPs were given a percentage of the ownership, according to The Federation of Community Forest Users –Nepal (FECOFUN). FECOFUN supported the efforts of the CFUGs by, for example, preparing and providing guidelines on the protection and management of endangered plants, animals and their forest habitat. For purposes of certification, FECOFUN became the ‘resource manager’.
About 5,000 households, including some of the poorest families in the district, situated in the hills and mountains of Dolakha and Bajhang manage the 14,000 hectares of forests. Twenty of these households were made part owners of one of the factories in Dolakha – Bhimeswore NTFPs Production and Processing Pvt. Ltd. Its owners predict an annual return on investment of 14% to 50%. However, one challenge they face is a shortage of certified raw materials: to date they are only receiving 50% of their processing capacity. FECOFUN says steps are being taken to certify another 100 CFUGs which could then fill the demand.
There are mixed views on the impact of Nepal’s community forests. More information is easily available via a web search. Some examples follow:
An article in today’s Republica newspaper reports that one of the newest bamboo schools, in Pokhara, is very popular with parents. They are taking their children out of more expensive private schools to enroll them in bamboo schools, which charge 100 rupees (just over $1) a month.
In February, Inter Press Service reported that a wealthy Nepali living outside the country donated 24 million rupees for the building of six schools in Nepal’s Terai (plains).
Here’s a link to one of many articles about a fast-growing project to build cheap schools offering quality education across Nepal. My wife Niku and I visited the founder, Uttam Sanjel, at his first school in Kathmandu recently. (He’s now supervising the building of the 9th school in Pokhara). I was impressed by his determination to remain outside the grasp of the big political parties, all of which want to claim him as their own. He thinks that now he’s attained a certain size – helped in part by donations from outside of Nepal – it’s getting easier to elude their grasp. I was curious to know how he plans to manage the growing number of schools, and students (26,000 currently). He seemed unconcerned about that.
A group of interesting articles in today’s Republica newspaper. (Myrepublica is the online site).
The first is an interview with the head of the UN human rights office in Nepal (my former boss – I worked at OHCHR-Nepal from 2007 to June, 2009).
In the interview Richard Bennett reiterates that the government and Maoists are doing nothing in response to multiple allegations of human rights abuses during and after the conflict (1996-2006), in essence strengthening the climate of impunity in Nepal.
The second article is a report that one of the accused in one of Nepal’s best-known cases of human rights abuse during the conflict – the case of Maina Sunuwar – is working in a UN peacekeeping mission.
The third, and headline article in the paper quotes the US Embassy in Kathmandu saying that the US will withdraw financial support to Nepal if the proposed Chief of Army staff is appointed without having undergone a thorough, independent review of allegations that he was responsible for human rights violations during the conflict.
I have said for some time now that it won’t be moral suasion that forces Nepal’s government to respond to such allegations and that hitting their bottom line would be more effective.