António Guterres' agenda in Kathmandu

The UN Secretary General arrives on a trip overshadowed by the Israel-Hamas war to address the unfinished business of Nepal’s own conflict.


United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is arriving in Kathmandu on Sunday on a visit that was originally scheduled for mid-October, but was put off due to the Israel-Hamas crisis. Even during his visit he will be busy trying to find a path to peace in the Gaza war.  

The Israeli government has criticised the Secretary-General for remarks in the Security Council this week in which Guterres said the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October “did not happen in a vacuum”. 

Israel took offence even though Guterres had added that the “grievances of the Palestinian people cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas”.

Israel’s censure of the UN Secretary-General’s carefully balanced speech to the Council is itself an indication of the extreme geopolitical polarisation over the Gaza war. On his way to Kathmandu, Guterres will be stopping in Doha where he is expected to engage with Hamas’ Iranian mentors.

UN resolution
An Emergency Special Session of the UN General Assembly on 27 October adopted a resolution calling for 'immediate and sustained humanitarian truce' in the Middle East. Even though it did not explicitly call for a ceasefire, 120 countries (including Nepal voted for the resolution) while most western countries either voted against or abstained. Interestingly, Bhutan voted for the resolution, while India abstained.

Though not directly involved, Nepal has been affected by the Israel conflict. Ten Nepali agriculture students were killed by Hamas, and one is still missing

The brutality of the Hamas raid in which most of the 1,400 victims were civilians, including women and children, has been widely condemned. The Israeli response, however, has been disproportionate, asymmetrical, and indiscriminate. More than 7,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, and many innocent women and children have been killed and injured.

Even in purely strategic terms, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response will be militarily counterproductive for Israel. And what is puzzling is the West’s carte blanche to the IDF to continue its carpet bombing of Gaza. The western media’s partisan coverage of the conflict in the name of ‘balance’ is even more troubling.

President Joe Biden possibly is driven by his re-election bid in 2024, and bipartisan domestic support for Israel. Western governments do not even want to use the word ‘ceasefire’, preferring to call for ‘a humanitarian pause’ to Israel’s bombing.

There is a danger that António Guterres will be preoccupied with the deepening crisis in West Asia so that his two main agenda points in Kathmandu (transitional justice and climate change) will be eclipsed.  

Guterres is scheduled to address a joint session of Nepal’s Federal Parliament on 31 October, and meet former Maoist commander Pushpa Kamal Dahal who is now prime minister. 

Dahal’s main purpose in inviting Guterres to Nepal is to get a UN stamp of approval to the transitional justice process. Survivors and families of the victims of war crimes have opposed efforts by the current coalition government to ram through a bill that would grant amnesty to perpetrators.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission on the Investigation of Enforced Disappeared Persons were led by political appointees and remain dissolved. 

Since the former enemies are now in government together, they do not want to rake up the past. The Maoists have tried to make a distinction between ‘political murder’ and ‘criminal murder’, while state security says it was just responding to an anti-government insurgency. 

Guterres will have to impress upon his Nepali interlocutors that absence of war is not peace, and that there can be no peace without justice. Dahal, Deuba & Co, on the other hand, will try to convince the Secretary General that Nepalis are ready to let bygones be bygones and focus on economic progress, job creation and development. 

Western support for justice and human rights in Nepal is not as robust as it used to be post-2006. A weaker West, and ascendant India and China in Nepal’s neighbourhood may have emboldened Nepal’s leaders to determine that the geopolitical climate is conducive to conclude the peace process 17 years after the conflict ended. 

The current Truth and Reconciliation Commission draft bill allows pardons for murder, disappearances, sexual offences and torture. It legitimises the recruitment of child soldiers. And it is fuzzy on who should try such crimes. 

Allowing known perpetrators of war crimes on both sides to get away would reinforce the climate of impunity that has become even more evident after the recent presidential pardon for a convicted murderer and political interference into police investigations into high profile corruption scandals.

A predecessor of António Guterres, Dag Hammarskjöld of Sweden, visited Nepal in 1961, and that helped give King Mahendra’s coup some legitimacy. Guterres is in Nepal at a time when crimes against humanity are being committed in the Gaza war and other conflict zones around the world

The Secretary-General’s message in Kathmandu has to be: forgetting war crimes risks a repeat of war.

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