Having experiences of dealing in Nepal, ASKO LUUKKAINEN, a first resident ambassador of Finland to Nepal, has been watching Nepal’s current political scenario very closely. Along with development and governance issues, Finish Ambassador is also keenly watching the transitional justice system. In the context of Nepal’s peace process, NEW SPOTLIGHT spoke to Finland’s Ambassador to Nepal Luukkainen. Excerpts:
How do you see the current state of Finland’s support to Nepal’s development projects?
Finland´s support has been rising during the last 5 years. Traditionally we have been involved in rural water supply and sanitation but also in environmental sector, forestry, education and human rights and democracy. Our assistance in rupees per year is about 2 billion, equivalent to 20 million Euros. We cooperate closely with the Government of Nepal as far as the implementation of the projects is concerned and assist also Finnish and Nepali NGO`s who are working in Nepal.
As Nepal has been passing through a long phase of transition with frequent changes in the government, what is the level of progress of Finland’s support to Nepal?
Despite difficult times during the insurgency 1996-2006 and after that we were and have been able to implement projects and according to independent evaluators the projects have really delivered. I believe that the close contacts between our projects and the beneficiaries who often are the poorest in the country have made it possible to deliver even while insurgency was in place. And although the Governments have changed, we have been able to cooperate closely with the Nepali authorities.
Finland is known for its liberal views on human rights issues. How do you see the process of transitional justice in Nepal?
We are actually not very liberal as far as human rights are concerned. In fact we expect that human rights are respected in every country including those countries we support financially. Transitional justice is progressing , I see the compensations to the victims of the insurgency part of transitional justice. But a lot needs to be done still, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Bill and the Bill for Disappearances Commission are not yet finalized. We hope that there will be progress soon. In fact we in Finland experienced civil war once (1918). After the war no such commissions were established and as a consequence the deep mistrust between the parties of the conflict prevailed tens of years. Commissions could help the reconciliation in the country.
As human rights activist in Nepal criticized the current move of government to withdraw the two bills -- Disappearance Bill and Reconciliation bill from parliament to produce only one bill, how do you look the reactions of human rights activists in Nepal?
I do understand the reactions of the human rights activists since the process has been such a long one. This new delay has made many restless. But one bill instead two, that is difficult to comment before we see what kind of Bill is now under preparation.
Political parties are proposing for blanket amnesty, how do you look at it?
Finland and other EU member states who are represented in Nepal have clearly indicated that blanket amnesty, if implemented, would create great concerns within EU. I have read reports of clear criminal activities during the insurgency and they cannot be considered political. Even politically motivated criminal acts should be investigated.
What are the views of Finland government on human rights issues in Nepal?
I want to take a longer perspective. I was working in Nepal also 2000-2004 when the insurgency was going on and had reached its peak I suppose. During that time human rights were commonly violated and I believe both sides were involved in this. Since 2006 the human rights situation has improved tremendously. We welcome this and continue our support to the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal.
How do you see the ongoing peace process and constitutional writing process in Nepal?
Again, if you compare the situation 10 years back and now, the peace process and constitution writing process can be commended. But many citizens and expatriates are disappointed due to the fact that the political parties have not been able to finalize the processes after 2006. There have been several extensions for the CA terms. Right now I am really concerned about the future of Nepal. So many different groups try to influence the politicians in order to secure a federal state which would satisfy their interests, which sometimes are narrow. Right now the country is largely paralyzed by the bhanda´s which are used as a weapon to get the demands through. This is not good from the economical point of view and the life of the ordinary citizens is disturbed. One should see the larger picture, what kind of federal state is useful for Nepal as a whole.
As an experience hand serving in Nepal previously also, have you see any differences in the areas of implementation of the projects and programs?
Clearly the tendency is that our projects are more and more implemented by Nepali citizens. Same has happened in other countries we have been assisting and I welcome this trend. This guarantees the sustainability of the projects.
As there is economic recession around the globe, will it make any differences in the Finland’s aid to Nepal?
Finland is also facing the recession or at least bad economical times at the moment. But we have been able to increase our assistance to Nepal . This is an achievement since in some countries we are cutting down the development aid programs.
How do you see the level of corruption in Nepal?
Corruption is discussed a lot in Nepal and unfortunately it seems that despite the zero tolerance towards corruption by the Government, it exists. Some reports say that corruption is even on the rise. This is very unfortunate, no country can expect development if corrupt practices are in use. As you might know Finland is ranked to be one of the least corrupt countries in the world. Ranking is yearly done by the Transparency International. We are proud about this and believe that our strong economy is partly due the non tolerance of corruption.
Have you seen any changes in the good governance practices in Nepal?
Ten years ago, when I was working in Kathmandu, the freedom of press/media was limited. Now the situation has totally changed. Media is reporting a lot of bad governance and corruption and this is I welcome. When bad governance and corruption is exposed, the governance will improve. Maybe this is the biggest change compared to my first assignment here.
UNESCO has been supporting Nepal in various sectors for many years, what is the present state of UNESCO’s support to Nepal?
Yes, indeed, UNESCO’s relation with Nepal dates back to 1953, when Nepal joined UNESCO. Our Office here in Kathmandu was established in 1998. Since many years, UNESCO has supported of Nepal to attain quality Education for All, mobilize scientific knowledge and science policy for sustainable development, preserve Nepal’s rich cultural heritage, promote cultural diversity and dialogue among its culturally diverse communities, and empower people through the free flow of ideas and access to information and knowledge.
I believe that over the years, UNESCO has become a reliable partner for both the government and a great number of civil society organizations. We assist in strategy and policy development in education, natural sciences, culture, and communication and information. We are working mostly at the upstream level and focus on selected target areas and population groups.
In Nepal’s transition to peace and democracy, all areas of expertise of UNESCO - education, culture, the sciences and communication and information – are highly relevant. We are presently focusing on education, culture and media development, as we believe that they are essential to accelerate the country’s peace and development process.
Nepal has been talking much on the agenda of physical sides of mountain countries, how do you see the importance of mountain culture?
The mountain cultures are part and parcel of the very rich cultural landscape of Nepal. And we are seeing with concern the many threats to these cultures, such as migration and climate change that have taken place so powerfully and rapidly in the mountain districts. They are not only a great danger to the livelihood of the people, but, almost more importantly, to their cultural identities. We need innovative and sustainable adaptation strategies and methods to ensure that both the tangible and intangible heritage and living cultures of the mountain people are preserved. (A line of culture led community development could be added here)
Has UNESCO been supporting the preservation of mountain culture in Nepal?
[FYI - In 2002-2007, on behalf of UNESCO, Nepal Trust had implemented a Humla (far-western region bordering Tibet) Ecotourism and trekking promotion project within the framework of “Development of Cultural and Ecotourism in the Mountainous Regions of Central and South Asia”, the overall objective of the project was to promote community-based cultural and ecotourism in selected mountain areas of South and Central Asia, with a specific focus on poverty eradication, reduction of rural-urban migration and the preservation of cultural and natural heritage. Nepal project was basically for capacity building of locals as guides, porters, home stays opportunities, cultural trails and production of promotional materials, promotion of quality crafts as well as local culture-festivals and events.]
I believe that it is important to get the enabling frameworks right. This is why we are presently focusing on the upstream level to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage of all communities in Nepal.
We are very happy that the Government of Nepal took in 2010 the very important step in its efforts to safeguard the intangible heritage of its people by ratifying the 2003 UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural HeritageNow, we have embarked in an ambitious project to build the capacities of the communities, including mountain communities, and the national authorities to protect the intangible heritageWe are focusing basically on three areas. First, building capacities to implement the Convention at the national level. Second, helping to start community-based inventorying of intangible cultural heritage; and third building skills to elaborate nominations to the Intangible Heritage Lists.
But we are also implementing concrete activities. Let me just give one example. Recently, we have helped establish a women community radio stations in Jumla, that broadcasts in Jumli and contributes to maintain the Jumli language. And Jumli as the many other languages spoken in the hill and mountain districts, are certainly one of the most important part of the culture of the people living there.
1. What is the state of Nepal’s world heritage sites? How UNESCO has been supporting to preserve them?
As you know, Nepal has four World Heritage sites: two cultural, the Kathmandu Valley and Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha; and two natural sites, Sagarmatha National Park and Chitwan National Park.
The challenges for their preservation are great. Let me just mention a few. In Chitwan, one of the key and continuous challenges has been to maintain the balanced relationship between the park and the people. The madi community living behind the park at the national boundary are deprived from basic services such as road connectivity and electricity. Most often a search for sustainable solution to reconcile community development needs has remained to be a very slow process in Nepal that sometimes may create negative impression on the people living in and surrounding the world heritage sites. In Kathmandu, unplanned and intense urban growth and lack of proper mechanism to deal with the situation has often left the heritage sites to most often being encroached upon, such as the road built through the Sleshmantak Ban of Pashupati, which is one of the seven monuments of Kathmandu Valley world heritage site. Other challenges created from the lack of sufficient capacity to manage, both human and financial, that has made little possible the regular maintenance and monitoring, which are important aspect for preserving these sites.
We are working very closely with the Government to provide technical assistance for monitoring the works that they do no harm to the heritage sites. This of course includes capacity building in the mandatory reporting on the state of conservation of inscribed properties and encourage international cooperation in their conservation. In addition, we assist in the management of properties and cooperate with the site managers and the Department of Archaeology to find sustainable solutions to the protection of the sites.
But we are not only with the authorities. For us, it is important to also involve local communities in protecting, safeguarding and managing World Heritage properties. This includes programmes to improve living conditions of local communities and to enhance economic development opportunities linked to heritage tourism and craft industries.
And on the operational level, we are implementing concrete conservation projects as the three year project for the “Strengthening Conservation and Management of Lumbini, the Birthplace of Lord Buddha”.
UNESCO remains a pioneer in supporting Nepal to achieve hundred percent literacy rates. What is its state?
According to the EFA National Plan of Action, by 2015, the government strives to achieve a literacy rate of 90% for 6+, 75% for 15+, and 95% for youth (age 15-24). In addition, the goal for literacy gender parity index (GPI) for 15+ is 1.0 by 2015. The specific target groups include disadvantaged communities with low literacy rates such as Dalits, ethnic groups, women, very poor people, the landless, and people living in remote areas.
We as many of the development partners here in Nepal see with great concern that Illiteracy remains one of the great development challenges. Despite progress, literacy rates are low. The Nepal Living Standard Survey 2011 reflects a literacy rate of only 56.5 among people who are older than 15 years. And there are huge variations in literacy rates between urban and rural areas, geographical zones, between reach and poor groups, and between different castes and ethnic groups.
There have been several attempts to increase literacy in Nepal. For example, the Ministry of Education undertook a national literacy campaign in 2008-2010 with the aim to eradicate illiteracy in two years. However, this and other initiatives did not yield the expected results, mainly because of lack of proper institutional and organizational capacities.
This is why we focus on literacy as we would like to assist Nepal to achieve Education for All by 2015,We put special emphasis on women and disadvantaged groups and on developing the capacities of CLCs. There are very promising new approaches to make people literate that we have piloted. For example linking mother tongue based literacy with lifeskill training programmes. We believe that there have great potential to be mainstreamed, But we must also look at strengthening the capacity of education officials and non-state providers to plan and implement effective literacy programmes. We will shortly start a new project in this regard.
3. UNESCO supported Nepal in the past to celebrate world water day. How do you see the state of access of drinking water in Nepal?
Yes, we have with great pleasure supported the events organized around World Water Day in the past years. They provide excellent occasions to create awareness and provide information.
This is particularly important as access to safe water is still a great challenge for many people in Nepal. This of course is very much linked to the extreme topography of Nepal. In the mountain areas, the distances to water sources are sometime very great. But not only access is an issue. We also have to look at the quality of water which is affected by the presence of arsenic in many areas.
In Nepal, as in other parts of the world the dramatic growth in demands for water are threatening all MDGs and the rising food demand, rapid urbanization and climate change are increasing pressure on global water supplies almost daily .
UNESCO is working to enhance national capacities to use and manage water sustainably. This includes strengthening capacities to increase water productivity and wastewater reuse in agriculture to produce more food per drop. We also need more efficient irrigation and rainwater harvesting systems. And the management of water and land must be better integrated.
Let me give two examples of our work: UNESCO has initiated research work on human-induced land-use changes and groundwater depletion and their linkages to hydrological and climate systems at a regional scale, which includes Nepal. Similarly, we have initiated a study on “Assessing impacts of climate change and adaptation in sediment transport and hydrological regime on a high altitude catchment of Nepal”. This study collected relevant information, maps, identify hot spots, and data monitoring locations.
(Courtesy: The New Spotlight)