Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:
Book on U.N. Creation a Welcome Reminder of Early Lessons
(December 16, 2003)
"Here's the perfect holiday gift for your favorite member of the U.S. Congress."
Too Soon To Count the U.N. in on Iraq
(December 9, 2003)
"The United Nations is not going to jump at the chance to take over the management of Iraq. Too much needs to change not only in Washington but also on the ground in Baghdad."
Sixteen Wise People and the Future of the U.N.
(December 1, 2003)
"This could be a last-chance opportunity to reinvigorate a battered United Nations."
Saving Congo, One Woman at a Time
(November 24, 2003)
"The impunity enjoyed by anyone with a gun, and the savagery of the sexual assaults women suffer as a result, has stunned and sickened aid workers."
Oil for Food: A Great Experiment Ends
(November 17, 2003)
"The oil-for-food program wasn't perfect. It was manipulated by both the Iraqis and the West. None of that, however, should obscure the essential value of the concept."
A New-Look Security Council: What Makes a Winner?
(November 11, 2003)
"The question of which countries might rightly claim new permanent seats is becoming less hypothetical. A group of newly emerging powers is already circling the chamber demanding a permanent presence."
More from U.N. Notebook.
U.N. Notebook | December 29, 2003
Refugees in Limbo Where the U.N. Isn't Welcome
by Barbara Crossette
UNITED NATIONS—For about a dozen years, tens of thousands of people, claiming to be Bhutanese citizens evicted from the mountain kingdom in a Himalayan ethnic cleansing, have been languishing in refugee camps in Nepal. Few officials in India and Nepal, or in Geneva at the International Committee of the Red Cross and the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, believe they are all Bhutanese.
Then who are these people, now numbering more than 100,000? After years of wrangling between Bhutan and Nepal, complicated by Bhutanese obstinacy over who qualifies to return, and by a succession of political upheavals in Nepal—punctuated by the assassination of almost the entire Nepali royal family—the two governments were finally able to agree in October to a systematic census in the refugee camps. Those with documented claims to Bhutanese citizenship would return, others who had renounced Bhutanese nationality could reapply and those with no claim or desire to live in Bhutan would be resettled in Nepal or possibly abroad. A fair number of the people in the camps are known to be people from within impoverished Nepal or from India, particularly West Bengal and the Northeast, where they have also been harassed or expelled.
Easy enough to sort this out? Not at all. This issue has now become so politicized in Nepal that when a Bhutanese verification team arrived at a Nepali camp last Monday to explain the agreement to residents, they were assaulted by a mob wielding bamboo rods and stones. An attempt was made, the Bhutanese foreign ministry says, to trap the team in a hut and set fire to it. The team was immediately recalled to Bhutan.
Where has the UNHCR been through all of this? Mostly on the sidelines. Neither Nepal nor Bhutan has wanted the refugee agency to be in charge of the census. The UNHCR, however, has cared for the people in five camps at a substantial cost of $5 million annually, not counting World Food Program aid, and would have the expertise to help if not actually conduct the repatriation process. Instead, the UNHCR, under Ruud Lubbers, decided in October that because the Bhutanese would not permit the agency to monitor returns to Bhutan, it was essentially pulling out of the process.
"This is totally unacceptable," Lubbers, the high commissioner, said in a speech to the agency's executive committee that is worth quoting verbatim because it rewrote agency policy on this issue. "I have therefore decided to take three key measures. First, since the Nepalese government has offered to settle those willing to remain and to grant them citizenship, my office will promote self-reliance projects to facilitate their integration, and will gradually phase out its direct involvement in the camps. Second, my office will support resettlement initiatives for vulnerable cases. Third, because of the denial of access to UNHCR in Bhutan, making it impossible for us to monitor the return process, we will not promote returns."
A little background, simplified for space:
For generations, population pressures in Nepal have sent hundreds of thousands of Nepalis into neighboring India and Bhutan, where a Nepali-speaking, largely (but not entirely) Hindu minority lives in the kingdom's southern lowlands along open borders with the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam. In the mid-1980s, Bhutan, the last Himalayan Buddhist kingdom to survive after the Chinese military occupation of Tibet and the Indian takeover of Sikkim, went into a spell of nationalist panic over the rising numbers of Nepali-speaking people in the border areas. Forced expulsions and seizures of property took place. A small, brief ethnic Nepali insurrection supported by various outsiders, broke out. Thousands more Nepali-speaking people fled Bhutan or were encouraged to leave by instigators.
A U.S. envoy in New Delhi told me at the time that this was basically a problem of illegal immigration to which the Bhutanese overreacted, fearing that an eventual Nepali majority would overrun the Tibetan Buddhist population and change the face of the country, which had fewer than a million people. The Bhutanese king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, acknowledged in an interview with me in 1992 that there had been excesses.
But the Bhutanese were never prepared for the wave of criticism that came from international human rights groups—not only because of the expulsions but also for the enforcement of a Buddhist-style national dress code on Nepali Hindus, since relaxed—and the government retreated into even greater isolationism, hurting itself by not allowing outsiders free access to the southern areas where citizenship was in dispute. Those of us who were permitted to go there found hamlets so small they could never have been home to the numbers of people in Nepal claiming to have been expelled from them. And the Bhutanese had records to dispute many claims.
There is another, not openly discussed, factor at work. Bhutan's foreign policy is decided by India, and India—which sees itself as a rising world power and wants a permanent Security Council seat—has rarely permitted the UNHCR to operate freely in its territory. This was true in the refugee crisis in 1971 when India supported a revolt by East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh with a lot of Indian help. The UNHCR did not run the Sri Lankan Tamil refugee camps in the southern Indian Tamil Nadu region in the 1980s, where guerrillas rested or trained for combat against the Sri Lankan government. In the late 1980s, a U.N. official in New Delhi, where I lived, told me that the UNHCR had to operate all but clandestinely in trying to help Afghans who fled to India during the war against Soviet occupation. It is inconceivable that India would now let the UNHCR operate extensively along the Bhutan-Indian border, whether or not the Bhutanese would accept that presence.
It is important to note, however, that unlike Indian governments of the past—particularly that of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, whose agents plotted the overthrow of the last king of Sikkim—the current administration of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, though a Hindu nationalist, has been supportive of Bhutan's Buddhist king and government. That has relaxed fears considerably for many Bhutanese who live in the shadow of the Sikkimese tragedy. India, which has already stopped Nepalis from marching forcibly back into Bhutan from refugee camps, will have to be the determining factor in resolving this unending crisis, which has hurt so many people and left tens of thousands in limbo for so long.
Lubbers made that point in his October speech. "I urge states, and particularly neighboring India, to assist Bhutan and Nepal to identify just, human and durable solutions for all of these people," he said. Those words are even more important now that the first concrete steps toward that end have met with violence in Nepal.
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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic
Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and
related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and
appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National
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