A cabinet meeting last week appointed Amrit Bahadur Rai as Nepal’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York. It is only the second time in Nepal’s history that the government has replaced an ambassador by going against the established norm whereby after the completion of an ambassadorship, a diplomat must serve for at least two years at the ministry before taking up new ambassadorship. Rai had just completed his term as the ambassador to South Africa. The current foreign secretary, Shanker Das Bairagi, declined the UN appointment as he expects to be Chief Secretary. Hence the government appointed Rai, a joint secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Rai is the third-ranking senior joint secretary at the ministry. Bharat Raj Poudyal, who is currently leading the UN division in the ministry, could have been the next UN candidate as he is the senior-most candidate. Likewise, Sewa Adhikari, who is currently the Nepali ambassador to Pakistan, is the second-ranking senior joint secretary.
Rai’s appointment is reflective of the politicking inside the ministry. The crucial UN posting is impossible to get without political connections. This has put a large number of officials in a dilemma over whether they should cultivate such connections. According to one Nepali diplomat in New Delhi, Nepal is perhaps the only country in the world that recruits retired diplomats as ambassadors on the pretext of utilizing their experiences, as if there were no other alternatives.
The trend is reminiscent of the Panchayat era when only a limited number of people got such appointments, time and again. Today as well, there are plenty of capable people, but only a few with right political connections get the opportunity. Joint Secretary Krishna Prasad Dhakal was recently recalled from New Delhi, where he was serving as the deputy head of mission, and has again been appointed ambassador to the UAE. Dhakal has not served in the ministry for a long time, but still got the coveted post because of his political connections.
This yes-man culture has adversely affected the ministry’s functioning. Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, Minister for Foreign Affairs, defended Rai’s appointment, saying that Rai was chosen to make ambassadorial appointments inclusive. Gyawali added that ambassadors are sent to missions on the basis of their capacity (rather than based on their seniority).
However, former Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Geneva, Dinesh Bhattarai, says, “The UN missions should be led by either a former foreign secretary or an experienced political leader. The government is violating this practice and is conducting diplomacy in a childish manner.” He added that appointing politically-inclined career diplomats is not a good practice.
The government should do proper homework before appointing ambassadors. High level political appointees should be sent to important missions like New York and Geneva. Likewise, the ambassadors to the US, the UK, France, China (Permanent Security Council members) and India should be well versed in both diplomacy and international relations. Not just anybody can be sent to these places.
Most MoFA officials have technical knowledge but they seem to lack substance. Soon, the ministry will face a scarcity of joint secretaries, most of whom have been appointed as ambassadors. Three weeks ago, the government had recommended ambassadors to Canada, France, Switzerland, Thailand, and Kuwait, all from among career diplomats.
It also decided to recall the ambassadors to South Korea, Spain and Bangladesh, who were appointed by the previous government. Last week, a new ambassador to Israel was appointed and the government is in the process of appointing ambassadors to India, the UAE and Malaysia as well.
Before, ambassadors used to willingly resign after the formation of a new government under a different party. The trend has changed now.
Nepal has 30 embassies, three Permanent representative UN offices in New York, Geneva and Vienna, and six general consulates. It is about time that the MoFA cultivated country- and sector-specific experts. Failure to do so will seriously undermine Nepal’s diplomacy.
The author heads the Political, Current and Foreign Affairs Bureau at Annapurna Post national daily