As Nepal Joins UN Human Rights Council, Activists Call Out Its Domestic Abuses but Also See Hope

Activists believe the country can now be held to greater scrutiny and will thus be forced to act to uphold rights domestically.

On October 16, Nepal was elected by the UN General Assembly to a three-year term as a member of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (UNHRC), beginning January 1, 2018. This is the the first time Nepal will serve on the UNHRC, and its entrance comes amid calls by national and international activists for greater attention and action on human rights domestically.

Election to the UNHRC

Positions on the UNHRC are prestigious and can be influential in shaping global human rights discourse, if not direct action. The UNHRC facilitates the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), through which all UN member-states are evaluated on rights practices and progress every five years. The UNHRC’s 47-member voting body, to which Nepal is acceding, can vote to censure countries and appoint commissions of inquiry or fact-finding missions for serious abuses, such as those that occurred in Burundi, North Korea, Sri Lanka and Syria. The UNHRC also has a mechanism to collect complaints about rights abuses around the world.

In September, Nepal’s Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba lobbied UN member states for support during his visit to the General Assembly. Nepal’s victory in October’s secret-ballot was at least partly due to regional considerations. India and Bangladesh are ending terms on the UNHRC this year. To replace them, Nepal was elected along with Pakistan and Afghanistan from South Asia. Other potential South Asian candidates like the Maldives and Sri Lanka would have had little chance of being elected, given their recent crises (Sri Lanka has itself been investigated by the UNHRC and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), with which UNHRC works closely). Although officially there are no regional seats on the UNHRC, country delegations usually seek a regional balance and South Asian UNHRC members tend to vote as a block, according to Tejshree Thapa, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Nepal’s case for membership

The UNHRC was established in 2006, replacing the 53-member Commission on Human Rights, on which Nepal itself had served from 1995-2000 and from 2004-2006. The Commission on Human Rights was disbanded partly due to criticism that it allowed membership to states with very poor rights records. The UNHRC has assumed a more prominent role than its predecessor, although it has also had members with questionable records.

In UN document A/72/347, circulated among the General Assembly in August, the Nepali delegation laid out its case for joining the UNHRC. The document noted that Nepal is party to 24 international human rights-related conventions and treaties, including those related to civil and political rights; economic, social, and cultural rights; rights of the child; rights of persons with disabilities; the elimination of discrimination against women; the elimination of racial discrimination; and against torture. Although human rights abuses by both the state and rebels were rife during the Maoist insurgency from 1996-2006, as documented in investigations by the OHCHR, the Nepali government claims that it has achieved significant progress since fighting ended in 2006.

To facilitate and monitor the peace process, Nepal accepted the establishment of a United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) office, until the government refused to extend its mandate in 2011. Nepal successfully negotiated the disbandment of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army in 2011 (most combatants received a rehabilitation package; only a few hundred were integrated into the Nepal Army). The state also formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and a Commission of Investigation of Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP) in 2014 to investigate war-time abuses. According to Commissioner Madhabi Bhatta, the TRC has registered around 62,000 cases so far and 7000 cases are under investigation.

Another important step in the peace process came in September 2015, when Nepal for the first time promulgated a constitution drafted by an elected constituent assembly. Although aspects of the new constitution have proved divisive, proponents note that it has progressive components. For example, reservations have been instituted for women and Dalits in local bodies, provincial legislative assemblies, and the national parliament. The government also funds independent commissions to advocate for rights, including the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), National Women Commission and others.

The Nepal government also claims credit for hospitality towards refugees over the years. Nepal has hosted over 108,000 Bhutanese refugees, most of whom have now been resettled in Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, the UK and the US. It also currently hosts 15,000-20,000 Tibetans. Nepal used to register Tibetans as refugees, but after a rapprochement with China has not done so since 1989, although under a “gentleman’s agreement” with UNHCR, it usually allows safe passage of Tibetans to Dharmasala in India. In recent years, Nepal has hosted small groups of Ahmadi, Rohingya and other “urban refugees”, whom it has tolerated, although it has not recognised them as refugees. Nepal is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, nor its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Bharat Raj Paudyal, spokesperson for Nepal’s foreign affairs ministry, told The Wire that Nepal’s election to the UNHRC is “an acknowledgement for Nepal’s sincere efforts and achievement for the protection and promotion of human rights.”

View of the UN Human Rights Council. Credit: Flickr Commons

Activists call for more government action on human rights

But Nepali human rights activists have called for greater action on human rights domestically.

“A government that does not care about protecting human rights and ensuring justice for its own citizens cannot pretend to care about protecting the human rights of others,” wrote Thapa in a recent Nepali Times column.

One issue many critics point to is the government’s delayed and problematic transitional justice program. The TRC and CIEDP were established only after years of political wrangling between political parties, which sought to protect their own members from punishment for any war-era abuses. The TRC Act, which created the TRC, allows amnesty for those who commit even severe violations like torture, even though the Supreme Court has judged this aspect of the Act unlawful. Seeing the amnesty clause as an opportunity, major political parties reached an agreement in May 2016 to remove existing war-era cases from the regular courts so that they could be dealt with solely through the transitional justice mechanisms. What is more, there have been reports of political interference in the truth and reconciliation process at the local level, including intimidation of victims who submit complaints to the TRC. Due to delays in progress, the TRC’s mandate has already been extended once and there is widespread skepticism about its ability to complete its work by its new deadline of February 2018.

“The state is, in some ways, almost nervous,” Mohna Ansari, commissioner at the NHRC, told the Kathmandu Post in a recent interview. “If transitional justice is fully practiced, a great number of people will be brought to book.”

Human rights advocates have also criticised discriminatory aspects of the 2015 constitution. Under the law, women have limited ability to pass on citizenship to their offspring. Children of Nepali mothers and foreign fathers are eligible only for naturalised citizenship, which can be more difficult to obtain than citizenship by birth. By contrast, all children of Nepali fathers are eligible for citizenship by birth. Obtaining citizenship can be particularly problematic for children of single mothers also.

The government has also been criticised for its crackdown against Madhesi protesters who object to aspects of the 2015 constitution. Madhesi parties, who represent marginalised groups from the Terai southern plains who share cultural and linguistic ties with Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, seek to create two provinces in the Terai under the country’s new federal system, and to ensure electoral constituencies in parliament are delineated according to population size. For four-and-a-half months in 2015-16, Madhesi protesters shut down Nepal-India border checkpoints with unofficial support from India. Security forces cracked down on the protests forcefully, killing at least 34 persons and injuring many others in what appeared to be a consistent pattern of excessive use of force. In another incident, angry protesters from the indigenous Tharu ethnic group, who also seek two states in the Terai, killed eight police personnel and one child in August 2015. But Amnesty International found that prisoners jailed in relation to the incident had their confessions abstracted through torture.

In response to the violence in the Terai, the government created a High-Level Inquiry Commission in October 2016, but it has yet to submit its report. In June, UN special rapporteurs on human rights requested Nepal to submit an update on the investigation’s progress. But the government has not yet done so, according to prominent rights activist Dipendra Jha, who referenced personal communications with Agnes Callamard, a special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

Human rights activists also note that while Nepal has hosted Tibetan refugees, in recent years it has restricted freedoms for Tibetans due to pressure from China. In 2008, Nepali security forces cracked down on Tibetan protests around the Beijing Olympics, and continue to suppress large gatherings on the Dalai Lama’s birthday and Lhosar (Tibetan New Year) celebrations. There is also evidence that the Nepali security forces share intelligence with China on Tibetan dissidents living in Nepal. China is an increasingly important donor for Nepali infrastructure projects, and in May, Nepal signed onto the One Belt One Road initiative.

Still, human rights advocates are somewhat hopeful.

“The UNHRC membership could be a turning point for Nepal,” said Ansari from the NHRC. “This will force the state machinery to act more responsibly to uphold human rights,” she added.

Thapa says that now Nepal “can be held up to greater scrutiny. We have more ammunition with which to pressure the government.” She added, “Nepal can’t be a member of the UNHRC and continue to ignore its own lack of results. There has been movement, but there hasn’t been results on these [human rights] issues.”

Peter Gill is an American journalist based in Kathmandu who tweets at @pitaarji. Praveen Kumar Yadav is a Nepali journalist and former writer for the daily Republica. He writes on politics, education, and other topics and tweets at @iPrav33n.