Interview with Lena Sundh, Representative, UN OHCHR

Government fails to abide by its agreement

Lena Sundh is the representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal. Sundh, who replaced Ian Martin in November 2006, has been closely monitoring the human rights situation here as per the agreement signed between the government and the UN in 2004.

Sundh, in an exclusive interview with Ghanashyam Ojha and Kamal Raj Sigdel of The Kathmandu Post, said the Nepal government has neither sincerely followed the agreement nor has it cooperated with her office. She slams that the government hasn't provided a number of documents and reports on human rights to her office, which, she says, is a serious violation of the agreement.


Q: What is your assessment of the HR situation in Nepal, especially after the restoration of Parliament through the people's movement of April 2006? Are you satisfied with the current HR situation?

Lena Sundh: Well, first I must say that there have been significant improvements in the human rights situation, and this was not at least immediately after the establishment of the new government in 2006. I have a paper here because we have just made documents where we are summing up [the progress made so far]. For example, the political detainees were released; the right to freedom of association, expression and assembly was restored. And then, of course, also what we've been saying, when the armed conflict ended the conflict related violations also ended. So, that is, of course, very important. I think not least for the people in their daily lives that they have found the situation much more secure. Those who were held in preventive detention were resealed. So, there are lots of improvements.

Well, am I satisfied? I think no matter what country one lives in one should probably never be fully satisfied because, if you regard to human rights, it is always right. And here in Nepal there are many challenges. I think one should not forget that in a country that comes out of a very long armed conflict and also which comes out from a situation where there was the king's rule, which was not certainly a democratic rule, and a country which really does not have strong democratic tradition--even now when there is a government, they think, on the mandate of the people and it has all intentions to consolidate peace and democracy--the institutions are not democratic. And I think that this is very important.

It's not a matter really of being critical; it's just the fact. And I think that moving ahead this is what has to be addressed. And, for example, what we still note and we have just reports from last week--actually, all allegations of ill treatment and torture of detainees, for example. So, that is something like old habit diehard.

So, there are lots of things when it comes to law enforcement, access to justice and impunity, accountability and of course more deeper problems in the way of discrimination.

Q: How is OHCHR exercising its mandate to improve HR situation in Nepal?

Sundh: Our primary task, until the elections to the constituent assembly are held, is to monitor the human rights situation, to monitor the human rights provisions of the agreement. And we have interpreted our task, in that sense, in regard to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that our monitoring will be there to access and also to monitor whether there is an environment conducive to fair and free elections. So, the human rights monitoring that we are doing has also an objective.
But in addition to the monitoring we have also said that law enforcement or access to justice is one priority. Impunity and accountability, obviously, is next priority and then the third one is ending discrimination. Obviously, what can we do? I mean, we are not the ones to solve it. But our ambition is at least to contribute to improvements in these areas.

Q: The government, as per the agreement, has committed to implement the recommendations of OHCHR. Is the government implementing the recommendations you have made so far?

Sundh: Well, you know every government is sovereign, and they answer to their own citizens, of course. So, we are trying also to make our recommendations from the point of view of what a government has declared itself really about democracy and respect for human rights putting human rights in the forefront. But when one looks at these recommendations that we are making, one should not forget that we are not only giving recommendations or talking or giving suggestions at the national level, we are also very actively engaged in discussions with police, with CDOs, and with other important stakeholders at VDC and district level. And I believe that in those discussions we do actually see quite a lot of researches. Not obviously all the time, but there is an ongoing dialogue and we feel that we can be helpful.
When it comes to the national level, well, yes, sometimes we are disappointed and frustrated. But we will just have to continue and there also, I think, it's very important that the Nepali civil society became very active on these issues. I think some issues I recognize are very difficult. Impunity, accountability etc, they are not the questions, particularly after the conflict. But as we say, you know, still if one doesn't deal with them, they will come back and haunt you later. I think we are coming to that perspective.
Q: As per the agreement with OHCHR, the government has agreed to give OHCHR full access to its documents except a few secret ones. Is OHCHR enjoying that access to documents? How much the government is cooperating with you in this regard?
Sundh: No we don't. Actually, that is one of the questions that we are raising. There has been a long list of documents that we have not been receiving. And I think, maybe in a certain way, the government does not want to give us informal or non public documents maybe because they feel that it is stepping on or infringing on sovereignty or so. But it is not of course because in the agreement we have with the government it has agreed that we should have access [to documents]. So it's something that the government has chosen to agree to. It's nothing that we have forced. But in spite of these agreements we don't get documents we are still hoping that the government will sincerely listen to our requests and make available all those documents.

Q: Could you be more specific?

Sundh: It's the reports of the commissions. We still have not got any copy of the [report of] Ramayaji Commission, for example, we just would like to take a look at them and see if there is something we can do and so on.

Q: What have you been doing to have access to those documents?
Sundh: We normally try to talk to the authority concerned but we have also written to the foreign minister because since she is the minister that sector like our minister in a way for overall issues so that is hopefully what we have been doing. But we have been calling on this on many occasions and talking to different ministers and civil servants.
I am not saying that we are not getting anything. We are not getting all those important documents.

Q: What will you do to get those documents?
Sundh: I think we'll do that when we are making the report. I think that might me mentioned, if it is not solved, but [we're] still hoping that we can get access.
And sometimes we do get documents but very late or after a lot of efforts. So, it is a pity I think. I think we can be helpful. Sometimes it is not bad to have a neutral eye looking at things little bit from the outside. So, we are continuing but we are disappointed.

Q: Do you relate this act of government with 49 alleged Maoists who were allegedly killed or made to disappear in Bhairabnath Barrack?
Sundh: No. It's much broader than that. It's general. There are lots of documents that we have not been given when we have asked. So, it's a broader issue than that.

Q: How do you evaluate the role of the government and the Maoists in the promotion of HR situation in Nepal?

Sundh: Well, I think that again what we do see in the country is actually quite difficult for a country in a post-conflict situation. So, there are basically two parties to the peace agreement. It is the Maoists and the SPA government. So, I find it a little bit difficult to evaluate them as such. I think that a lot of what is happening seems to me to be are unresolved political issues, which obviously need to be solved for the process to move foreword.

Q: Do you think the government is making initiatives to ensure transitional justice to its people? To your knowledge, what is the progress towards setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as agreed in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement?

Sundh: Yes, transitional justice is a concept that has been created because many countries have gone through this kind of transition, either from an authoritarian system to democracy or from, say, an armed conflict to peace. And obviously, a very important element in that is truth and reconciliation commission. I think it is very very important before launching a truth and reconciliation commission that [we] conducted, very extensively, consultations with all stakeholders, with civil society, for example, and with the victims. Because the idea of truth and reconciliation commission has many things that it should address, it actually should provide the history, an agreed upon history of the conflict. So, if this is going to be something the people really accept and buy into, they have to be consulted. I think this is very important point.
Another important point is the political will. Truth and reconciliation commission is a lengthy process and it is also fairly costly one. So, there has to be financial resources and facilities. And that takes political will to do it. Also the government must be open to providing all the information--you cannot say this is a secret document or so on; everything will have to be put on the table. So, this is why in a way TRC in comparison with other issues in a transition is not really the most urgent. Because what is also necessary is that the conflict must really have ended and the post conflict situation, like you are in now, you see still, is not totally settled. So, it would be important to start consultations and proceed with caution. But it is, I think, very very important for reconciliation, healing and note for victims to have their grievances recognized.

Q: The minister for peace and reconstruction has revealed that he is working on TRC. Has the ministry consulted with OHCHR regarding TRC?

Sundh: Well, they have asked for some inputs from us. There are different ways of doing it but I think what we are stressing is not to rush and to make sure that there are proper consultations first. So that has been our one major recommendation, but we have given broad recommendations also.

Q: Though there is a people's government in place, and the Maoists are in the interim government, instances of human rights violations are on the rise. For instance, terai is still tense. How do you assess these developments in terai?

Sundh: As you probably have noticed we look primarily at how law enforcement is being done and I think that sometimes the police probably think that we are little bit offensive but that is the wrong of human rights organizations to a very high extent because there is an obligation for the state to secure security for its citizens. That is why we have been looking at police, whether it is acting when it should but also when it acts that it does so in compliance with the international standards etc.
Then yes, the broader issue of the violence in terai. I mean if you go back to December in Nepalgunj, when we saw the first time eruption of serious violence, it became clear that the peace agreement and particularly the decision to hold constituent assembly elections and to write a new constitution was like lifting a lid of a pot that is boiling and so it all comes up.
We always stress that there is a right to demonstrations and manifestations but they have to be peaceful. And of course, this has very often not been the case. That is why we are really appealing also to allow recognized freedom of assembly but also from those who are protesting, asking that they fulfill their obligations, which is peaceful protest. And I think in the terai you have also a group which I think is of very great concern and where the government has offered dialogue and I hope that would work out. It is very unfortunate, of course, what is happening now in terai and it puts also a lot of stress on the peace process.

Q: The High Commissioner, during her visit in January, had highlighted the need to end the culture of impunity. What progress have you noticed on this front?
Sundh: Well not that much actually. I think there has been some but not that much progress. I would say in the Maina Sunuwar case, the exhumation, the fact that we have been given more information etc. So, there we have seen some progress but obviously the case is not finished. It is not closed.
From the side of the government, well, I think in a way what is happening in the Supreme Court on the disappearances is also at least promising that there have been some cases. So certain things are happening but we believe that there is still far to go. Think also now that the bill to amend the civil court to include enforced disappearances and to criminalize them. This, of course, is also important. There we will be presenting some proposals but we welcome the fact that this is criminalized. So that is also a step in the right direction.

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