OHCHR must stay in Nepal

Civil society wants OHCHR extension but 'no deviation'
KATHMANDU, April 19 - Nepali civil society that was instrumental in 2005 for the establishment of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) seems miffed by the UN human rights body now. The reason: It wants OHCHR to stay on but it doesn't like the shift in its focus -- from civil and political rights to such additional areas as social and economic rights.

But OHCHR has another major hurdle to overcome. The UN body's current mandate comes to an end on June 9 and the Maoist party doesn't seem keen about asking the United Nations to give OHCHR an extension. During High Commissioner Navanethem Pillay's visit here last month,

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal did assure her that he would respond on call for extension by April 3 after discussing the issue at hand with other major political parties. But he still hasn't responded, though the April 3 deadline is long over.

Not that all the parties are against OHCHR's new term. Three major political parties -- Nepali Congress, CPN (UML) and Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum -- have already expressed their support for the extension. The Maoists are the only major party against the extension, according to human rights activists. To them, therein lies the Maoist double standards.

"It was the Maoists who benefited the most after the establishment of OHCHR in 2005. But now that they are in power, they don't want it," said INSEC Chairman Subodh Pyakurel.  However, the civil society is also concerned about OHCHR's 'deviation to softer' rights issues like social and economic rights. This deviation, it says, has only complicated the extension process.

Of the three major areas OHCHR has been working -- accountability and rule of law, capacity building of national institutions and civil society, and discrimination and economic, social and cultural rights -- it has now started putting in a lot of focus on the third one, say local human rights groups.

In line with the shift, OHCHR decided not to directly monitor cases of human rights violation. To that effect, it singed an agreement with NHRC on Feb. 20 to "refer all new complaints and cases related to human rights violations to NHRC," which rights activists say is a deviation from the 2005 mandate.

OHCHR agrees that it is focusing more on the economic and social  rights. However, it denies that the shift is anything new.

"OHCHR was so busy monitoring civil and political rights that it could not afford more time on other issues, but now that the conflict has ended and things have changed, we are focusing more on economic and social rights, which does not mean that we have completely left other issues," said Marty Logan, spokesperson for OHCHR-Nepal.

Human rights activists seem unconvinced by this argument. "We do perceive that the UN rights body has shifted its focus on social and economic rights, which are also the focus of the government. It may be trying to appease the government at a time when its mandate extension is in crisis," said Mandira Shamra of Advocacy Forum.

Rights activists say that it is not the right time for the UN rights body to make such a shift. This is one of the reasons why civil society is maintaining silence on OHCHR's mandate extension, according to former NHRC Commissioner Sushil Pyakurel.

With all their reservations about OHCHR's perceived shift in focus, civil society leaders generally agree that it should stay on. "It is true that OHCHR-Nepal has been too timid in the last couple of years. But still, under the existing deplorable human rights situation, it is extremely important to renew its mandate so as to ensure that the state maintains minimum standards for the protection of citizens of Nepal," said Kanak Dixit, a journalist. "OHCHR must work with renewed emphasis on civil and political rights at a time when human rights condition is actually deteriorating due to rampant impunity."

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