Interview: Human rights goes beyond conflict, OHCHR's new chief, Jyoti Sanghera

Human rights goes beyond conflict

OHCHR’s new chief, Jyoti Sanghera


OHCHR has been in Nepal since 2005 and it has continued to monitor the situation as per its mandate. However, after the 2006 Jana Andolan, its focus, scope and some of its roles have changed. Now, the government seems to be gradually losing interest in allowing the UN rights body to continue its office in Nepal, arguing that the situation has ‘improved enough’. OHCHR, however, argues that it would be better if the government sought its continued support at least until the new constitution, the transitional justice mechanisms and some important laws and policies to ensure non-discrimination are put in place, and finally a proper election is held.

Kamal Raj Sigdel caught up with OHCHR’s new chief, Jyoti Sanghera to discuss her views on the future of OHCHR vis-à-vis Nepal’s delayed movement towards transitional justice, truth, peace and reconciliation.

You came at a time when Nepal’s human rights record came under a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) for the first time. What is your impression from the UPR session on Nepal in Geneva?

For different reasons, we were positively impressed by the government and other human rights partners during the UPR, but what struck most observers was that the Nepal UPR was being taken seriously by all the actors involved. All actors gave the impression that they were willing to carry out a genuine Review and make it a meaningful exercise. This does signal that the country and all its actors take the human rights situation seriously. And that is an encouraging first step.

What do you say about the government response to the UPR recommendations?

Fifty-six delegations made a total of 135 recommendations during the Review at the Human Rights Council. Out of these, the government accepted 56, considered 28 as already implemented or in the process of implementation, decided 36 were to be given further consideration and rejected 15 recommendations. Our concerns are mainly about these rejected recommendations.

What are OHCHR’s main concerns?

OHCHR is concerned that the government has rejected a number of recommendations related to the ratification of international human rights instruments such as the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, the Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Nepal totally objected recommendation of a report on extrajudicial killings during the UPR, what do you say about this?

The government objected to an OHCHR report on extrajudicial killings and I hope that misunderstandings and reservations in this respect can be resolved through continued dialogue with government entities. However, I would like to emphasise that the government has committed to examine the other recommendations regarding the issue of extrajudicial killings before the 17th session of the Human Rights Council in June 2011.

There has been widespread concern that transitional justice has been intentionally delayed in Nepal. Has the review pressed Nepal to move faster?

Many recommendations from Member States emphasised the need for the establishment of these transitional justice mechanisms with the least possible delay and in accordance with international standards. It is my hope that the UPR has further strengthened the case and created space for transitional justice.

On the other hand, how do you see the delay and the gradual expansion of relief distribution? 

I believe that there is lack of clarity on the important differences that exist between interim relief, compensation and reparation. Most of the time, these three notions are used interchangeably.

And it is possible that there may be a lack of a full understanding from both the relief providers and the victims. They may think, “Ok we have now received or provided one lakh and that’s it. That’s the end of it. The families might think now we can go home and try reclaiming our lives.” Interim relief must be understood as a temporary support for humanitarian purposes; it is only one part of a reparation programme.

What do you think is lacking in the interim relief distribution?

It is essential to have a comprehensive reparation policy as part of the larger transitional justice process. Ideally, you should first adopt a policy, then a plan of action emerging from the policy, and finally design the various activities or programmes within this overall plan. But in practice, this may not always be possible and one has to find the best ways to accommodate different priorities.

Some rights defenders have cautioned that the leaders want to modify this ongoing relief distribution into a reparation programme? Is that a possibility?

No. A reparation programme will have to be linked with a full truth-seeking process. Interim relief is not justice. The victims want to seek and know the truth, however painful that is, and then obtain justice. Truth seeking, justice and reparation are integral and essential parts of the process. Victims will always come back if one of the steps in the process is ignored.

OHCHR is approaching the end of its extended mandate on June 9. When its term was extended last year, the government sought a “clearly spelled out exit strategy”. Has this been spelled out?

We are often asked whether OHCHR-Nepal should go now that the

conflict is over. This is probably why this question about an exit strategy emerged in the first place. There is no doubt about the role of human rights institutions like OHCHR during conflict but human rights certainly go beyond conflict. 

During conflict, the role of human rights organisations is mainly of protection and monitoring, in particular of civil and political rights. When the armed conflict ended, the role of the office shifted towards also addressing the root causes of the conflict, which include discrimination and the denial of economic, social and cultural rights.

In order to address the root causes of the conflict, important pieces of legislation and policies need to be put in place. They include, most critically, a human rights-friendly constitution, the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms, an integral element to sustainable peace, the enactment and enforcement of laws and policies to ensure non-discrimination and other key human rights principles, their enforcement and finally a proper election. None of these have been achieved.

Until there are strong institutions, mechanisms, legal framework and policies in place to ensure respect for human rights, the government may need additional support. But as long as the human rights situation is not satisfactory and the peace process still fragile, one of the options for the government is to continue seeking OHCHR support. 

You spoke of the need for strong human rights institutions. But it was during OHCHR’s stay that the ICC warned NHRC of downgrading from its current A status to B status.

I am hopeful that this will not happen. One of the main reasons behind this situation [ICC warning] is that the draft NHRC legislation is not in compliance with the Paris Principles (internationally recognised principles for the establishment of national human rights institutions). This issue is not in the hands of the NHRC, it is in the hands of the government. The NHRC cannot be held responsible for a process that it does not control. Similarly, the question of financial independence of NHRC is again in the hands of the government.

Moreover, over the last few months, the NHRC has performed some important work, such as the exhumations in Dhanusa in relation to a conflict-related case of alleged human rights violations. Their performance has therefore improved. These elements will be taken into consideration by the ICC. In all fairness, I believe the NHRC should be given a further grace period.

Let me also add that the government has accepted the UPR recommendations to amend the draft NHRC legislation to ensure its compliance with the Paris Principles.

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