The continuing struggle for human rights

Nepal has certainly made headway in terms of human rights in the last few decades, but the failure to address war-era crimes and the systemic aversion to legislative reforms continue to bog down the movement at present

- [February 19, 2012, The Kathmandu Post]

ECEMBER 10, 1988 dawned dark and dismal in Nepal.
The first breed of human rights defenders had just dared
To place a signboard for their newborn organisation outside
the balcony of a house in Thamel. This was a perilous move
considering all organisations fighting for
democracy and rights had been
outlawed at the time by the then-royal
As expected, within a few minutes, there
was a police squad dislodging the board.
Inside the house, over a hundred rights
activists, including current PM Baburam
Bhattarai, Rishikesh Shah, Prof Kapil Shrestha,
Nutan Thapaliya, Sushil Pyakurel, and Daman
Nath Dhungana, were discussing how best to
spearhead the human rights movement in the
face of such a repressive regime. When they
saw the police there, they assumed they would
all be arrested.
Rishikesh Shah, however, grew furious at
the sight of the police storming into his
private building, where the Human Rights
Organization was housed. He rushed inside
his chamber, picked up the very gun King
Mahendra had presented him for his
contribution in drafting the constitution of
1962, came out and threatened to shoot the
DSP right between the eyes.
“It was so pleasing to see the DSP and his
squad running away for their lives after Shah
threatened to shoot them down with this big
gun—one that King Mahendra used to shoot
wild elephants with,” recalls Prof Kapil
Shrestha. “We clapped because it was
symbolic: a gun that had been gifted by a king
striking back at the establishment.”
The incident marks an important stage in
the movement when loosely-organised
defenders like the one led by Shah and others,
including the Human Rights Protection Forum
led by Mathura Shrestha, and Amnesty
International brought to Nepal by Nutan
Thapaliya, joined hands with the political
parties—Nepali Congress and CPN-UML—
who were gearing up for the decisive
pro-democracy movement.
When democracy was eventually restored
in 1990, then-PM Krishna Prasad Bhattarai
signed seven international human rights
treaties, including the UN International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
(ICCPR)—setting a record in the UN system.
While the Nepali Congress and its part in
the struggle for democracy were well known to
the palace and the bureaucracy, the UML was
still somewhat unfamiliar for them. And
human rights activists were an entirely new
breed. “The officials in the palace and the
bureaucrats used to call us ‘new animals’,”
says Shrestha. And at an international seminar
on torture in 1991, Home Secretary Padam
Prasad Pokherel gave an interesting insight
into the Nepali bureaucracy’s views on human
rights when he dubbed the human rights
organisations themselves a “new type of
torturer” because of how persistent they were
in accusing officials of rights abuse.
Soon, an increased engagement within the
human rights community and expanding
diplomatic relations with the outer world,
helped mainstream the movement into
government policies and plans. Today, 20
years down the line, and despite a decadelong
war that ravaged the country, things
seems to be heading in the right direction, as
Nepal’s transition from a violent past to a
more stable, peaceful, democratic and
prosperous future continues—although laced
inevitably with ups and downs.
One of the most significant trends
to emerge in the past two decades has
been the heightened level of awareness
among the general public regarding
their unalienable rights and the birth of a
strong and vibrant civil society network that
has made authoritarianism almost impossible
in the future.
While it happened much earlier in Western
societies, it was mainly during the past two
and a half decades that Nepalis actually
became aware of new democratic values, their
own fundamental rights, and what these rights
and values signified. The huge political
changes that rocked the country over time
played a big role in affecting people’s
understanding and thinking. And the Maoist
rebellion between 1996-2006, pushed the
rights movement, especially of the so far
excluded and marginalised ethnic and caste

groups, to new heights.
As a result, protection of human rights
today is not only an agenda of civil society but
also a priority of the state. Human rights have
been formally enshrined in the draft of the
new constitution and integrated into the
government’s policies and national plans
(National Human Rights Action Plan 2004), in
school and college-level curriculum, and in
the working modality of the security forces.
Nepal has made significant progress, for
instance, in securing the rights of women and
children. Over 33 percent representation of
women in the House, legislation of inclusion
and reservation, remarkable progress in
reducing the maternal mortality rate as per
the target of the Millennium Development
Goals (MDGs), repeal of almost all the laws
and legal provisions that were discriminatory
with regards to gender and caste, and progress
made in the net enrolment of children in
schools—all these are cause for celebration.
The positive impact of these changes on
the lives of common people has been reflected
in a number of recent annual indexes such as
the UNDP Human Development Report (2010),
which places Nepal as one of the fastest
movers in the Human Development Index,
with about 50 percent decrease in the population
living below the poverty line (from 42 percent
in 2000 to 25.4 percent in 2010); as well as
the World Global Hunger Index and
Democracy Index of the Economist, which
show Nepal progressing both in democracy
and hunger reduction.
Most notably, vital institutional infrastructures
needed for propping up human rights
have been established. The National Human
Rights Commission (NHRC) is now a
constitutional body. Very few have noticed
that the Commission, which is awarded the
top ‘A’ status as per the standards of the UNadopted
Paris Principles, stands out as one of
the most powerful national rights watchdogs
in the South Asian region. Each of the security
forces—Nepal Police, Armed Police Force, and
Nepal Army—once largely unaware of rights
issues, have also set up separate human rights
cells. And PM Baburam Bhattarai heads a
steering committee, which oversees human
rights related programmes, policies, and

The fact that not a single official accused
of serious rights violation has been punished
so far speaks volumes about the challenges
facing the country today on this front. We
witnessed a bloody conflict that resulted in
the death of about 16,729 persons,
displacement of 78,689, disappearance of
1,327, alongside many cases of rape, torture
and abduction, and devastation of public and
private infrastructures
valued at about Rs 5 billion (PMO ICCPR
Report 2010). But thousands are still waiting
for truth, reparation, and justice. The
governments formed after the 2006
Janandolan have only distributed ‘interim
relief’ worth over Rs 8 billion but the process
is far from being fair and transparent as
partisan politics always rules the roost.
It is time the parties realised that lasting
peace depends on how well they are able to
identify and address the root causes of the
conflict—discrimination, inequality, injustice,
and the very impunity they have themselves
fostered one way or the other since or before
the conflict. “No doubt we have leapfrogged in
the past two decades on a number of
indicators but the overall progress,
especially in addressing impunity, has
remained depressing,” says NHRC member
Gauri Pradhan. “None of our recommendations
asking for punishment of officials guilty
of rights violations have been implemented.
Instead, politics continues to become
criminalised and crime politicised. This is
sure to institutionalise impunity.”
As Pradhan says, historically speaking,
impunity remains the most serious challenge
facing the human rights movement.
Be it the report from the Mallik Commission
that investigated the abuses during the
1990 Democratic Movement, or the Rayamajhi
Commission’s probe into the abuses
during the 2006 Janandolan, all remain shackled
in paper.
Another area where Nepal is falling short is
in the case of legislative reforms—such as
criminalisation of torture, ratification of the
Convention Against Torture (CAT) and the
Rome Statute of the International Criminal
Court (ICC)—which, if adopted, could warn
upcoming leaders against repeating the rights
abuses of the past. In a young democracy like
Nepal, it is all the more important to learn a
lesson from history and ensure that no future
leader develops an ambition for absolute rule
and repression.
While there is an ongoing attempt to form transitional justice mechanisms—the Truth
and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission on Enforced Disappearances, for
example, these promise little to the victims as the parties have agreed on blanket amnesty
for all conflict-era crimes, including rape. This failure to address war-era crimes and the
systemic aversion to legislative reforms, continue to bog down the human rights
movement at present.

Parties need to want to change and they need to take the movement seriously, rather than, as Shrestha puts it, try to compartmentalize human rights into a small entity that they can push around without affecting their agenda. “Human rights can’t be limited; it’s not just about principles—it’s a way of life.” [Author: Sigdel, KR. Sigdel is the News Coordinator at The Kathmandu Post and reports on politics and human rights. The article was first published on February 19, 2012 Democracy Day special edition of The Kathmandu Post. 
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