26 April, 2004

Behind The Smoke Screen: Human Rights in Nepal

Cover Story


Despite Nepal’s stiff resistance, the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva last week issued a binding statement, asking Nepal to accept international monitoring of its human rights situation. But the bigger question is whether Nepal is keen about improving its poor human rights record

BY SUSHMA JOSHI Nation Weekly, April 26, 2004

Dinesh Prasain has a gap in his teeth when he smiles. The co-ordinator for the Col-lective Campaign for Peace says he didn’t always have a missing tooth. On December 14, four men in plainclothes came and knocked on his door. “I will open the door if you show me your ID,” said Prasain, who had re-cently received death threats after writing an ar-ticle that questioned the integrity of NGOs.
The men broke down his door and started to beat him up. They asked him four questions. “Why didn’t you open the door?” “Why are you looking at us in the eye?” “Do you know Bharat Prasain?” And finally: “Where is he?”

Dinesh says Bharat Prasain, a well-known Maoist, comes from Mugitar, the same village as him in Rammechap. The social service worker, who graduated from Budhanilkantha School in 1989, says everybody in Prasain-gaon (Prasain Village) knows Bharat. But like the well-known CPN (Maoist) leader Baburam Bhattarai, nobody would know his whereabouts.

They beat him for half an hour in front of his father, who had just had a stomach operation. Then the men, who addressed each other as “Captain” and “Major,” apologized to Prasain, put his gold chain back on his neck, and shook hands with him before they left.

This kind of arbitrary violation of human rights is what made the Swiss government, half a world away, lobby intensively for a resolution that would compel the Nepal government to accept assistance through the United Nations to monitor human rights inside the country. At the 60th session of the Commission on Human Rights, the Chair from Australia made a statement on April 22 binding Nepal to accept assistance in monitoring.

“Thanks to the efforts of like-minded donors, including UK and
Canada and the determination of Switzerland,” says Marcel von Arx, advisor on conflict and governance at Kathmandu-based SDC, Swiss Agency for Co-operation and Development, “the resolution has been adopted by consensus.”

He’s not the only person who’s relieved. Nepalis living under an increasingly repressive regime, as well as well-wishers and friends of Nepal, welcome the resolution. But the question remains: will the government follow up on it pledge?

“The government has already signed around 16 international conventions on human rights,” says Prasain. “How will they monitor this new commitment?” Prasain, who was unable to press any charges against the men who beat him up because he had no evidence, is painfully aware of the loopholes in implementing human rights law.

The beating that ended with a broken tooth and a handshake is symbolic of the inconsistency that dogs the government’s stance on human rights. These moves confuse not just international observers, but also Nepal’s own bureaucrats, making the process of implementing and monitoring an uphill task.

A 25-point paper that showed commitment to human rights, hastily prepared by the government to forestall the Swiss-sponsored resolution, was a predictable case of double-speak, none more apparent than in the way it was presented.

Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa, reading aloud from the paper on March 26, said that no arrests would take place at night. A day later, Home Minister Kamal Thapa went on record to say that the night arrests would continue. Tellingly, no implementing or monitoring mechanisms were included in the paper. Sushil Pyakurel of the National Human Rights Commission points out that almost a month after the paper was presented, the government has made no move to account for the whereabouts of 1,200 detainees.

The government has dealt with the dilemma of keeping its image clean in the international community by changing its spin according to the occasion. It instituted human rights cells in the Police and Army, but the cells have done only nominal work. It tried to replace the NHRC with its Human Rights Promotion Center, which diverted funds from the under-funded NHRC but has done little else.

The security forces, the main targets of large-scale Maoist attacks, are on the defensive. The Maoists recruit women, children and old people in their armed militias, making the security forces’ job difficult and dangerous. Detention facilities are in short supply, and legal proceedings rarely take place. Security forces cite logistics—the lack of detention facilities, for instance—as one reason for acts of impunity against Maoist suspects. The other is the lack of any legal or disciplinary proceedings.

Acts of impunity from the security forces have gone unchecked, with only token punishment for low ranking officers receiving high-profile media attention. Until January 2004, the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) Human Rights Cell investigated 18 cases. Only eight were human rights related. Court martial was recommended for four cases. The disciplinary action taken was in no way commensurate with the crimes committed, according to Amnesty International.

The government, which blames the insurgency for its failure to follow human rights norms, lobbied intensively to forestall the Swiss resolution in Geneva. It got help from the Americans, who put their weight behind them to scuttle the proposed resolution. “The U.S. delegate didn’t meet with us, even though delegates usually meet with NGOs,” says Mandira Sharma, a human rights activist with the Advocacy Forum. “We found out through other sources that they were planning to block the resolution. They said no documents
should come out, not even the chair’s statement.”

Since March, Foreign Minister Dr. Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, a career diplomat with decades of experience in shaping international public opinion, was dispatched by the government on a damage-control mission. In Geneva, as well as in meetings with various foreign ministers of European countries, Minister Thapa actively defended the Nepali state’s human rights record and blamed the Maoists for the continued violence.

Minister Thapa’s public relations tour came a few days too late, however—the Guardian newspaper had already termed Nepal one of the most repressive regimes in the world, along with Iraq and Israel. Amnesty International also brought out a report stating that Nepal topped the list of countries with the highest numbers of “disappearances.”

The Swiss-sponsored resolution may have passed in Geneva, but the challenge of implementation and monitoring remains. Donors, especially from European countries, have become savvy to the government’s obfuscation. “The government has said one thing and done another for far too long,” said one diplomatic source.

Others are more positive about the outcome. “What matters now is the follow-up. If we can achieve nationwide monitoring of human rights situation in line with international standards, carried out by reasonably independent body, such as the National Human Rights Commission, with the technical, financial, and staff terms of the UN system, I would be happy,” says Marcel de Arox of SDC.

Geneva is over, but a battle as significant is coming up in the National Development Forum (NDF) slated for the first week of May, when individual donors decide how much funding to allocate to Nepal.

“We are extremely concerned about the deteriorating situation of human rights in Nepal,” says Gert Meinecke, chargĂ© d’ affaires of the Danish Embassy. The Danes are one of Nepal’s largest bilateral donors. “In the long run, we cannot co-operate with a state which does not follow international norms of human rights.”

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