17 June, 2005

Towards A Global Network of Rights: The Experience of Nepal

The article was published in EUMAP, a publication of the Soros Foundation, and the newsletter of Forefront: A network of human rights advocates, a non-profit based in New York.

Sushma Joshi is a consultant with UNDP's Access to Justice program in Nepal and staff writer at the Nation Weekly magazine in Kathmandu

Electronic resources, particularly the Internet, have become a lifeline for many human rights activists around the world who otherwise do not have access to global information networks. Human rights activism centres around two kinds of work: the slow, day-to-day work of fighting for reforms on a larger scale, and a quick response to an emergency. In both cases, the Internet proves its effectiveness by linking people, providing information via reliable institutions and networks, and allowing momentum to build

Internet for Human Rights in South Asia

The Internet, as a medium of networking and advocacy, had already made important inroads in South Asia as early as in 1996. I saw the first Internet boom as the coordinator of the Global Reproductive Health Forum in South Asia, an exclusively Internet-based project that aimed to create democratic forums of discussion on health and rights over the World Wide Web. Started in 1997 and funded by Harvard University[1], the South Asia digital networking project was based in Kathmandu with members all over South Asia and in the North. Kathmandu’s Internet service provider (ISP) tapped directly into Singapore, thereby allowing speed and connectivity far superior to the government-dominated networks of India. The advanced technology made it easier to work with the large volume of data that we were sending back and forth between different continents. The list-serv service was provided free of charge by Mercantile, Nepal’s biggest commercial ISP. This allowed Nepal subscribers to receive the emails for free, pre-empting individual email charges.

Our biggest concern running this project exclusively on the Internet was the fear that we would be cutting out a large number of individuals and organisations without access to cyberspace. However, as we found out, a surprising number of grassroots NGOs in Asia, in spite of budgetary considerations, had quickly acquired the new technology and had learned how to use it. There were cases where a computer would be kept covered in a separate room, unused by anybody but the director’s children who would use it to play computer games (a real case!), but in general NGOs were making very good use of the new media to access networks, information and resources.

In 2001, I worked with Forefront[2], a New York based non-profit organisation that supports grassroots human rights leaders across the globe, including in south-east Asia. By this time, the Internet had become the driving medium behind communications with far-flung corners of the world. The petitions and advocacy appeals I drafted were most likely to be circulated over the Internet. Many of the activists that Forefront worked with did not have reliable or easy access to the Net, yet in spite of these difficulties, significant data, especially during emergencies, arrived first via the web.

For instance, BASE,[3] an organisation that works with former bonded workers[4] in Southern Nepal, was accused of harbouring Maoist sympathies and almost stripped of its non-profit status by Khum Bahadur Khadga, the then Home Minister of Nepal. On 5 April 2002, two days after The Kathmandu Post reported it, Forefront sent out an Internet petition[5] to the Prime Minister. Forefront’s site also allowed activists in the North to send online advocacy letters to key policy-makers. Partnering with the much more well-known Carter Center, Forefront’s international network was part of the pressure bloc that eventually halted the Home Minister’s order, which would have stripped BASE of its NGO status. In 1999, security forces burnt shacks that former bonded workers had put up in public land, and later Maoists also attacked BASE’s office. Information on both these incidents was first sent, received and publicised via the Internet.[6] Most significantly, Forefront and BASE activists had never met face-to-face: their strong relationship developed via email. In 2000, a year after meeting on the Internet, the two parties finally met: Forefront sent an advocacy delegation to Nepal, and BASE’s founder made several trips to the US.

Today, detained human rights activists can send out information about their unlawful detention in seconds, activating a giant global machine that will pressure even unwilling governments to release the individuals within a few days. Two human rights activists belonging to COCAP, a network in Nepal, were illegally arrested by the security forces on 4 June 2004. Their detentions raised an outcry over the Internet[7], and international as well as national petitions forced the government to release the activists within a day.

In 2002, my friend and fellow anthropologist Sara Shneiderman and I decided to start a list-serv that would provide impartial information on the human rights situation in Nepal. Our aim was to gather and publish hard-to-find information on the civil conflict, virtually impossible to access outside of the country. NepalWatch[8], the list-serv, has become a clearinghouse that provides postings from different Western and Nepali media regarding the current situation. Amnesty International regularly posts its petitions to release individuals who have been unlawfully detained or “disappeared” in Nepal, raising awareness of the issue. Updates and dispatches from Maoist organisations are also posted, providing international observers with information from both sides of the conflict[9]. Discussions on the conflict flare up, often in acrimonious ways, reflecting the ideological differences of the users. And yet people stay and continue to participate. Journalists use the list-serv to keep abreast of developments in Nepal. Academics use the list-serv for research and networking.[10] The list-serv remains one of the few providing consistent updates on the conflict.

The Internet not only enables individuals and groups from North and South to keep up-to-date on crucial developments in human rights: it enables groups in the South to connect to each other in a more direct way, and without Northern groups as the key base of supporters—(expertise and advocacy letters in support of BASE came from all over the world). The Internet allows groups to work together in a meaningful way in coalitions; and it enables people who are interested in specific issues or topics to get involved as "armchair activists" in ways that can have a substantial impact. Advocacy letter-writing has been around since Amnesty was formed in the 70's, but the Internet has drastically changed the amount of pressure we can place on governments and non-state actors.

Challenge: Managing Information

In March 1998, through the Global Reproductive Health Forum, I started Bol![11], a list-serv providing information on health and rights in the subcontinent. The list-serv eventually grew to reach 600 daily subscribers. I found that the biggest questions centred around content, format, and inclusion and exclusion of subscribers. Which information was useful, and which was not? What did our users want – information or active discussion? Job listings or funding sources? In the end we decided to go for a mix of content where information was tempered with discussion, at the moderator’s discretion.

The other big question was the e-community.[12] Should we target the list-serv towards specific groups only, for instance grassroots organisations, and leave out a larger audience, for instance international organisations? In the end, we went for an inclusive model that incorporated activists and individuals at all levels, believing that the flow of information from disparate sources would be useful for everybody. Of course, a list-serv that is not specifically directed towards a specific target group can lose focus. However, the feedback I received let me know that most users would simply track their Bol! emails into a folder, and skim through the contents to see which was of interest to them, deleting those that they deemed not useful.

The biggest decisions regarding content was authenticity. Judgement calls had to be made every day regarding postings. Users sometimes left the list-serv after a controversial posting. For instance, I chose to post an email about how some South African health bureaucrats believed that AIDS was a Western conspiracy, and how because of this anti-retroviral drugs were being denied to pregnant women.[13] I believed this was an important piece of cultural information, one which would have a vital impact on how AIDS would be dealt with in South Africa. A health practitioner sent me an angry email accusing me of misinformation and then left the list.

However, these were isolated cases; most of the time, users engaged in productive discussion which informed their work and allowed it to move in new directions. Most subscribers were very satisfied with the information they received, even though they had to find a way to deal with the flow of information in a way in which it was personally useful.

Internet for the Future

Because of its power - its immediacy, its capability to reach a critical mass on the other side of the world within seconds, and the ease of usage - the Internet remains unparalleled as a medium for networking amongst human rights activists. Newer media will arise and be used in activism. For instance, the use of cell-phone text messages was reported as a way activists kept in touch with each other during the protest marches in New York, allowing them to react quickly to police presence and violence.[14] But the Internet will always remain first, primarily for those working on a global level. For an activist detained in a Nepali jail, having a colleague hit “Send” on an email message can mean the difference between life and death.

The usage of the Internet will become more creative as the technology improves. No longer will we be confined to text, but photographs, video and sound of human rights documentation will find their way onto the Internet. New wireless technology will enable instantaneous broadcasts from the ground. Improvement of broadband and cable technologies will allow faster transmission of video footage. The authenticity of the information will be as difficult to verify, but this should not be a reason for shutting off the flow of information.

The international community needs to galvanise itself on a local and global level and put its energy and resources on making this new media available to the widest populace, especially those working in civil, political and social rights. Putting the Internet in the hands of a human rights activist, and teaching them how to use it, may become as proverbial as teaching a person to fish for living. Of course technology breaks down, keeps updating and is often imperfect in its application. There is no way a small grassroots organisation working with bonded workers in Nepal could keep up with the latest technological updates. But as a media activist who has seen and used the power of the Internet, I believe that people overcome these difficulties with surprising ingenuity, taking a small gift to make it grow.


[1] See: www.hsph.harvard.edu/healthnet/SAsia.

[2] See: www.forefrontleaders.org.

[3] BASE is an acronym for Backward Society Education. Their website is: www.msnepal.org/partners/base/.

[4] A system under which generations of families were forced into slavery and servitude to their landlord-debtors through debt bondage.

[5] The letter is archived at a public discussion site: ((www.strategypage.com/messageboards/messages/76-107.asp))

[6] Forefront, Internal communication, 2001-2003. For more information, please contact Lesley Carson, former director of Forefront, at forefront@forefrontleaders.org.

[7] The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) appeal is accessible at: www.ahrchk.net/ua/mainfile.php/2004/693/.

[8] See: groups.yahoo.com/group/NepalWatch/.

[9] Archives are available at: groups.yahoo.com/group/NepalWatch/. You have to be subscribed in order to receive daily postings.

[10] A significant base of NepalWatch’s subscribers are academics from Europe and North America.

[11] See: www.hsph.harvard.edu/healthnet/SAsia/discussion/discussframe.html.

[12] A community of members sharing an Internet space bounded by common interest.

[13] For more information on this debate see: www.overpopulation.com/articles/2000/000043.html.

[14] Wireless phones were used to broadcast information as news broke on the streets. The coordination of protesters who reacted to police presence via wireless phones was reported by Jeremy Scahill from Democracy Now! in a forum titled Can we do better than Anybody But Bush? at Cathedral of St. John the Divine on 30 August 2004.