While the Government of Nepal is taking pains to polish its human rights image internationally, its actions at home belie the perception of a global rights champion.
Nepal became a member of the revamped UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in 2018 for the first time, for a term running until 2020. On 27 February 2019, Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali addressed the HRC, telling it Nepal had embarked on the final leg of the peace process by extending the terms of two commissions: one on truth and reconciliation, the other on enforced disappearances.
The process would be guided by the Comprehensive Peace Accord of 2006, Supreme Court directives, international human rights commitments, victims’ concerns and ground realities, Gyawali assured the HRC.
Subsequently, the government put on an elaborate and insincere act to amend the Act, even asking representatives of the international community in Kathmandu for their suggestions. It was a ruse. As a result, on 12 April five HRC officials wrote to the government pointing out shortcomings in the truth and reconciliation process, including the ‘reported lack of impartiality, independence and transparency’ in the selection of new heads of the two commissions.
While the government takes pains to show the world that it is working for those who suffered rights violations during the 1996-2006 conflict, and their families, at home a proposed law threatens to weaken the national institution tasked with ensuring the human rights of all Nepalis — the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
A proposed amendment to the NHRC Act 2012 would require the rights body to have its recommendations for action against perpetrators of alleged violations vetted by the attorney general. This is despite the fact that the NHRC is a constitutional body, a status given in the Interim Constitution in 2007 precisely so that the NHRC can investigate alleged violations independent of government interference.
In fact, the 2012 NHRC Act contained the same provision, section 17 (10), until it was declared null and void by the Supreme Court on 6 March 2013, following a challenge by lawyer Om Prakash Aryal. The court ruled that as a constitutional body, the NHRC was capable and empowered to decide if a case should be pursued and that the attorney general could not overrule such decisions.
The revised Act, discussed by the parliamentary committee on law, justice and human rights this week, would reintroduce 17 (10) in slightly different wording, then go a step further by giving the AG the power to ask the NHRC to conduct criminal investigations.
Ironically, when Nepal was campaigning for governments to support its bid for an HRC seat in Geneva, it noted in a note verbale: ‘The National Human Rights Commission, established as an independent statutory body in 2000, has now been elevated to a powerful constitutional body with a commensurate mandate, competence and independence.’
And in his HRC speech in February, Gyawali called Nepal a ‘pioneer’ for mainstreaming the global rights agenda into its national policies and plans.
Yet since the NHRC came into being in 2000, just 12.5% percent of its 810 recommendations have been fully implemented, 48.3% were implemented partially and 39.2% are under consideration. Even those statistics are misleading as the only recommendations acted upon concern compensation — those calling for action against perpetrators have been ignored.
Notably, all political parties that have held power in the past two decades have failed the NHRC, including the opposition groups now railing against the proposed amendments.
The NHRC reportedly recommended 17 changes to the revised NHRC Act 2012, all of which were ignored in the version sent to Parliament. The root of the ingrained culture of impunity and lack of accountability in Nepal today is the many perpetrators who literally got away with mass murder in the past. While truth-telling and compensation are important, without justice being seen to be done, the peace process will never really be over, as we have seen with a Maoist faction still on the war path.
Now that victims are in agreement and the way forward has been clearly laid out by the Supreme Court and international law, what’s also needed to finally advance on transitional justice is a fresh slate of commissioners in both the enforced disappearances and truth and reconciliation bodies.
In February, Gyawali announced Nepal’s candidacy for a second HRC term, from 2021 to 2023. That election will be decided primarily on geopolitical considerations, but the Nepal government could help its own cause by finally addressing the demand for truth and justice so conflict victims and their families can have closure, and by ensuring the independence of the NHRC.