Nepal must work on human rights

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday wrote a letter to Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, urging him to uphold the rights of Nepali citizens and strengthen the rule of law.

Recent reports have revealed that the pandemic has decreased institutional delivery by half, increasing risks of premature birth, stillborn deliveries and newborn deaths, setting back Nepal’s past gains in maternal and child care.

Additionally, reduced family income coupled with prolonged school closures has pushed many Nepali children into labour, with projections that half of the girl students may not rejoin schools once they reopen. Child marriages are on the rise.

“The new government should take measures to safeguard and continue progress on health and education, including through assistance for households whose livelihoods have been devastated by the pandemic,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Safety nets are critical for ensuring that crises do not prevent children from continuing their education or harm progress on reducing child marriage and child labour.” 

The letter paid special attention to pressing human rights issues pertaining to Nepal’s failures in addressing war crime and transitional justice.

In 2015, Nepal formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons. A year before that in 2014, the Supreme Court scrapped provisions in the transitional justice law that allows amnesty for offences including torture, murder, and enforced disappearance during Nepal’s armed conflict. The law has not been revised.

Successive governments have stopped conflict-era cases from being heard in regular courts citing the supposed transitional justice process, even as victim groups and Nepali human rights organisations have long questioned its credibility. 

But their protests seem to have fallen on deaf ears, one of Deuba’s first acts in office was to extend the terms of transitional justice commissioners by another year.

“Successive governments have stalled on delivering justice to victims for the many grave cases of abuse, preferring to protect the abusers instead,” adds Ganguly. “As a result, abuses continue while principles of accountability, the rule of law, and the independence of institutions have been eroded, with negative consequences for everyone in society.”

Nepal has made little progress in investigations of human rights violations at home despite being re-elected as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. This has had a corrosive impact on wider principles of accountability and the integrity of institutions.

Of late, Nepal has seen a marked increase in alleged extra-judicial killings, custodial deaths allegedly from torture, and the excessive use of lethal force against protesters. In fact, the NHRC in October 2020 published a list of 286 suspects of serious crimes that included law enforcement officials, military personnel, and former Maoist insurgents that police had refused to investigate.

A culture of impunity has undermined the rule of law, there is no accountability for abuses of power. Instead, they continue to climb up the bureaucratic ladder, like the promotion of a police officer alleged to be involved in the extra-judicial killing of two men in August 2018. 

Justice and relief for survivors of sexual violence during the conflict is even more difficult to come by. On the other hand, families of six young Dalit men murdered in Rukum in May 2020 —among the deadliest instances of caste-based killings in Nepal, still await justice. Those linked to the death of a 12-year-old girl forced to marry her rapist in May 2020 have yet to be held accountable.

The HRW has also called on the Deuba government to reverse appointments made to independent institutions like NHRC and the Election Commission after the Oli government pushed an ordinance amending the law in December 2020 to allow only three members of the Council to make appointments.

There are numerous other pending challenges such as the 2006 Citizenship Act, provisions in the 2015 Constitution, and a draft citizenship bill that limits women’s ability to transmit citizenship through marriage. The bill is similarly discriminatory against Nepal’s transgender people.

The HRW also opposed restrictions on the freedom of religion, rights to peaceful assembly, expression, and association of Tibetan refugees in Nepal who have fled Chinese persecution.

Says Ganguly: “Prime Minister Deuba faces many pressing problems, but he also has an opportunity to craft a positive legacy. Meanwhile, Nepal’s international development partners should press the government for measurable action on accountability if they hope to achieve change.”

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