Nepali Times Asian Paints
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International (ir)resolution


MANJUSHREE THAPA


This week, several international human rights organisations met in Geneva to begin assessing Nepal's progress on human rights in anticipation of the 61st annual meeting of the UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) in March 2005.

The Swiss government had wanted to table an Item 9 resolution last March, but keen diplomacy on the part of the Nepali government and back-door lobbying by the American and Indian governments, had helped avert this. Nepal got a mere knuckle-rap in the concluding chairperson's statement, which condemned the Maoists' indiscriminate violence and appealed to the government to strengthen its efforts to ensure fundamental rights.
Human rights activists feel strongly that a resolution is justified this time, as state and Maoist violations have increased since March. Hanging in the balance next March is the credibility of the OHCHR in Nepal.

After the chairperson's statement, the OHCHR deputed a senior human rights advisor and two international advisors to Nepal last summer. They are working to strengthen training, monitoring and reporting within the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and also to finalise a memorandum of understanding between the government and the OHCHR on international monitoring of the commission's work.

Yet there is some disquiet among activists regarding the OHCHR's work here, and concern that it may have allowed the government to water down the original MOU, which called for extensive international monitoring. David Johnson, OHCHR's senior human rights advisor, confirms that the MOU has been revised to limit the number of international advisors to five, and place them under Nepali authority.

"This is not UN monitoring," he says. "It is national monitoring." He maintains that international monitoring would have been impracticable: "UN staff second to the NHRC would need UN security permission to move around, which might not always be forthcoming. Or maybe the UN security mechanism might decide to withdraw its staff. The NHRC wouldn't have control over international monitors."

Though Johnson says that the NHRC has agreed to these revisions - and has in October launched the UN's global support project to the international community, acknowledging as much - NHRC members, when contacted for confirmation, say that they do not know of any final agreement. The MOU, they say, is still shuttling back between the OHCHR and the government, and they have only heard rumours about changes made to its latest draft.

This kind of confusion has led to widespread speculation that the OHCHR has bowed to the government, which has consistently tried to undermine the NHRC. Lawyer Mandira Sharma says such misgivings may stem from simple procedural confusions, because the revised MOU remains unavailable for wide public scrutiny and discussion. "Nepali civil society has no idea what they contain," she says. "And this secrecy has sown mistrust."

But Satish Kharel, former Secretary of the Nepal Bar Association, says that the OHCHR's very terms here restrict it. "The senior human rights advisor works under the UNDP," he says. "And the UNDP cannot cross the national government and administration. Were the OHCHR's mandate independent, they could play a proactive role in protecting human rights. They can't do that as UNDP employees."

Critics maintain that while the UNDP's relationship with the government tends to be of uncritical support, it is incumbent on the OHCHR - given the country's poor human rights records - to establish a more bracing and dynamic relationship.

Several UN interagency missions have deemed that Nepal's human rights crisis has the potential to develop into a humanitarian crisis. Johnson worries about reports that local units of the security forces are pressured to report high body counts to prove their victory over the Maoists. "Their stated goal is to win the hearts and minds of the people," he says. "But we've heard the Maoists say that their best recruitment campaigns take place after the security forces come to the villages. The security forces are so abusive that they drive people into the ranks of the Maoists."

On the Maoists' side, the policy of forced abduction and indoctrination, including of children, also worries him. "Children can be extremely brutal, see things in black or white, do or die," he says. "The nature of the movement becomes more intense. You end up with young people who know nothing but brutality. And it becomes very difficult to stop this or rehabilitate these children." This, he says, is a new and frightening phase for the country.

Johnson believes that the government would benefit from more UN special procedures: "Having worked in many countries closely with the military and police, we in the UN, know that human rights are not an obstacle to their work."

It is not up to the OHCHR staff, but to its member states, to table resolutions at its annual meetings. The Geneva-based International Committee of Jurists' legal advisor Ian Seiderman says human rights activists are hoping that next March, the EU will take the lead in this: "While the Swiss did a good job last year getting what they did in the form of the chairperson's statement, they do not carry the same political and diplomatic clout that the EU does."

Seiderman adds that if the government delays international monitoring to the NHRC, an Item 9 resolution may be warranted. "But if by March the MOU is in place and OHCHR monitors are arriving in Nepal, then an item 19 resolution would be appropriate." Item 19 resolutions are reserved for countries that have improved their human rights records and have requested technical assistance.

How the international community responds next March is now set to become a test of its resolve - or irresolution - on Nepal's human rights crisis. Observers say that the US, India, UK and EU bear an especially heavy burden, given their major, even decisive, role.


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