Nepal again pledges progress on human rights if elected to UN council

The contrast between Nepal’s human rights promises and reality on the ground is glaring, but indications are that the country will be elected to a new term on the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva in October.

Rights groups have accused the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) is out to scuttle the transitional justice process, its failure to effectively investigate and prosecute violence against women and Dalits, the introduction of new bills designed to limit freedom of expression, including of the media, and proposals that further threaten the independence of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).  

Nepal’s rivals for one of four HRC seats for the Asia-Pacific region for the council’s 2021-23 term are China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. And Nepal’s human right’s record is the best of that lot.

On Wednesday, China and Saudi Arabia were no-shows for an online, civil society ‘pledging event’ at the UN in New York to quiz contenders. Amrit Bahadur Rai, Nepal’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, did attend and repeated promises on human rights, including LGBTQI rights.

“The Government of Nepal is committed to resolving the issues related to transitional justice based on the victims concerns, the Supreme Court’s directives of 2015, the various instruments to which Nepal is a party, the Comprehensive Peace Accord and the ground realities,” Rai told the online event.

“I’d like to assure all that there will be no blanket amnesty in cases of severe human rights violations committed during the conflict period,” he added during the event organised by Amnesty International and the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR).

Amrit Bahadur Rai

Rai said Nepal’s citizenship act is being amended to include a third gender, ‘Other’, and that people claiming it will not have to produce medical evidence of a change in gender. He added: “I would emphasise that we need to change our value set, our perception and our mindset, and the Government of Nepal will do more in promoting rights and protecting the rights of the LGBTIQ community.”

According to a scorecard produced by ISHR, Nepal got 9/18 human rights benchmarks while its closest competitor, Uzbekistan, reached 6/18.

Nepal loses points is in its dealings with ‘special procedures’, human rights experts devoted to specific issues, like torture or child rights. According to the scorecard, Nepal has not:

- issued a standing invitation to special procedures to visit the country

- responded positively to country visit requests (with fewer than five such requests outstanding)

- sent a substantive reply to more than 80% of communications received from special procedures

Earlier this year, ISHR New York Director Eleanor Openshaw told Nepali Times that cooperating with the experts is a sign that a country is serious about improving human rights, both at home and globally. “If you don’t cooperate that is unacceptable,” she said.

This week, Openshaw added: “Nepal faces influential challengers. However, it is a current member of the Council seeking a second term. When first elected in 2017,  Nepal received the highest number of votes for regional candidates. I would be surprised if Nepal were not re-elected.”

None of the western governments known to take an interest in human rights in Nepal contacted by Nepali Times earlier this year would reveal if they planned to support the government’s candidacy. However, it is rumoured that voting decisions are based on broader geo-political interests of UN member states, and the country groupings that they belong to.

Along with the scorecard, ISHR worked with Nepal’s Advocacy Forum, Blue Diamond Society and Collective Campaign for Peace to develop recommendations for Nepal. They include:

- Protecting the constitutional right of freedom of expression, and allow journalists to carry out their work freely and independently.

- Ensure human rights violations are investigated, including ensuring police register First Information Reports on cases of violations, victims are provided with remedies and perpetrators are held accountable.

- End gender-based violence and caste-based discrimination, and ensure effective implementation of the rights of women, indigenous peoples, Dalits, Muslims, Madheshi and sexual minorities as guaranteed in the Constitution.

- End excessive use of force by the police to impose the lockdown, physically assaulting people coming out of their home for an essential purpose such as health workers.

- Do not sideline the transitional justice process under the guise of COVID-19 and amend the Enforced Disappearance Enquiry, Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act, as required by the 2015 ruling of the Supreme Court and in line with international legal standards.

Fifteen of the HRC’s 47 seats are up for election next month, while just 16 candidates are in the mix. Only the Asia-Pacific region will see a competitive election — all other candidates will automatically get a place at the HRC table.

According to the UN General Assembly, when they are electing HRC members UN member states should take into account how candidates have contributed to the promotion and protection of human rights.

In June, Nepal released the pledges and commitments it promises to fulfil if elected. They include:

- Make every possible effort in addressing, through transitional justice mechanisms, the cases related to the violation of human rights during the conflict period

- Ensure the independence of the judiciary for the protection of human rights

- Foster the growth and development of a free media

- Continue to maintain a conducive environment for the operation of human rights defenders and civil society organisations

- Strengthen the National Human Rights Commission in the protection and promotion of human rights

- Fully enable all the constitutional commissions to fulfill their mandates effectively towards ending discrimination and creating an inclusive, just and prosperous Nepali society.

On her organisation’s website, Salma El Hosseiny, ISHR’s Human Rights Council Advocate, advises, 'Voting states should urge all of the candidates states to commit to implementing these concrete measures, and to ensure meaningful and broad consultation with independent civil society in the process.’

Pay up

Country representatives at the pledging event were asked to confirm that they would be making their annual payments on time and were encouraged to give voluntary contributions. One of Nepal’s rival for an HRC seat, Pakistan, announced a $50,000 open-ended contribution. Nepal, on the other hand, reminded the UN that it has an outstanding bill.

“The United Nations owes Nepal about US$38 million as a reimbursement (for its peacekeeping contribution), and if we do not get that reimbursement on time, we’ll have difficulty to send our peacekeepers on the ground. So we strongly urge all our fellow member states to pay their assessed budget in full and on time,” said Nepal’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Amrit Bahadur Rai.

What is the UN Human Rights Council?

- 47 States elected by the UN General Assembly

- Replaced the UN Human Rights Commission in 2006

- Holds multiple sessions in Geneva annually

- Members elected for three-year terms from five geographical regions

- Includes Universal Periodic Review, which examines the human rights records of all 193 UN member states once every 4.5 years

- ‘Responds to human rights emergencies and makes recommendations on how to better implement human rights on the ground. The council has the ability to discuss all thematic human rights issues and country-specific situations that require its attention.’

- The decisions of the council are not legally binding.