Nepal must reboot human rights, rule of law

Photo: Jan Møller Hansen

Sometimes it can feel as though Nepal goes through endless cycles that bring us back every time to the place where we started. Maybe we just need more years to look back and see the progress.

But up close, we seem to stand still. The present moment is like that. Consider these needs that remain urgent, yet have been forgotten:

- The need for independent commissioners to deal with the demand of conflict victims for transitional justice, and the permanent need of society for the rule of law

- The need for independent police accountability mechanism to deal with the way democratic rights are sometimes repressed, especially during this Covid-19 crisis

Both pre-requisites continue to be urgent if this country is ever to deal with impunity and the daily humiliations of injustice that go unanswered. But we have been diverted time and again by petty politics.

It is now two-and-half years since the elections that led to the creation of the Nepal Communist Party. Many saw this as a decisive moment, a time when we left behind our turbulent past and unified Nepal to bring prosperity.

Some saw an opportunity at last for a ‘peace dividend’. In the international community, many considered it as a harbinger of stability, which would allow them to finally fully implement development programs free from the disruption of war and political intrigue.

Very few were alert to the risks to human rights. It was almost as though political commentators and the diplomatic community shared the view that the political stability they thought was assured for the foreseeable future would automatically lead to a sudden respect for rights.

These days, the pandemic is occupying people’s thoughts. Nepal faces grave risk as the disease spreads, and there is an urgent need for appropriate and effective countermeasures. But even before this massive unforeseen shock to our society, political stability and respect for human rights was looking less and less certain. In the past few months the uncertainty is even greater.

One of the costs of ‘stability’ has been transitional justice. Remedy for victims of the conflict was put on hold after 2006, and especially two years ago, before the pandemic appeared on the scene. The promised truth commission has failed to deliver. Many of us had hoped that the truth telling process would be the foundation for institutional reforms in the justice system that had been put off year after year since the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) of 2006.

The marginalised in our society are denied access to justice, notably minorities such as Dalits and women victims of violence. Legitimate public protest is still met with harsh and excessive use of force by the police. Convictions in the courts still largely depend on confessions under torture and cruel treatment rather than proper, non-coercive investigation -- still a rare skill in Nepal to the shame of all of those involved in efforts to improve public security for all.

Political, social and economic instability have gone hand in hand with violation of basic rights. They are mutually supporting dynamics.

Since 2006, more and more Nepalis have come to rely on remittances from family members working overseas for their economic survival. This safety valve is now in doubt because of the economic downturn caused by the global pandemic.

The idea that political stability and prosperity would put an end to human rights violations was always a pipe dream. A society with such entrenched discrimination is always going to find consensus difficult, and end up resorting to violence and coercion to maintain the status quo, or to resolve inevitable disputes.

We can all agree that Nepal faces a difficult short and medium-term future. All human rights defenders now need to consider some key fundamentals:

- Political infighting in the leadership can easily generate protests and counter-protests where human rights violations are common

- The power struggle can impact political harmony at provincial and local levels which can lead to a higher risk of conflict

- The health and economic crises risk endangering social stability. Medical staff are already at the frontlines of disputes and must get full support from the state and civil society to help them carry out their tasks, which are a matter of life and death not only for their patients but for the whole country.

All this is also happening in a wider context of rising geopolitical tension between our two neighbours. On top of all the crises at home, we are now also living in a region which feels a lot less stable than it did a year ago.

If we are to come out of this crisis stronger, some lessons will need to be learnt, and fast.

Human rights defenders need to find better ways to work together and to set common agenda and activities which address the priority problems that our society is facing, including pervasive discrimination. Such injustice is real and corrosive, and most Nepalis suffer some form or other of discrimination every single day, wherever they live and whatever their occupation. Discrimination is like a ball and chain on the ankle of the country which slows our progress.

This should also be a moment of reflection for our international friends who in the past have given such valuable support for the peace process and the defence of human rights. As the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) international conference of 2018 indicated clearly, little or no progress has been made since the CPA on impunity -- the biggest obstacle in establishing genuine rule of law with equitable access to justice. Law and order cannot be maintained by harsh policing and ever more draconian legal restrictions on privacy and personal rights.

We need to learn from the crisis which is upon us after two years of false promises of stability and social peace. We are no nearer to our common goal of rule of law than we were 14 years ago.

Probably the most important step we can take once public health conditions allow, is to ensure that a genuine transitional justice process is finally implemented to mark the end of arbitrary governance and the end to impunity.

Our international partners have to give top attention to the fact that without rule of law, it will be hard to achieve economic development and investment. Respect for human rights is the foundation of Nepal’s economic progress and social harmony. We need our partners to be actively, constantly and transparently promoting transitional justice, human rights and rule of law.

The international community must make it clear to our leadership, with one voice, that they believe investing in Nepal is not an attractive prospect if a repressive and discriminatory justice system damages stability. The prospect of political stability does not remove the need for active promotion of human rights. The opposite is the case.

One good starting point would be for human rights defenders and the international community to strongly urge a proper selection process, with civil society participation, for the new NHRC later this year.

The same is true for the transitional justice commissions and the constitutional commissions. The crisis of political stability must lead to a reflection on the errors of the past two years and teach us that without active promotion of human rights there is unlikely to be much progress in any sector in Nepal.

With rule of law and justice, there will be progress. Without justice and respect for human rights, there will be nothing.

Mohna Ansari is Commissioner, National Human Rights Commission of Nepal.