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Are human rights in Nepal a thing of the past?

By Kyle Knight: This week it was revealed that Nepal has quietly passed a new that may indicate a bleak future for human rights in the fledgling Himalayan democracy. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Act, which was signed into law by President Ram Baran Yadav in January, contains changes to the structure of the commission.

“The new act is regressive,” says Kathmandu lawyer Om Aryal, who reviewed the legislation.

Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission was established in 2000. Its brief: “to undertake or cause to be undertaken research in the field of human rights, and evaluate the existing human rights situation of the country.”

Six years after the end of a decade-long internal armed conflict, and in the process of drafting a new constitution, Nepal has struggled to deliver on accountability for human rights violations that took place during the conflict – including killings and enforced disappearances of civilians.

Strong message
The establishment of an independent commission during the thick of the conflict sent a strong message about Nepal’s commitment to progress on human rights.

“Activists in Nepal fought hard to get the commission established,” explains Mandira Sharma, chair of Advocacy Forum, Nepal’s leading human rights NGO.

“At the beginning, its presence made a big difference in our work – it gave us a partner with a lot of power, a place to go with our cases,” Sharma says.

Uncertain future
With the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) officially ending substantive operations in Nepal this month, increasingly the burden of human rights monitoring will shift to the NHRC. However with changes to the fundamental functions of the rights commission, observers are questioning whether it will remain a meaningful institution in the future.

Among the deletions from the previous NHRC Act is the provision that the commission can be housed in a separate building, away from other government agencies and ministries. Some argue that this change symbolizes a much broader erosion of the commission’s independence.

“Under the new act, a troubling amount of control of the commission is yielded to the executive branch,” explains Pema Abrahams, programme associate at the Asia Foundation and author of a recent opinion article that identified several items of concern, including new policies that all commission expenses must be approved by the government.

Stronger commission

Chairman of the NHRC, Gauri Pradhan, says he doesn’t believe the new act weakens the commission significantly, but that it could have been written better.

“The commission has already asked the government and parliament to ensure our independence, just like it ensures the Election Commission’s independence,” he says.

Pradhan also asserts that there are elements of the new act that strengthen the commission: “Under the new Act, if the Government of Nepal doesn’t follow NHRC recommendations on holding human rights violators accountable, the commission has the right to publish the violators’ names.”

However activists disagree, and claim that the act might be motivated by the Maoist-led government’s desires to decree a blanket amnesty for crimes committed during the conflict.

Impact on foreign institutions
In addition to these new restraints on the internal functions of the NHRC, Aryal believes, the new act will – contrary to the interim constitution – impact on foreign institutions’ work on human rights in Nepal. “If foreign institutions come to Nepal to work on human rights, the NHRC has to give approval for their activities,” he explains.

Activists hold up the government-ordered departure of OHCHR as an example of unwillingness to engage with international organizations on human rights.

Six months
And in perhaps the hardest blow against Nepal’s citizens reconciling grave acts committed during the conflict, under the new act all violations must be reported within six months of their occurrence.

Nepal’s geography can make travel difficult and expensive. Seasonal rains often wash away lengths of road, making transport impossible for prolonged periods. In the world’s seventeenth poorest country, travel expenses to file a case in Kathmandu might require victims to save money for extended periods of time.

What is more, the trauma of reporting a violation may also slow the speed with which it can be filed.

Of this statute of limitations, the Asia Foundation’s Pema Abrahams commented: “It is widely recognized that it takes time before victims of human rights abuses are psychologically capable of moving forward to file complaints and provide accounts of abuse.”

“There are many factors determining how soon a survivor will share his or her story or experience of violence,” explain counsellors at Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO-Nepal). “Some survivors can take years to build rapport, gain confidence, and tell their stories.”

Advocacy Forum reports that they have several cases pending that have not been filed for years because the victims are not ready to undertake the process.

Public concern
While the new act went relatively unnoticed until last week, public concern is brewing.

“When the government arm of the human rights movement is weaker, lacks independence, and can’t work on actual issues in a realistic way, people will lose trust in the system,” worries Aryal.

Activists report they are discussing taking a case to the Supreme Court to challenge the act in the near future.

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