NHRC at the forefront in safeguarding human rights in SAARC, says Sharma
Anup Raj Sharma, chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), is also a former Chief Justice. Sharma says that the overall human rights situation in Nepal is not satisfactory even after the end of the armed conflict.
“There is an urgency to end the culture of impunity and injustice,” he said in an interview given to Arpana Adhikari of The Rising Nepal. He talked on diverse issues of rights issues, including the status of the implementation of the recommendations of NHRC and transitional justice, among others. Excerpts.
Some section of the international community has said that the HR situation is deteriorating in Nepal? What is your view?
The international community has not critically analysed the HR situation in Nepal. It has shown reservation about the role of the government in ending impunity. The government has hardly implemented the recommendations made by the commission. Its recent report on trafficking shows that there are a high number of human trafficking cases. Of them, only a few are reported, and even fewer criminal cases have been lodged against the perpetrators. Likewise, heinous human rights violation cases, like rape, are hardly reported. This is because the people are losing faith in the law enforcement agencies.
Why is do you think that the government is reluctant to implement the NHRC’s recommendations?
As per the government’s report, only 14 per cent of the recommendations were fully implemented, while 60 per cent of the complaints remained unaddressed. The government has only focussed on giving compensation to the victims. No government has prosecuted perpetrators who are civil servants, security personnel and cadres of the political parties.
The murder case of Godar in Janakpur was an example. The government is yet to file a case against those army personnel involved in murdering the five young men. Regardless of which party is leading the government, the ruling parties always protect their cadres, employees and the security agencies, and this is feeding impunity. Political instability and the prolonged transition have hampered the promotion and protection of human rights in the country.
There has been widespread concern that transitional justice has been intentionally delayed in Nepal. What are the NHRC and civil society doing to this end?
From the very beginning, the NHRC has forwarded a clear opinion on transitional justice. The Comprehensive Peace Accord, signed between the then CPN-Maoist party and the government, has made a commitment to end impunity. In 2015, two commissions have been set up to investigate into cases of enforced disappearances and human rights violation committed during the decade-long conflict. They are very slow to get their job done.
The legislation to operate the commissions is extremely flawed as it allows amnesty for certain crimes, creating loopholes for the perpetrators to get off the hook. Two years ago, the Supreme Court gave orders to amend some provisions of the Act related to Transitional Justice. But still the amendment proposal has not been tabled in the parliament. We came to know that the amendment bill was prepared, but the commission hasn’t had access to it. The authorities have failed to initiate meaningful investigation into the past grave human rights violations.
It is said that the two commissions have failed to come up with a concrete roadmap. What do you say?
The extended eight-month-long terms of the commissions will expire soon. I’m worried whether their terms will end without dealing with over 68,000 reported complaints of HR violations. The government has to be serious about this. In my opinion, there are three ways the government should take up. Firstly, it should amend the transitional justice Act according to the court’s order, formulate the Act related to disappearances and endorse the Act on torture that is in consideration in the parliament.
Since Nepal is a party to the Convention Against Torture (CAT), the transitional justice Act must be in line with international human rights standards. The laws should be victims-centric. Secondly, the government must allocate adequate budget to the commissions. Furthermore, the commissions must hold regular dialogue with the victims. The NHRC will certainly facilitate the two commissions in their work.
Some international reports show Nepal is a source, transit and destination country for men, women and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. Do you agree with this?
Yes, that is a serious state of affairs. The NHRC annually prepares a report on human trafficking. Our investigation has also proved this fact. The dimension of human trafficking has changed over the years. In the past, traffickers used to sell young, uneducated and poor girls from the rural areas in Indian brothels. But the destination has shifted now to the Gulf countries, East-African countries, China and many other countries. Trafficking is not only committed for sexual exploitation andcommercial purposes. It has now shifted to labour exploitation, organ transplant and domestic slavery. An international network has been active in this racket. The apathy of the state and outdated investigation structure of the police force have given rise to trafficking from the country. Even our border checkpoints are not well-equipped to control trafficking. Hence the sole effort of the government is not sufficient to combat human trafficking. Multilateral efforts are a must to do away with this.
How do you see the cabinet’s earlier proposal to roll back the criminal cases against 500 people who were accused of committing heinous crimes during the Tharuhat and Madhes movement of 2015?
Providing political protection to members of political parties in serious criminal cases obstructs efforts to address the impunity. The cabinet alone cannot withdraw this case. The Supreme Court has already quashed the government’s decision to withdraw the criminal charges.
There has been little progress on giving relief amounts to the earthquake victims. How does the NHRC see this situation?
Two years after the catastrophic earthquake, Nepal is still unable to provide relief to the victims. Even in the beginning, the government reached only those accessible places. The government has failed to reach out to the real victims, who were in dire need of humanitarian support. The government’s efforts to carry out reconstruction are very slow. The earthquake greatly increased the vulnerability of women and children to trafficking. The government should have considered the elements of transparency, honesty and HR perspective while tackling the post-quake phase.
In the past few years, the government passed a lot of laws to battle social ill-practices like Chaupadi, child-marriage and witchcraft accusations, among others. But the problem lies in the implementation. Do you really think that the government is determined to act and ensure the implementation of such laws?
Nepal has projected itself as a progressive one in terms of formulating new laws and signing international agreements when it comes to HR issues. Theoretically, we had made a big difference, but in reality the government has not taken significant action to implement the promises. Moreover, for lack of public awareness and participation, many laws have not been implemented.
The new constitution has failed to address the rights of thousands of Nepali who are without any official status and at risk of being stateless. How do you take this issue?
The NHRC is very concerned about this issue. There are many people in the Chepang settlement and other indigenous communities in the country who are deprived of official documents. The government shouldn’t consider it as a political matter, but instead it should issue citizenship to genuine Nepalis without showing biasness. There are many people who have been residing in the country for more than 50 years and have devoted themselves to the country, but are still deprived of citizenship. Nevertheless, those who can offer financial benefits to the officials can easily acquire citizenship in comparison to genuine citizens.
How do you overview the two phases of the local unit election in view of human rights?
The local level polls held almost in two decades were highly encouraging and peaceful. Except for a few incidents of violence, including clashes in some polling stations, the polling process remained peaceful. But something that upsets us was the polling stations which were not disable- and senior-citizens friendly. The EC had banned the operation of vehicles, due to which many of them were barred from casting their votes. Similarly, around 40,000 voters were deprived of their voting rights. The state should have created an atmosphere to help the overseas workers to cast their votes. Improvement in the ballot paper and vote counting are other issues that need to be dealt with.
How do you compare the human rights situation in the country with those of South Asian countries?
There is a network of human rights commissions of a total of 25 countries of the Asia Pacific, called Asia Pacific Forum (APF). Out of the 25 HR commissions, only 15 of them have been able to secure ‘A’ position, including the commission of Nepal, India andAfghanistan. The remaining are listed in ‘B’category. This classification is done on the basis of the human rights commission’s influence on safeguarding HR in their respective countries. In last year’s meeting of the APF, the role of the Indian commission was criticised badly. Considering this fact, we can say that Nepal is somehow at the forefront in the SAARC region in safeguarding HR.
What recommendations do you have for the government to improve the HR situation in the country?
Since the day I was appointed to the top post of the NHRC, I have been asking the government to implement the commission’s recommendations. This will be a major improvement, which will increase the people’s faith in the commission and law enforcement agencies. And it will also spread a positive message in the national and international arena.
Are any new initiatives being taken to safeguard HR?
The NHRC has initiated a few steps to safeguard human rights. The commission has prepared mobile units in collaboration with the media and the Nepal Bar Association for regular monitoring of the status of the earthquake victims. Similarly, the commission has prepared a framework to address the problem of migrant workers. For this, the commission has established partnership with the human rights commissions of the destination countries to safeguard the HR of the Nepali migrant workers. We are further extending a similar partnership with Malaysia and rebuilding partnership with Korea. Since the NHRC is a constitutional body, it faces no external barriers and interference. The only barrier is the government that is reluctant to implement its recommendation. This has directly affected the NHRC’s performance.