Nepal: Time to act

Asian Human Rights Commission & Asian Legal Resource Centre

Nepal’s unparalleled human rights catastrophe is deepening. Since the release of the Asian Legal Resource Centre’s special report ‘The mathematics of barbarity and zero rule of law in Nepal’ (article 2, vol. 3, no. 6, December 2004) the country has been propelled further towards a point from which there will be no easy return.

With the 1 February 2005 takeover of absolute power by King Gyanendra, Nepal is now governed through his direct and secret orders. The military is being given free reign to improvise on these orders and act in any way it wishes to secure control. The Nepalese people learn of these orders only when their rights are being violated as a consequence.

With each day the situation is worsening. The lives of tens of thousands already under house arrest, in detention, and facing severe threats from the military are hanging in the balance. The security forces are hunting down opponents throughout Kathmandu. The number of persons under arrest is increasing. Mobs have been mobilised to attack alleged Maoists and spread chaos. Violence is escalating. Maoist rebels have many new opportunities to strike. People throughout the country are in a state of shock; in many parts they are altogether unable to grasp what is happening. A catastrophe of Cambodian proportions is not far off.

Supporters of democracy and human rights in Nepal have been put in an extremely vulnerable position. The fear of arrest has driven large numbers underground. Heavy controls are being imposed on travel both internationally and within the country. Lists are being maintained at international and domestic airports, and several cases have been reported of persons either not being allowed to board planes or being removed from planes after boarding.

On February 3 the Ministry of Information and Communication announced that all and any media reports opposing the takeover by the king have been banned. The arrest and detention of large numbers of democrats, human rights activists, journalists and students have thus not been reported. All independent media have been silenced. In Nepalgunj, on February 7 the instructions given to journalists were as follows:

1. Newspapers registered in Nepalgunj and that have been publishing regularly are required to publish remaining within the parameters of this notice, after receiving a copy of the notice.
2. No newspaper/ media should publish news that could adversely affect the country’s sovereignty, unity and peace and security.
3. Nothing should be published that would be against the Royal Family and the Royal Proclamation of February 1.
4. Do not publish news on the strikes called by the Maoists and their sister (frontal) organisations and about the human and material loss of the security forces and government offices.
5. It is alright to mention losses suffered by the Maoists in actions by security forces but do not publish information on accidental civilian losses other than what is mentioned in the statement issued by the government spokesman.
6. It is alright to publish information on civilian losses caused by the Maoists.
7. It is alright for the press to verify information on Maoist activities and movements obtained from various sources with the security forces.
8. It is alright to point out weaknesses and mistakes and irregularities at government offices after thorough testing (investigation) and where possible with proof, but do not publish unfounded (reports) that could assassinate the character and discourage government employees.
9. Do not publish information and activities of political (parties) and organisations related with them; publish activities of social, religious, economic organisations.
10. Do not publish news on the Maoists and other political organisations by quoting news and articles published or broadcast in foreign (media). Also do not publish news on activities of Maoists in Indian Territory.
11. Compulsorily make available, free of cost, one copy of publications for monitoring to the monitoring committee.
12. Abide by other directives of the Information and Communications Ministry.

These prohibitions speak to the growing repression and violations of fundamental rights in Nepal that the government is so keen to hide from global view. Among them are daily reports of new arrests, killings and forced disappearances and more recently, that military-backed mobs are being mobilised to engage in extreme acts of violence on the pretext of fighting Maoists.

The numbers of arrests are growing and the whereabouts of arrestees often unknown. Even the families of leading politicians have been denied access to the detained. Judging by the practices of the recent past, as described in our December 2004 report, in all likelihood the detainees are being tortured. The February 9 arrest of Krishna Pahadi, a prominent human rights leader, is indicative. According to an eyewitness, about five plain-clothed policemen led by an inspector entered Pahadi’s office and took him to their van waiting outside. A foreign journalist who was present in the office asked the police whether they had an arrest warrant and they replied that they did not; when asked the reason for the arrest the policemen were unable to give any. At the time of writing Pahadi was in detention under the Public Security Act.

The courts are completely unable to stop these arrests and disappearances. Already scorned by the security forces before the February 1 takeover, they are now completely powerless: even habeas corpus writs cannot be pursued with any efficiency. They are completely unable to address or prevent the prevailing and spreading lawlessness in the country. As a result, people have nowhere to turn to escape the abuses of the military and its accomplices. The National Human Rights Commission of Nepal is also without any power: its commissioners are themselves living in fear of their lives. When the mandate of the present commission expires in May, or perhaps sooner, it is quite likely that the king will install his own people in its stead. The primary task of any new commission thus comprised will not be to investigate and report on gross human rights violations throughout the country but to deny their occurrence.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has also heard that on February 17 a group of Maoists went to villages in Kapilvastu district in search of two people, one a retired sub-inspector of police. Once the Maoists left, an armed mob immediately gathered and proceeded to take retaliatory steps. The mob, though initially small in number, gathered strength to about 1000 people within a small time, apparently through the use of ‘Village Defence Committees’. It then dispersed into 21 villages, and over a number of days set to killing innocent people, brutally torturing and raping others, and looting and setting fire to houses. Reports confirm at least 30 murders-including lynchings-and the burning of 321 houses rendering at least 2,000 people homeless. In Shivapur village, members of the mob raped a 12-year-old girl named Sarita in public. A teacher from a local school reported the incident to the police. Immediately after, police went and took the girl and her father into custody; the teacher was threatened for reporting the rape. The government security forces did nothing to stop the atrocities. After the rampage, they disposed of dead bodies, pointing to their role in planning and organising the killings. It has also been reported that several people who were taken into custody for being alleged Maoist sympathisers were killed and their bodies also disposed of before relatives could obtain them.

Such methods of control through organised mobs are all too familiar in many Asian countries. In India, during recent decades countless mobs have been let loose while the police and military have watched. The violence and subsequent tension around the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992; organised attacks on Muslims in Bombay during 1993; and planned eradication of local Muslim populations by the state government of Gujarat in 2002 are but a few. After the 1984 massacres of Sikhs, collectively blamed for the killing of Indira Gandhi, the prominent Supreme Court Justice V R Krishna Iyer said that

When the history of Human Rights in India of our half-century comes to be written, the most blood-stained pages will be reserved for the three deadly November days in the life of the nation. Where is law? Where is justice? What is the truth? Lying dead in the streets of Delhi’s democracy? Where are the guilty? Untouchable and unapproachable in high offices? How can the highest in the executive and members of the Summit Court ever command, when mass casualty of human lives and rights remain a poignant interrogation?

Examples of this kind of army-backed mob violence can be found from virtually every part of Asia and many other regions as well. In Indonesia the unleashing of anti-communist mobs by the military caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in that country during the 1960s. As the perpetrators of those crimes ruled the country over the next three decades, Indonesian memory and identity has become so confused that until today recovery has been impossible. In Sri Lanka the mob violence against the Tamil population living in Colombo during the ‘Black July’ of 1983 is well known. Much of the extreme political bloodshed that was to come in the subsequent years had its origin in the horrors of that time. In May 2003 the military regime in Burma deployed mobs to brutally attack a convoy of democracy supporters in the north of the country; the true circumstances of the attack remain obscure; however, the newly-appointed prime minister of the country is purported to have been its mastermind.

State-sponsored mob violence is often introduced ostensibly to counter a perceived threat: communism, terrorism or otherwise. However, the real purpose is for the ruling group to destroy all opposition and obtain or retain absolute control. The consequences, whether intended or not, are rampant corruption and unlimited slaughter. A permanent state of chaos denies the establishment of a stable society functioning under the rule of law. Through destruction, a type of authoritarian anarchy prevails.

Nepal is on the path towards that type of anarchy. As its media are now completely controlled and many journalists are under arrest, the actual extent of violence is not getting reported to the outside world. The BBC and CNN do not have their cameras pointed on houses as they burn, or villagers as they are hanged. The continuous detention of political leaders of democratic parties, trade unionists, human rights workers and journalists has also failed to excite the attention of the international media.

Only a diseased mind could dream of reinstalling the absolute monarchy in Nepal. It is the impossible dream of a feudal autocrat. After a protracted popular struggle, just 15 years ago Nepal was transformed from an historically oppressive absolute monarchy into a democracy. The radical social change brought about by this political development cannot be undone by way of this takeover, except by eliminating all those persons whose loyalty to the king may be called into question, by massacres or otherwise. Such is the logic on which the takeover was predicated.

Strong positions and action taken by several countries, including India, some European Union countries and the United States, have had some effect in checking the king’s bloody ambition. During February, in a coordinated move, governments of the European Union and the United States recalled their ambassadors for talks. The recall was given support by the government of India, which informed the king through its ambassador that it would not support his takeover. The Indian Minister for External Affairs likewise stated that immediate steps should be taken towards the release of political leaders, journalists and human rights activists, as well as the freeing of restrictions on the media and restoration of multi-party democracy. But while international pressure has been able to restrain the king and military to a certain extent, it is unlikely that such restraint will last long. The coup was designed to eliminate all democratic opposition obstructing the king’s ambition for absolute power; democratic parties and their support base are now the prime targets.

Under these circumstances, the Nepalese middle class and professionals are also under threat. While many will try to flee the country, others may be subjected to arrest, imprisonment and killing. If Nepal goes the same way as other countries in Asia where large-scale human rights disasters have occurred it seems inevitable that in a very short period of time its middle class will be greatly diminished. This loss will affect all sectors of society, especially business. The skills and resources required for the functioning of an organised modern society will soon only be available through the military and its supporters. Nepal’s track record on corruption, already deplorable, will become much worse.

Serious intervention by the international community could change this situation. The initial steps taken by several governments should be transformed into a collective effort at developing a comprehensive strategy, which must then be implemented urgently. Without such action, before long the situation may deteriorate to an extent that no solution will be available, as has happened in many places in the world during recent years. The Asian Human Rights Commission has in the recent months almost daily stated that a broad international strategy should include the following:

1. All international aid to the country must be frozen.
2. The country’s seat in the UN must be suspended for having violated its charter.
3. All international ties with the Royal Nepalese Army and other security forces must be severed.
4. A UN envoy must be located permanently within Nepal so as to facilitate the return to democracy.
5. The state parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights should request the chairperson of the Human Rights Committee to convene a Special Session in accordance with rule 3 of its Rules of Procedure to discuss the present situation in Nepal arising out of the coup.
6. A UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Nepal must be appointed, and report on developments constantly.

These interventions should not be left to governments to initiate. The global human rights movement, as well as democratic bodies worldwide, must make serious attempts to understand the situation in Nepal and exercise pressure on their governments and communities to work out comprehensive diplomacy. Nepal must become a priority in the discourse of democratic and civil rights movements everywhere. Long before the king declared himself unquestioned ruler, many human rights organisations, including the Asian Legal Resource Centre and Asian Human Rights Commission, warned of what was coming. It is bitterly disappointing that no sustained meaningful discussion on the catastrophe in Nepal has yet begun even in the global human rights community itself. To date it has amounted to little more than some utterances of surprise from among a few persons in developed countries. The time for surprise is long past. All democratically minded people and organisations must therefore now play an active role to exert pressure for deeper involvement in Nepal by the international community, led by the United Nations. Time is short: it is time to act.

Appendix: Letter by the AHRC to the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions regarding grave threats to the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal

28 February 2005

Mr Kieren Fitzpatrick
Director
Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions
GPO Box 5218
Sydney NSW 1042
AUSTRALIA

Fax:  +61 2 9284 9825
Pages:  2

Dear Mr Fitzpatrick

RE: IMPENDING THREAT TO NHRC OF NEPAL DEMANDS URGENT RESPONSE BY NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS INSITUTIONS IN ASIA-PACIFIC

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is writing to you about the very grave human rights situation in Nepal. The AHRC is particularly concerned about looming threats to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Nepal, a member of the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions since August 2000. A concerted and energetic response from all national human rights institutions in the Asia Pacific, together with the NHRC of Nepal, is urgently needed.

Since February 1, when the king of Nepal assumed absolute power, the lives of tens of thousands have been hanging in the balance. The security forces have been hunting down opponents throughout Kathmandu. New travel restrictions have prevented human rights defenders and government critics from leaving Kathmandu valley. Two members of the NHRC Mr Kapil Shrestha and Mr Sushil Pyakurel have in recent days been among those denied their fundamental right to freedom of movement. With each day the situation is worsening.

The Asian Human Rights Commission is concerned that the NHRC of Nepal may soon be completely jeopardised. The mandate of the existing commission expires in May 2005. The law requires that a new commission be appointed only through the establishment of a committee comprising of the prime minister, chief justice, and leader of opposition in the house of representatives. Since the parliament of Nepal was first suspended in 2002 there has been no possibility that these requirements could be met. Additionally, all normal governance ceased when the king took over on February 1. The international community, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has stressed that the mandate of the existing commission should be extended until the requirements for a new commission can be met. However, there are persistent concerns that the king will disregard the law and replace the commission when its mandate expires.

Supporters of democracy and human rights in Nepal have been put in an extremely vulnerable position. They now face enormous dangers not only from the security forces but also from the Maoist rebels, who have many new opportunities to strike. The violence is expected to escalate. People throughout the country are in a state of shock; in many parts they are altogether unable to grasp what is happening. A catastrophe of Cambodian proportions is not far off.

The Asian Human Rights Commission earlier welcomed the recall of ambassadors from Nepal by the European Union and United States, and also the support given to this move by the government of India, which has informed the king through its ambassador that it will not support his takeover. The European Parliament has also called for sanctions against individual members of the regime. These initiatives back the sentiments of leading democratic parties, which have stated that they will not accept the increasingly brutal absolute rule by the king through use of the armed forces.

Democratic groups and human rights defenders in Nepal have put up determined resistance at great personal risk. Powerful governments are also mobilising against the king. However, he is unlikely to withdraw from power without continued strenuous efforts from both within and without the country. It therefore falls to the international community to take determined steps to ensure that multi-party democracy and respect for human rights are restored in Nepal.

It is imperative that the national human rights institutions of the region, through the Asia Pacific Forum, take a lead role in this effort. The Asian Human Rights Commission accordingly calls upon the Asia Pacific Forum to publicly and unequivocally

1. Condemn the wiping out of human rights and democracy in Nepal by the king as illegitimate.
2. Demand that the members and staff members of the NHRC of Nepal be permitted to travel freely and safely both within the country and abroad.
3. State that the Asia Pacific Forum will recognise the NHRC of Nepal only in its present form until such a time that a democratic government is restored and a new commission mandated in accordance with the law.
4. Commit the resources of the Asia Pacific Forum to protect the members and staff members of the NHRC of Nepal alongside all human rights defenders in the country, and call upon its member commissions to do the same.

If necessary, the Asia Pacific Forum should convene an emergency session to devise a strategy to address the deepening tragedy in Nepal.

Additionally, the AHRC reiterates its earlier demands to the international community, that

1. All international aid to Nepal must be frozen.
2. The country’s seat in the UN must be suspended for having violated its charter.
3. All international ties with the Royal Nepalese Army and other security forces must be severed.
4. A UN envoy must be located permanently within Nepal so as to facilitate the return to democracy.
5. State parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) should request the chairperson of the Human Rights Committee to convene a Special Session in accordance with rule 3 of its Rules of Procedure to discuss the present situation in Nepal arising out of the takeover.
6. A UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Nepal must be appointed, and report on developments constantly.

The AHRC adds that all travel restrictions on persons in Nepal must be lifted at once as in violation of the ICCPR, to which Nepal is a party.

On behalf of the AHRC, I urge you to act swiftly and decisively. Please also visithttp://nepal.disappearances.org for regular updates on the situation in Nepal.

Yours sincerely

(Signed)
Basil Fernando
Executive Director

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