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More ‘Can & Must be Done’ to Eradicate Caste-Based Discrimination, Says UN Rights Chief

The Author, is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE, a not for profit in Nepal*.
Shocked over the killing of five men in Nepal, who had planned to escort home one of their girlfriends from a higher caste, the UN human rights chief stressed that ending caste-based discrimination is “fundamental” to the overall sustainable development vision of leaving no one behind. May 2020

People walk down a street of shops in Kathmandu, Nepal. Credit: World Bank/Peter Kapuscinski

KATHMANDU, Nepal, Mar 11 2021 (IPS) - There is hardly a better way to promote human rights in Nepal than celebrating Muskan Khatun for being one of the winners of the prestigious International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award, released on the International Women’s Day by the Government of the United States of America.

As an acid attack survivor, Khatun, despite her young age, turned herself into a courageous advocate. Her work, together with many of her peers, themselves victims, was instrumental, in pressing the Government of Nepal to enact tougher regulations against the perpetrators of acid and burn violence.

With Kathun being rightly celebrated as an icon, will now the government be able to match the same level of commitment shown by her and many others victims of human rights abuses?

It should be the case as Nepal has been recently re-elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, UNHRC, a prestigious position that the country could leverage to become a global trendsetter in upholding and promoting human rights.

In occasion to the recently held 2nd cycle of the Universal Periodic Review, UPR the only human rights accountability mechanism at global level, the Government has projected a very confident self-image, depicting a fairly positive picture on status of human rights in the country.

While it is unsurprising for a Government to push forward such narrative, the reality is much more complex and less optimistic than depicted.

It is true that at legislative and policy levels, an array of actions have been taken, mostly centered on the introduction of the new National Penal Code of 2017 and the Criminal Procedure (Code) Act of 2017.

Through these changes, previous provisions in matter of persecution of human rights abusers, especially in relation to sexual abuses, have been toughened and brought closer to the international standards.

Yet while it is important to recognize such steps, more should be expected from a member of the Human Rights Council like Nepal, a country that highly upholds democracy and pluralism in its Constitution and is often seen as a success story in terms of post conflict national reconciliation.

The areas where the country needs to step up its commitment, bridging the gap between rhetoric and facts on the grounds, are certainly not lacking. It is not only the perennial issue of transitional justice, since years in a stalemate that reflects the fears and insecurity many top political leaders feel about being held accountable.

“It is a countrywide effort to advance truth and justice that the state must facilitate as a collective process involving communities, political and religious leaders, and citizens” shares Madhav Joshi. In absence of political leadership, the only option to move forward the peace process rests with survivors and victims’ families and other activists.

Removing the existing roadblocks in restorative justice, ensuring culprits are brought to book might help shifting gears in other human rights dimensions that warrant urgent attention.

Nepal, for example, did not ratify yet the Convention against Torture nor took any action in relation to its Optional Protocol, a consequence of the existing situation in dealing with its conflict. The new Criminal Code, approved in 2017, extended prison terms to a maximum of five years but as explained by Amnesty International in its recommendations to the UPI, this is not enough.

“Punishments are not proportionate to the gravity of a crime under international law. A separate anti-torture bill, pending in Parliament since 2014, fell short of international legal requirements”.

In addition, the new provisions are comparatively weak especially in relation to a six-month limitation period to file complaints as “under international law, acts of torture must not be subject to a statute of limitations” as explained by a consortium of leading international and national human rights organizations.

As consequences, tortures are still too common in detention, reports Advocacy Forum-Nepal, a leading human rights organization. Those paying the highest price are members of minority groups like Dalits that end up being disproportionally targeted despite an amendment to the Caste Based Discrimination and Untouchability (Offence and Punishment) (CBDU) Act that increased the minimum sentencing to three months.

The situation clearly reflects stigmas and perceptions that are so rooted and common against members of other minorities, including persons with disabilities, LGBTQ community that face discrimination on daily basis.

We can notice a trend: improvements in the law that, despite their deficiencies, should have an important impact on the ground, are not able yet to bring tangible results in the reduction of human rights abuses.

Exemplary is the case of sexual abuses and gender violence: there have been positive legislative developments in the areas of rape and sexual abuses but the statute of limitations, extended to one year, is still “too short and fosters impunity for the crime of rape” as explained Human Rights Watch in its submission for the recently concluded UPR cycle.

At community level, there are still too often accidents including rapes and grave abuses that often remain unresolved like in the case of the murder of Nirmala Pant. The gap between action at legislative and policy spheres and lack of progress on the ground can be explained by the levels of implementation of the previous recommendations provided to Nepal in the previous UPR cycle in 2015.

“The majority of those concerning enforced disappearance, extra-judicial killings, impunity and transitional justice, remain unimplemented” is explained by TRIAL International, Human Rights and Justice Center and the THRD Alliance.

This is certainly a record that should not belong to a country who is for a second consecutive term in the UNHRC. The fact that the National Human Rights Commission has been crippled by a serious lack of cooperation from the Government in fulfilling the vast majority of its recommendations is worrisome and dangerous.

It is evident that enforcement is the real issue and the partial steps in the right direction should not overlook a culture of impunity that remains hard to be eradicated where abuses continues, many going unpunished.

Amrit Bahadur Rai, Nepal’s permanent representative to the United Nations as reported by the Kathmandu Post shared that the re-election of Nepal to the Human Rights Council “is also a recognition of Nepal’s efforts in protection and promotion of human rights both at home and across the globe, including through our peacekeepers,” If Nepal wants really become a torchbearer of human rights in its own country and around the world, then it must do more. Victims turned into human rights defenders like Muskan Khatun are surely going to remind the government of is responsibilities.

As for the case of more stringent regulations to punish the perpetrators of acid and burn violence, where the citizens were the ones who played an indispensable role in propping up the Government, holding it accountable, human rights defenders and members of the civil society are the ones that must remain engaged and vigilant.

They must be helped and supported.

The international community should step up their approach to human rights, helping keeping the government of Nepal accountable to its obligations, supporting it towards becoming a beacon for human rights standards.

*Simone Galimberti writes on volunteerism, social inclusion, youth development and regional integration as an engine to improve people’s lives.


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