Keeping the momentum: human rights defenders in Nepal and challenges for EU action

An interview with Mandira Sharma, Advocacy Forum Nepal

Q: Tell us about the human rights situation in Nepal and your work there.

Until 2006, Nepal faced a ten year civil conflict which involved extrajudicial executions, torture, violence against women and girls and the use of children in armed forces. In 2001, Advocacy Forum started to monitor and document violations of international law at community level. But due to the state of emergency, new anti-terrorism legislation and an ongoing climate of insecurity, it was difficult to do this as well as our advocacy work. Many local NGOs could not speak out at the national level. As the space for human right work began shrinking, we called for international monitoring missions in Nepal. Other international organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Right Watch and International Commissions of Jurists, started supporting our call. We wanted to make sure there was a record of what was happening. We did a lot of lobbying and advocacy at different levels as there was little interest and knowledge about the situation in Nepal.

Advocacy Forum sent many cases of enforced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial killings to different UN special procedures such as the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances (WGEID), and the Special Rapporteurs on Torture. In 2004, the WGIED issued a report recording the highest number of new cases of disappearance in Nepal. The Special Rapporteur on Torture also said Nepal was a key country of concern. This helped us to put Nepal on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council, which led to a Human Rights Council resolution on Nepal, which in turn led to a mission of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR). This was our success story. Our work contributed to the establishment of the largest-ever OHCHR mission in Nepal.

In 2005, the European Parliament also put out a resolution on Nepal highlighting the serious human rights situation. 

There was a heavy load on our shoulders as we were the main organisation doing systematic monitoring and documentation of human rights violations. We also had to roll out legal aid programmes for the many people who were arbitrarily detained, tortured or disappeared. We were threatened and accused of supporting terrorists because we provided legal support to detainees.  We were also accused of being paid to tarnish the image of the country.

Still, the presence of the OHCHR monitoring missions, and the political pressure from EU and other countries, helped to boost the morale of civil society and human rights defenders (HRDs). Soon after, a political deal was forged among the major parties, bringing political change to the country and ending the ten-year-long armed conflict. After the conflict, our work continued and benefited from the expanding space for civil society organisations. These groups pushed all sides in the conflict to keep human rights in a central place on the agenda during the political transition. The peace agreement promised to deal with impunity, human rights violations, as well as the need for constitutional reform and social re-structuring. We were initially happy and encouraged but the next steps proved challenging. For example, the peace agreement promised that within 60 days of its signature, the fate of the disappeared would be revealed. This promise has yet to be fulfilled even though eight years have now passed.

We started to support victims by pushing ahead investigations into conflict-era crimes. It was a way of testing commitments as well. The police refused to look into the cases involving their own colleagues and high-ranking officials. It was a long legal fight and continues to be so. We started with a case of a fifteen year old girl, Maina Sunuwar, who was arrested and disappeared. She was the daughter of a woman, Devi Sunuwar, who had been a witness to an extrajudicial execution. We worked on this case in such a way that everyone in the country would know about it and it could be representative of many other cases of a similar nature. We took this case all the way to the Supreme Court. There are hundreds of similar cases but often people don’t believe things until they see them.

At first, the military agreed to an inquiry into her disappearance, but said the girl had been shot during an attempt at escape. But when we challenged this and the case was re-opened, it emerged that she had died in the army barracks. There was evidence she had been tortured to death. Confidential military documentation showed that she had been subjected to simulated drowning and electric shocks but the paperwork showed that she had died of bullet injury when trying to escape. Her dead body had actually been shot, and then buried in the military barrack compound. This was one case of a positive ruling from the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2007 that the police should investigate. But despite the evidence, there has never been a prosecution, neither for Maina Sunuwar’s disappearance nor for the extrajudicial execution her mother witnessed. There is a standing arrest warrant against four accused, but they have not been arrested yet. All are considered “absconders” even though one of them is still serving in the military.  This was the first case that was brought to challenge state officials for human rights violations. We have now filed over 120 cases of the same nature. For the international community, we believe these cases serve as indicators of the progress made in addressing the human rights deficit in Nepal.

Q: What implications does work like yours have for you and other human rights defenders, and for the victims

The consequences of raising such a case include huge pressure on the person involved and their family, to the point where they may need to leave their village or take on new identities. It is a constant battle. I have had friends leave the country and relocate abroad.

Several times, I have found myself threatened as well. Once, I was told I was on a list of targets to be “finished” by the state army. Another time, a close colleague of mine working with me on sexual violence cases was told to drop his work or he would be killed. Another time, I was invited to a meeting with an official in the army. He accused human rights lawyers and activists of supporting terrorists with these cases. At one point, he showed me my name on a list of human rights activists, saying the list belonged to the operational division of the army, and he could not control their actions against me. I was listed as one of three enemies of the nation, against whom physical actions were called for by the public. 

Q: In your view, what is the role of the EU and EU member states in protecting and supporting HRDs

Despite the threats, I believe that I have not been touched because of the strong contacts I have in embassies who understand the importance of our work and the threats that we face. For example, one of the UK ambassadors invited us to a meeting where the Nepali military were present. He openly offered his support, anywhere and anytime, in their presence.  This kind of support sends a message to the authorities that the security of HRDs matters. It also helps us to continue our work.

The EU has a leading role to play on human rights in Nepal. Human rights need to be institutionalised within the EU institutions and delegations. Today, much is lost when there is a high turnover of staff and new people arrive. Years have passed and experience has been gathered, so we should be going forward – not backward! To keep the momentum, human rights need to be mainstreamed within the EU delegations.

How can this be achieved

A few thoughts…. First, there need to be enough staff with sufficient financial and political backing to work on human rights and with HRDs. Second, actions need to be stepped up. EU work on HRDs should not be limited to two or three meetings per year; protection of HRDs should be mainstreamed. Any high level visit or delegation – any political dialogue – should include discussion on the situation of HRDs. The EU could also initiate dialogue with Nepal on why there is no national legal framework yet for HRDs—something that hampers our ability to bring a case when HRDs are under threat. Third, it is crucial to analyse and understand the factors hindering the work of HRDs in Nepal. In particular, impunity undermines the rule of law and public confidence in government and institutions. Work against impunity has to be at the centre of the EU support to the many defenders at risk. Finally, there needs to be stronger coordination of EU efforts by the EU delegations or by other contacts in the representations of the member states.

For several years now, there has been an EU working group on HRDs in Nepal. It is supposed to assess the security situation of HRDs and recommend action. It was active in the beginning and we felt empowered by this. But then this mechanism was not given the attention it required. People need to feel they get concrete returns from engaging. We have constantly recommended that the EU delegation and embassy staff visit HRDs in rural areas to give greater visibility to their work, so this kind of action can only be reinforced. It is good to disseminate the EU guidelines on HRDs, but there is an urgent need to support the work of those people who are in the line of fire.

Read more on what the EU can do to protect HRDS here