Interview | ‘The human rights situation in Nepal is still far from satisfactory’: Nirajan Thapaliya, Director, Amnesty International Nepal

'Unless we keep laws above anything else, above anybody else, including even the most powerful in the country, the fight for ending impunity will continue to remain a mirage.'

NL Today

  • Read Time 13 min.

Amnesty International at the global level is the largest human rights organization with over 10 million members and supporters. Amnesty International Nepal (Amnesty Nepal) is one of the 69 Sections of Amnesty International. Nepal is the only country in South Asia where there is a Section of Amnesty International.

Amnesty International Nepal has been continuously advocating, fighting for and raising awareness among people for the protection of human rights, including the rights of the citizens.  However, Nepal’s human rights situations are far from satisfactory, according to Amnesty International’s recent report. In this context, Nepal Live Today caught up with Nirajan Thapaliya, the Director of Amnesty International Nepal, who has the experience of working as a human rights officer with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal, UNDP and other I/NGOs, to discuss various aspects of human rights situations in Nepal, the evolution of Amnesty International Nepal and its vision and priorities for the days to come.

To start off, can you tell us how Amnesty International Nepal was born? How did this organization evolve? 

Well, it’s a long story. Amnesty International, as the largest human rights movement, was started by a very few conscientious individuals in 1961 who took injustices suffered by others deeply personally. A British lawyer Peter Benenson, who was outraged to read the news of seven years’ imprisonment to two young Portuguese students simply for toasting to freedom, wrote an article entitled “The Forgotten Prisoners” in The Observer calling the world population to join what was then called the “Appeal for Amnesty” campaign launched to secure the release of all those who were unjustly detained or imprisoned merely for who they were and/or for what they believed in.

In Nepal, it was Nutan Thapaliya, who in 1969 conceived the idea of bringing the activism of Amnesty International to Nepal after having met some of its founders in London. It was a time of oppression and restriction with the then Panchayat regime severely cracking down on people’s right to freedom of expression, dissent and political activism in Nepal. Several hundred political activists were languishing in jails simply for believing in or subscribing to a political faith or ideology. Several political activists who later became Nepal’s renowned leaders—BP Koirala, Rup Chand Bista, Girija Prasad Koirala, Sher Bahadur Deuba, Modnath Prasrit, Ganeshman Singh, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai—were then Amnesty’s prisoners of conscience a term Amnesty uses for those who are arbitrarily imprisoned, often incommunicado and without fair trials, for who they are or what they believe in.       

One of the events in 1990 where Amnesty members in Nepal were talking about the revival of the Amnesty section in Nepal.

Although Amnesty activism was brought in Nepal in 1969, Amnesty Nepal was recognized as a Section of Amnesty International only in 1972. Founder Nutan Thapaliya and the Amnesty supporters in Nepal had jointly agreed to choose former foreign Minister Rishikesh Shah as the first Chair of Amnesty Nepal. He was later arrested in May 1977 on sedition charges. Due to extremely difficult civic space including a heavy crackdown on freedom of expression, opinion and assembly, and other internal difficulties, Amnesty could not survive as a Section for long. It was dissolved in 1982 by the international executive committee. The members and supporters of Amnesty in Nepal, however, continued their activism in whatever form and manner was possible in the context.    

Following the restoration of democracy in 1990, Amnesty supporters in Nepal regrouped, and with support from the international secretariat, a coordinating structure was formed. The Amnesty movement in Nepal was again recognized as a Section in 1993. Since then, Amnesty Nepal continues to function uninterrupted. 

‘Several political activists who later became Nepal’s renowned leaders—BP Koirala, Rup Chand Bista, Girija Prasad Koirala, Sher Bahadur Deuba, Modnath Prasrit, Ganeshman Singh, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai—were then Amnesty’s prisoners of conscience.’

As a human rights movement and organization, Amnesty Nepal is the oldest and first in the country. It is therefore also often known as a school for human rights activism in Nepal. Many members and supporters who were part of this movement went on to serve prominent roles in the government and intergovernmental organizations. Amnesty Nepal’s founder Nutan Thapaliya was elected as a member of the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the 1990s. It was also in the early 1990s that Nepal ratified most of the core UN human rights treaties for which Amnesty Nepal played a big role. 

That sounds pretty inspiring. What are some of the challenges or the hard times the AIN faced in the course of its journey? 

Organizations, once they are born, grow very much like living things. They have their highs and lows and their ups and downs. Amnesty Nepal is no exception. When Amnesty Nepal was a Section in the 1970s, the difficult civic space including severe restriction on free speech, expression, assembly and association had a heavy toll in its existence as a Section. 

When it emerged as a Section in the 1990s, Amnesty Nepal grew, expanded and achieved great results. As a people-powered movement based in Nepal, Amnesty Nepal also truly reflects the Nepali society—the polarizations, the factions, the diversity of opinions, the differing viewpoints and differing thought processes including vestiges of feudal and patriarchal mindsets. One of the ills that plagued Amnesty Nepal as it grew in the first decade of the second millennium was that its governance was heavily controlled, dominated and manipulated by a handful of people. There often emerged confusion and tussle between the governance and operational aspects of the organization. The lowest moment in the life of Amnesty Nepal was in 2015 when nine of its executive board members resigned under heavy pressure from one of its former Chairs who wrongly, and in a personalized way, took offense with Amnesty’s human rights based call to follow due process, and respect the right to life and dignity of a dissenting political leader who now heads a mainstream political party. 

‘As a human rights movement and organization, Amnesty Nepal is the oldest and first in the country. It is therefore also often known as a school for human rights activism in Nepal.’

Amnesty Nepal continues to evolve from such crises, learning, growing and becoming bigger, bolder and more inclusive each day. Amnesty Nepal is also reforming its decision making processes as it grows. In September 2021, a Special General Meeting amended its Statute to include members from its Youth Networks and the constituency of Supporter/Individual members, who constituted half of its nearly eight thousand members, in its decision-making processes including the General Meeting. 

On April 1 and 2 this year, Amnesty Nepal concluded its 30th General Meeting in Dhulikhel, Kavre electing a fairly inclusive Board headed by the youngest ever Chair not just of the Section in Nepal but of the entire Amnesty movement in the world. 

What are the priority areas of work of Amnesty International Nepal? 

Amnesty’s major campaign in the early phase of its inception was to secure the release of the political prisoners and “prisoners of conscience”. Amnesty later started working on a campaign against death penalty. Then on a campaign against torture. It was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for its defense of “human dignity against torture”. It was also awarded the UN’s Human Rights Award in 1978.   

Although Amnesty focused its human rights interventions in the areas of civil and political rights in its early phase, Amnesty now works on a “full spectrum” of human rights issues ranging from civil and political rights to economic, social and cultural rights (ESCRs) to rights of minorities, disadvantaged and the historically oppressed and marginalized groups. 

In Nepal, our priority areas of intervention and engagement include issues related to both civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights. Freedom of expression, opinion, association and assembly, also known as the civic space is an area where we keep our focus. We also continue to work in collaboration and partnership with the victims’ community in Nepal to press for their rights to truth, justice and reparations. We also focus on issues around gender and intersectional justice. We raise our voices to end all forms of discrimination, violence and injustice against women, children, minority groups, Dalits, indigenous people, marginalized and the LGBTIQ+ community.

Access to land, housing, food, health and social security are critical human rights issues in Nepal, and we continue to work on these issues bringing factual realities to the fore and recommending measures the government should undertake to address the gaps. Rights of the migrant workers has remained a long-standing issue in Nepal as Nepali migrant workers suffer abuses and injustices both at home from domestic recruiters, and at the destination countries at the hands of their employers and the abusive, hostile and unfriendly system. Several research and campaign works we have generated since 2010 call for the government to regulate the foreign employment recruitment practices, ensure and facilitate access to justice to the victims and hold accountable those found guilty of abusive practices.   

Climate change is now becoming a serious human rights issue as it is already disproportionately affecting the most marginalized and vulnerable people in Nepal. Due diligence and a human rights based approach should be the key to any mitigation and adaptation measures that the government undertakes. This is a challenging area of work and we keep our eyes open. 

How does Nepal compare with other countries in the region in terms of safeguarding the rights of the citizens? 

Nepal is comparatively a freer society in the South Asian region. Since the restoration of democracy in Nepal in 1990, we have achieved good progress in terms of freedom of expression, opinion, assembly and enjoyment of our basic civic liberties. However, the enjoyment of the economic, social and cultural rights continues to be a longstanding issue due to several factors including systemic poverty, inequality, discrimination and exclusionary practices so rampant at various levels of our governance and societal order. The political upheavals and changes have no doubt brought about a great level of awareness among people, but the State has yet to undertake several legal, policy and infrastructural initiatives to fulfil these rights. The Constitution of Nepal 2015 is fairly progressive and rights-friendly as it guarantees a broad range of fundamental rights. The duty to “respect, protect and fulfill” these rights rests on the government. 

How does AIN collaborate with the government agencies while carrying out its works? 

Everything we do is transparent. We are registered with the district administration office, and the Social Welfare Council (SWC) where we submit our annual work plan, budget, impact reports, and audited financial accounts. The SWC undertakes periodic monitoring of our activities, governance and overall organizational health. 

We announce and make public all of our reactive actions including by informing the authorities in writing. For example, if we are to organize a rally, we pre-inform the local administration, wherever that may be, of our plan including the route of the rally and the expected number of participants.

When we undertake research on a particular human rights issue, we invariably speak to the government stakeholders listening to their perspectives, trying to identify obstacles, gaps and measures required. Before we make our researches public, we consult with the government stakeholders regarding our findings, conclusions and recommendations. We may also accommodate some of their inputs if that does not defeat the very purpose and objective of the report. 

Once our reports are launched, we also keep engaging with the government stakeholders through various campaigns to pressurize and influence them to act towards taking measures to address the problems identified in the research report.  

Amnesty International’s recent report shows that Nepal’s human rights situation is rather bleak. What contributed to this situation? 

The human rights situation in Nepal is still far from satisfactory due to various reasons. Nepal suffers from a systemic problem of impunity, bad-governance and corruption. This has given way to a poor state of rule of law, and the weakening of public institutions which otherwise should have served as the guarantor of people’s rights. The gap between the haves and have-nots is rising. Access to justice is a longstanding issue. There is no easy, fair and equitable access to basic services such as health, education, housing and food. To make it worse, there is also a huge gap between what the government commits to do and what it actually delivers. Inadequate or flawed laws, regulations, policies are one thing but the bigger problem is basically non-implementation or poor implementation of whatever measures are already in place. 

According to your findings, what are the key areas in which the government has failed to safeguard the rights of the citizens? 

The government has failed the victims of conflict by delaying and diluting their calls for truth, justice and reparations. The victims of enforced disappearances have been waiting for over 20 years simply to know the truth of what happened to their loved ones. The government has also failed the poor, marginalized and disadvantaged community in Nepal. The landless squatters and informal settlers continue to live under constant fear of forced eviction. The daily wage earners and migrant workers suffered the biggest brunt in the aftermath of the economic crisis from the Covid pandemic. The government is yet to take steps to address deep economic inequalities including by creating job opportunities within the country. The climate crisis is further aggravating this situation by disproportionately affecting the people in the margins. 

Your organization also works to safeguard the rights of the refugees in Nepal. What is the status of refugees in Nepal? 

Amnesty International launched a global campaign called “I Welcome” from 2016 until the end of 2019. The aim of this campaign was to generate public pressure on governments who had turned increasingly hostile towards refugees and migrants fleeing their homelands for safety and better lives. The campaign achieved some good impacts in creating safe and legal routes for refugees, and in mobilizing public opinion across the globe. Amnesty continues to build on this work in the existing context of global pushback against migrants and refugees. 

Nepal currently does not have a huge volume of refugees as does Poland due to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine or Bangladesh due to the Rohingya crisis. But we did have a similar scale of crisis in the 1990s when hundreds of thousands of Bhutanese were chased away from Bhutan. The Bhutanese refugee problem is now more or less addressed with the third country settlements although some outstanding cases continue to remain. Nepal also hosts several thousand Tibetan refugees who arrived in Nepal in the aftermath of the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959. 

‘In Nepal, our priority areas of intervention and engagement include issues related to both civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights.’

Refugees from some African countries, and lately from Myanmar have also arrived in Nepal. These refugees face a lot of challenges as they are here without any legal status, and are forced to work and sustain under harsh and exploitative conditions. 

Nepal has not yet ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Protection of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, which we call on to ratify. 

What are the key barriers to the protection of citizens’ rights in Nepal? How can those barriers be broken? 

There are several barriers. Some of these have been touched upon above. Impunity for instance. Weak rule of law, and weakening state institutions plagued by extreme political interventions are not helpful in securing and safeguarding people’s rights. We should also talk about the structural barriers such as the kind of societal set-up we have in Nepal with deep patriarchy and feudalistic mindset. Poverty, inequality, exclusion and historical injustices are yet to be properly addressed.

‘Nepal suffers from a systemic problem of impunity, bad governance and corruption. This has given way to a poor state of rule of law, and the weakening of public institutions which otherwise should have served as the guarantor of people’s rights.’

Systemic reforms of public institutions by allowing them full autonomy and independence with accountable governance is a way to move forward. The State should also walk the talk rather than pay lip service in terms of translating the constitutional guarantees to its citizens on an equitable basis. A mapping of comprehensive action plans with adequate resources to lift the people out from systemic poverty and inequality could be a step towards this. In addition to the constitutional “paper guarantee”, there should also be an enabling environment for people to claim, access and enjoy their rights. 

Nepal has a number of legal instruments to safeguard the rights of the people. But often those legal instruments remain unimplemented. Where is the gap? 

Nepal has ratified seven of the nine core international human rights conventions and their additional protocols. According to Nepal’s Treaty Act 1990, the provisions in these instruments are enforceable “as good as laws”. Nepal has also taken quite a progressive domestic legal arrangements including through the constitution to safeguard the rights of peoples. Where the problem lies, as you rightly say, is in the lack of their honest implementation. The institutional drawbacks including lack of capacity and resources is one thing, extreme politicization is another thing. This has often led to lax commitments on the part of the political leadership and a lethargy and disenchantment on the part of the bureaucracy to not only work on the implementation frameworks such as the delegated legislations, regulations, procedures, and guidelines but also to sincerely design and implement programmatic interventions that give effect to these instruments. So, things need to be looked at holistically. It’s not only about fixing laws and policies, it’s also about fixing behaviors, mindsets, practices and value systems.  

What are the key areas of work for your organization in the days to come? 

There are several areas that we will potentially focus our attention in the days to come. We will continue our advocacy and interventions to address the culture of impunity in Nepal that is at the root of many of the human rights problems in Nepal. This relates to serving truth, justice and reparations and holding accountability not just on the human rights violations committed during the conflict but also on those that were committed before and after the conflict in Nepal and on those that continue to happen. We have to remember and serve justice to the victims of all past violent incidents in Nepal. Khoku Chhintang and Sukhani victims for instance, or the victims of Gaur massacre, or those of the Madhes aandolans. There were several extrajudicial killings committed by the state security forces particularly in the Tarai region in the name of curbing armed groups there which the UN’s Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights and others have very well documented. Justice needs to be served in each of these cases. Only then can we think of a system based on rule of law, equality before law and the equal protection of all by the law. 

Practice of torture is still the area where Nepal should improve. We have cases of several deaths in custody even today. How these deaths happen in the safety and protection of state guards is mysterious. Police usually say these deaths are the result of suicides. But how can suicides be possible under the eyes and ears of the state? If they happen, then it’s the state’s weakness or rather the state’s incitement or abetment. 

Gender and intersectional justice is another area where we will continue our focus. Discrimination, violence, intolerance and homophobic behaviors against women, Dalits, LGBTIQs, minorities and indigenous community persist. These can be addressed with strict enforcement measures as well as awareness campaigns and human rights education. 

‘In addition to the constitutional “paper guarantee”, there should also be an enabling environment for people to claim, access and enjoy their rights.’

Climate justice is also an area where we are paying attention to in the coming days. People are being disproportionately affected not just by the impacts of climate change but also by the mitigation and adaptation measures that often tend to be insensitive to human rights values and principles.

We will also continue monitoring peoples’ access to health, housing, food and decent conditions for work. The rights of the migrant workers is the area we will not give up keeping our focus on. 

Impunity remains a big challenge in Nepal. How can that challenge be overcome? 

Impunity has been a culture in Nepal. Deeply entrenched culture of impunity means that we are not a rule-based society or rather there is no rule of law but rule by law. To address the culture of impunity, our society has to be a law-abiding one. And the laws have to be abided by all—the ruled as well as the rulers. In Nepal, laws have been mostly flouted by those in power and privilege, or the loopholes in the laws have been interpreted, or misinterpreted rather, to mostly favor those in power. This has to change. The law-making process involves politics, but the law-implementation process should exclude politics at all levels. Politicization of crimes, and the instrumentalization of law to favor those in power, privilege, imminence or wealth is the biggest of all challenges in Nepal. Unless we keep laws above anything else, above anybody else, including even the most powerful in the country, the fight for ending impunity will continue to remain a mirage.