Monitoring human rights violations seems to have taken a back seat as activists are embroiled in a controversy over the appointment of new members of the National Human Rights Commission.
A coalition of 25 human rights organisations have vowed never to work with the NHRC unless it changes new members inducted last week who they say are "too old, incompetent and pro-government".
One of the new members, Sudeep Pathak of the rights group HURON, rejected the allegations. "If there's any sign of the authorities interfering in our work, then I'll quit on the spot," Commissioner Sudeep Pathak told us, "The question is do we need the commission or not? I respect the issues raised by my colleagues but they have to understand that the members will work as mandated."
The international donors who support the NHRC have expressed misgivings about the new appointment procedures. But Pathak said the Commission's work would be monitored closely by the UN. "There are thus understandable concerns about the independence of the new Commission and the extent to which it will be able to develop the essential confidence of NGOs and victims," Ian Martin, chief of UN human rights monitoring mission in Nepal, told us. Lack of support from donors could hobble the work of the NHRC which depends mostly on their money.
The government appointed the foreign minister, chief justice and speaker of the dissolved house as members of the selection committee. Nayan Bahadur Khatri was re-appointed chairman and other members include former Supreme Court Justice Sushila Singh, former election official Ram Dayal Rakesh, journalist Gokul Pokhrel and Sudeep Pathak (being sworn in, above).
One of the first initiatives NHRC took during its establishment in 2000 was to call on both the government and Maoists to declare a truce. It also played a key role in pressuring the government to allow UN human rights monitoring in the country. It investigated the army's massacre of 19 people in Doramba in 2003.
But the NHRC's clout and morale weakened considerably after the dissolution of the House in 2002 and the commission was also ridden with factionalism. After February First, NHRC members have been barred from travelling to different parts of the country.
"Our members were strong enough to hold off state control," asserts former member Kapil Shrestha, who thinks the commission's main problem was one of leadership and disunity. The NHRC's first priority will be to restore trust with activists in the field since it depended on their grassroots network for monitoring work.
"We have already decided to stop sharing our information with the commission. This amply proves our dissociation with it," said Gopal Siwakoti from the group, Himrights.
The NHRC also seems to be at risk of being ostracised by international and regional human rights bodies. "The whole process of reappointment has isolated the NHRC," says Subodh Pyakurel from INSEC who is lobbying with foreign groups to send a fact-finding mission to Nepal to look into the new commission.
However, such international lobbying has been criticised as washing Nepal's linen in public. Said one activist who declined to be named: "Let the NHRC prove itself, why criticise them before they even start their work?"
ICRC suspends visits
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which specialises in monitoring the conditions of prisoners of war has put on hold visits to detainees at army barracks in Nepal.
It says the Royal Nepali Army (RNA) is not complying fully with an agreement on the conditions for the visits. "We have visited persons detained by the RNA since December 2002 and we had some problems as far as the respect of the ICRC's worldwide working modalities for and with detainees are concerned," Friedrun Medert, ICRC's Delegation Head in Nepal, confirmed. "We have discussed these problems with the RNA and we felt that the steps it took were not sufficient to redress the situation."
Under its rules, the ICRC is allowed to inspect all the premises of a detention place, meet every detainee, register their names and talk to them in private. The Geneva-based group is also allowed to offer detainees a message exchange service with families and make repeated visits to check if the detainees have been put under pressure after previous ICRC visit. Medert described these working modalities as a "package deal" but refused to go into detail as to which one of the provisions were not respected by the RNA.
ICRC deals directly with the highest army authorities to present its findings with the aim of improving the situation of the detainees and making sure they are protected from disappearance, abuse, torture and psychological anxiety. It does not question the right of the authorities to detain someone but underlines that, while in custody, they must be treated humanely and according to the spirit and the letter of the Geneva Conventions.
"The RNA knows that we work in a confidential way which means that our findings are shared with the detaining authorities only. We do not know the reasons why our cooperation was at times hampered," explained Medert.
Even now, ICRC continues to visit detainees in the district and central jails, police stations and rehabilitation centres of former Maoists who have surrendered to the army. But the suspension of its visits to army barracks is causing serious concern among human rights activists and family members of prisoners. Although ICRC has experienced problems in the past with the army, this is the first time that it decided to temporarily halt its visit to army barracks.