What compelled NHRC to lobby against a UN agency, which is supposedly here for support?
Kamal Raj Sigdel, The Kathmandu Post, July 14, 2009
Nepal's human rights defenders stand at a very uncomfortable position today. Their failure to address a number of problems that have festered for the last four years has weakened the position of the all human rights institutions in situation where noncompliance and impunity keeps rising.
The key institutions such as National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Nepal are at loggerheads with each other over their mandates. The former has expressed disappointment over the government's decision to extend the term of the latter. One wonders as to how these institutions would work together under such circumstances for the next one year, in the least.
This is an embarrassing situation, especially when the country is undergoing the most critical phase of post-conflict transformation. The defenders which also include civil society are working to their own peril by failing to work in sync.
NHRC's aversion to OHCHR is a case in point.
As per the agreement between them, the latter has the mandate to build the capacity of the former. But the reality is different. NHRC believes that it has significantly upgraded its capacity to replace the UN rights body. This is what NHRC brazenly told the Prime Minister on June 26 while arguing that OHCHR is redundant. Ironically, NHRC is now embroiled into a serious internal problem due to a controversial recruitment drive, which the Supreme Court has already stayed. Despite all this, NHRC believes that it will be in a better position once OHCHR leaves.
But the question is why? What compelled NHRC to lobby against a UN agency, which is supposedly here for support? The reasons NHRC has supplied to show OHCHR redundant such as an improved rights situation and OHCHR's infringement on the constitutional authority of NHRC are not the whole story.
The underlying problems are somewhat different and OHCHR is equally responsible for the present awkward situation.
There are at least four issues the monitors have to address immediately, without which they are unlikely to gain strength.
First, there is a serious technical problem on resource sharing. The reality at present is that most of the available international funding on human rights is funneled down to I/NGOs and OHCHR leaving NHRC dry and starved. As a result, NHRC, which receives a scanty budget from the government, cannot fund much of its costly and complicated investigations, attract or keep intact capable staff in its offices, and collaborate with civil society, which for obvious reasons run after OHCHR.
It is high time the stakeholders worked out a mechanism for resource sharing keeping NHRC at the top priority because, like it or not, it is the only national organization which will stay permanently to monitor the rights situation. NHRC should also upgrade its capacity to compete for international funds, for which OHCHR could help.
Second, although OHCHR's exit policy should keep NHRC at the top priority so that by the time OHCHR leaves, NHRC should be technically and financially capable to fill the vacuum, this is not happening. NHRC officials claim that nothing tangible has improved in NHRC due to OHCHR's presence in the past four years.
OHCHR should strategize an exit policy. It is not the mercy of government that should keep the UN rights body here but the actual need of the country and the time-bound operation to fulfill it. In the past couple of months, OHCHR became unnecessarily timid hoping for mercy from the government, especially the Maoist-led one. It kept mum during several instances of serious rights abuse by the Maoists, which drew scathing criticisms from the CPN-UML.
Third, the rights monitors should resolve the problem of "overlapping mandates," which encouraged NHRC to lobby against OHCHR. The Guidelines of Operations signed between the two institutions to that effect does not seem to have resolved the problem. It's been almost five months since both the parties have been unenthusiastic about working out a plan to implement the guidelines.
Fourth, the rights monitors should realize and brush up their weaknesses. NHRC overestimated its capacity when it claimed last week that OHCHR was redundant because it (NHRC) was capable of taking control of the situation single-handedly. Worth noting not a single recommendation from NHRC to the government to punish officials involved in serious human rights violations has been implemented. NHRC is yet to gain full political independence and that won't happen until the system of appointing its members based on political affiliation stops. So far as the human rights NGOs are concerned, they are even more divided along political lines Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and the UCPN (Maoist).
Besides addressing these problems within the monitoring institutions, one thing the government should do is allay the neighboring countries' fear that the presence of OHCHR in Nepal would prove harmful to them, particularly in relations to the Tibetan refugee issue concerning China and India's ongoing crackdown on the armed groups operating in its Bihar and other bordering states in India. Rights activists claim that the pressures from south and north are also one of the factors behind weakening presence of UN rights body and tensions with NHRC.
Whatever the reasons, it's time the rights monitors came together to sort out the problems and to move forward synergistically, for the challenges ahead are daunting.
Posted on: 2009-07-14 02:10:59 at The Kathmandu Post (WWW.ekantipur.com)