Nationalism vs human rights

  • Nepal wants aid from the international community, but not criticism of its rights record

May 24, 2016-

The recent editorial by The New York Times unsurprisingly brought about divided opinions among the Nepali people, continuing the trend that was witnessed during the arrest of journalist Kanak Mani Dixit and the cancellation of the visa of Canadian national Robert Penner. Some appreciated the write-up for being hard-hitting and truthful whereas others took it as another attempted unfair criticism by the international community. Likewise, a report by Human Rights Watch was criticised for being ‘biased’ by some groups including Nepal’s intellectual community. Similarly, the attack on Mohna Ansari after her remarks at the 31st session of the Human Rights Council generated conflicting reactions. 

Thus, for some, advocacy of human rights has become synonymous with supporting external intervention. However, they do not understand that human rights and nationalism are not two opposite values but complement each other, as it was Nepal’s sovereign decision to ratify the multilateral treaties on human rights, and abiding by those principles does not undermine its independence. Human rights function under the principles of universality, indivisibility and inalienability. Article 51 (b) (3) of the Constitution of Nepal obligates the state to pursue policies related to “implementing international treaties and agreements to which Nepal is a state party”. Section 9 (1) of Nepal Treaty Act 1990 states that the provisions of those treaties shall be enforceable to the same extent as  Nepali laws. 

Rights in Nepal

When the international community pressures countries like Nepal to adhere to these norms, it is immediately termed as ‘foreign intervention’ and many perceive it to undermine the country’s sovereignty. Furthermore, the principle of state sovereignty is cited to justify the restrictive protection of human rights in Nepal. Be it the ‘unlawful’ detention of Kanak Mani Dixit or the exercise of ‘freedom of expression’ by Robert Penner, the international community’s outrage has been criticised by many. Nepal, as a sovereign state, made a conscious decision to ratify various human rights treaties. Also important to note is that it did not express any reservations about any part of these pacts. For example, Pakistan expressed reservations about Articles 3 and 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which means that it is not obligated to ensure equal civil and political rights for men and women.

The ratification of the treaties led to the mushrooming of international aid agencies or INGOs in Nepal that aimed to ensure their implementation. It is no secret that they have not achieved all their objectives. The Millennium Development Goals are a perfect example of where Nepal witnessed significant improvements in some sectors like health and education, and unsatisfactory results in some sectors like sustainability of the environment. The Maoist conflict and following human rights violations attracted more human rights organizations to Nepal. Subsequently, the cessation of hostilities, signing of the peace accord and decision to write a new constitution attracted even more human rights organisations desiring to facilitate the peace process.

Conservative narratives

In an attempt to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights in Nepal, some Western organisations did try to impose the so-called ‘universal’ democratic values without concern for local contingencies. They also raised and supported issues such as ‘identity politics’ which are more political in nature and have a rather remote connection with human rights. As the identity movement grew stronger, so did the resistance; and the human rights organisations and the international community did not play a neutral role. Their support to left leaning groups is shown by the application of the right of self-determination provisioned in Article 1 of the ICCPR and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the principle of positive discrimination that is embodied in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). 

However, the narrative that the human rights organisations are fuelling mass conflict using ethnicity and regionalism may seem to fit into the narrative of conservative nationalists, but it does not resolve the ever widening divide between the left leaning and right leaning groups in Nepal. It also does not resolve the existing socio-political crisis. Similarly, disparaging nationalism as an unimportant and outdated notion by the left leaning progressives further antagonises the righteous and selfless individuals who take pride in calling themselves Nepali. However, nationalism in Nepal seems to be derived from the achievements of our ancestors during the Anglo-Nepal War, the rich Hindu culture (with its caste hierarchy), the birth of Gautam Buddha (not Buddhism), the high mountain peaks and natural resources and the fact that Nepal has always remained a sovereign state without ever having been colonised. Nationalism is yet to evolve and adopt a modern concept that not only recognizes past achievements but also present realities. 

Still a yam 

The present-day reality is that certain groups and communities are still marginalised in exercising certain privileges, facilities, immunities and rights as a result of historic discrimination and exploitation. Nepal takes pride in the fact that it has ratified all the major human rights treaties along with their Optional Protocols (the US has not ratified the ICCPR) despite not having a good record of their implementation. Proper implementation of those provisions will thus strengthen nationalism.

Nepal is still a ‘yam’ between two ‘stones’. When being pushed around by either of its two neighbours like during the recent blockade, Nepal needs the international community to speak up for it. Also considering the fact that our diplomacy with these two countries has not been the strongest, we will always need the support of the global community. On the other hand, if Nepal thinks that world pressure for the protection of human rights can never be good for its interests, it can revoke the human rights treaties and stop accepting help from international aid agencies, instead of blaming the international community for doing what it is entitled to do. That will contribute a great deal to silencing the international community and fostering nationalism. 

Mulmi is a human rights lawyer

Published: 24-05-2016 10:19

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