Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A Year & a Half in the National Human Rights (Wrongs) Commission

Well, it's time to say 'adieu' to the National Human Rigts Commission (NHRC) and my nineteen remarkable months as the UNDP Sr. Human Rights Advisor (SHRA) in the Commission!

It's been an amazing, complex and fascinating period that was originally meant to last only one year, but was extended last September when, finally, new NHRC commissioners were nominated and approved by the nation's Legislature-Parliament. For the first year of my position, there had been neither commissioners nor a secretary at the Commission, limiting the effectiveness of both the NHRC and their SHRA.

In fact, if UNDP had known beforehand that the newly restored democratic Government of Nepal (GON) would take fifteen months to appoint new commissioners, it's unlikely that it would have gone ahead w/ the recruitment for my position at that time.

Still, in the mysterious ways of the world, the UNDP/OHCHR SHRA position was posted in 'The Economist' soon after my Save the Children world disappeared in the sands of time. I applied, was interviewed by phone while at Mom & Dad's in Palm Beach Gardens in July, then began this work a few weeks after my long walk home in mid-August 2006 from the Kathmandu airport to Budhanilkantha after my last field trip to Biratnagar to say 'goodbye' to the staff and NGO colleagues.

Since then, I've had the rare opportunity as an expat of participating in the daily working world of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

I came at an unusual time, when the Commission and country were still in turmoil due to the partisan politics that roiled Nepal due to Gyanendra's aborted royal restoration in 2005-06. A massive People's Movement (Jann Andolan) had forced the king back into the palace in the Spring of 2006 and brought the political parties back to power with the promise of the restoration of multi-party democracy and a peaceful negotiation to the decade-long Maoist People's War.

The NHRC commissioners, who had been appointed by the authoritarian king, were forced to resign in July 2006, leaving the Commission leadership-less and with only an Acting Secretary on contract to provide the institution much-needed guidance and solace after the wounds they suffered under the king's administration.

Therefore, for that first year, rather than serve as the advisor to the Chairperson of the Commission, I was caught up in the internecine politics within and without the Commission that threatened to capsize the Commission itself and undermine the years of effort that had gone into creating a national rights institute in Nepal (by legislation in 1997 and existence in 2000).

The Commission badly needed to recover from its questionable reputation when they were unable or unwilling to challenge the king's take-over and lost the trust and respect of the human rights community in Nepal during that ignoble period.

First the Commission needed to re-establish relations with the human rights defenders who had taken the risks and suffered the prison sentences and periods of exile to uphold the fundamental rights of Nepal's fragile democracy. They also needed to regain the trust of the restored Parliament, as well as the broader civil society, donors and international community.

Yet without commissioners or a legitimate secretary, the hard-working, dedicated staff of the Commission were quite alone.

However, slowly, steadily, at the end of 2006 and the first half of 2007, with the assistance of the UNDP Capacity Development of the NHRC (CDNHRC) project, the image of the National Human Rights Commission began to be revised and replenished. The NHRC and CDNHRC staff worked assiduously to meet political, civil society and bilateral leaders to re-aquaint them with the on-going protection and promotion work of the Commission, as well as restate the Commission's commitment to challenge the continuing human rights impunity within Nepali society.

Over the past year++, through a constant series of national and regional workshops, press statements, human rights reports, trainings and a wide range of monitoring missions and investigations, the Commission has elevated its stature.

Now, with the arrival in September 2007 of the new Commissioners, appointed by the Paris Principles, led by a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Kedarnath Upadhyay, and an experienced, Commission-appointed, Cabinet-approved Secretary, Bishal Khanal, in February 2008, the Commission is ready to begin a new stage in its brief history.

For me, it's been a pleasure to work with the Commissioners, Kedarnath, K.B. Rokaya, Gauri Pradhan, Leela Pathak and Ram Nagina Singh, for these past six months and Bishalji for the past six weeks. The Commission is fortunate to have their experience and leadership to guide the institution in the challenging months ahead. Even with the Constituent Assembly elections due on April 10th, there will continue to be many human rights abuses (both past and present...) that will require steadfast determination by the Commission to confront, document and end throughout the country.

For, no matter how much well-intentioned support the international community can offer Nepal, (as the Brits say...) 'at the end of the day', it is only the Nepalis who can set the paradigms and standards for human rights in their own country. As foreign friends and colleagues, we can help, we can advise, we can guide, we can support (financially as well as thoughtfully...), but an end to impunity, abuse, discrimination and war can only be achieved by the Nepalis for the Nepalis.

Nepal is turning a massive page in its history. The old world is over and the new one yet to be born. This is a lengthy interregnum between a feudal past that lasted through the 20th century to a more democratic, dignified, egalitarian future. There are many wrongs to right, many crimes to be uncovered, many people seeking to break free of past caste and ethnic confinements, many stories to be told...

In all of this, there is a critical role for the National Human Rights Commission.

I'm glad that I had the oppoprtunity to be part of this transition and wish the Commission only the best as it carries forward, stroke by throughtful stroke, into the unseeable, unquenchable future.


ellenbergd said...

Hi Keith

Great review of your time with the Commission. What a special look at an important organization. Hope things are improving for Nepal as elections approach.

Keith D. Leslie said...

Thanks, E! There's more to say about human rights in Nepal, especially now that the election is over. It's a huge challenge, particularly in finding the right balance b/n creating the environment for peace while pursuing results on past human rights violations. xoxo, K.