Civil society, democracy, and human rights in Nepal: observations from a distance
Lecture presented at Martin
Didi-bahini, Daju-bhai, namaskar,
it is a great honour for me to be here with you today and to talk about civil society and the implementation of human rights in Nepal. For some of you it may sound strange that a foreigner is coming here and talking about things which have to do a lot with the internal political, social, economic and cultural system of your country.
Please allow me to count two reasons that may justify my procedure. First, it is a matter of fact, that the implementation of civil society and human rights in a special country or society is easier to observe from a distance. The kind of observation at least differs. You donít have hindrances you may have as along as you are living and working within the country or society you are observing, and you may also be free from special attitudes that might have been inborn to you as a member of a special society or culture. Amnesty International, for example, follows this strategy while observing human rights violations in the world. A shortcoming of this method, this shall be conceded, is the danger of misunderstanding or misinterpretation of situations or developments in another country, society or culture.
The second reason for my interest in human rights implementation in Nepal lies within my personal background. Being married to this beautiful Sherpa girl, Lhakpa from Solu-Khumbu, for 25 years and having undertaken studies of the Nepali history, politics, society and culture for an even longer period of time, I feel and think at least half as a Nepali myself. And I am personally affected, be it as a nepalko jwain, be it as husband of a Nepali woman, be it as son-in-law of a poor family belonging to an ethnic minority group, be it as a friend of many persons from all strata of Nepali society.
My personal involvement in Nepali human rights affairs began in early 1990 when we, i.e. some Nepalis living in Germany and their German relatives and friends, formed the so-called Nepal Support Group Germany on the personal intention of the then general secretary of the Forum for Protection of Human Rights (FOPHUR), late Prakash Kaphle. Our small contribution to the Nepali jana andolan was to provide information on the movement and its backgrounds to the Nepalis living in Germany, to the press, the political institutions and the general public. This was not much, but it was a first beginning.
After the success of the jana andolan we transformed the Nepal Support Group into the Human Rights Forum Nepal (HURFON), this time on the intention of Mathura Prasad Shrestha, then president of FHOPUR. I had the honour to become the founding president of this formal organization, other eminent activist being Pradeep Bhattarai, Hari Karki, Ram Thapa, Ludwig Debuck, Ludmilla TŁting, and Lhakpa, of course, to mention only a few. I think, we did good work for some time organizing seminars and actively supporting activities of human rights organizations in Nepal. Unfortunately the organization disintegrated after some years and was finally dissolved in 1997.
But, of course, the problems can only be solved in Nepal herself. And so, please allow me to talk about some personal views and comments concerning the implementation of civil society and human rights in this wonderful Himalayan kingdom, that I have observed over the years. Of course, I cannot mention all aspects, but instead I will concentrate on some selected topics that have also been discussed with ever growing intensity in the Nepali public during recent years.
Although there are many variants of the concept, civil society is made up of "some combination of networks of legal protection, voluntary associations, and forms of independent public expression".
A well-developed civil society potentially influences government in two ways. It enhances political responsiveness by aggregating and expressing the wishes of the public through a wealth of non-governmental forms of association, and it safeguards public freedom by limiting the governments ability to impose arbitrary rule by force.
Civil society can be defined as the site where society enters into a relationship with the state: "The values of civil society are those of political participation, state accountability and public politics... The institutions of civil society are associational and representative forums, a free press and social associations. The inhabitant of this sphere is the citizen." Based on rights, rule of law, freedom and citizenship, civil society becomes the place for a critical rational discourse. It is a precondition for the existence of democracy and a property of democratic states and societies.
But the existence of civil society alone is not enough. An inactive civil society leads to unresponsive states, while only a politically self-conscious civil society imposes limits upon state power. If the political practices of a self-conscious civil society transgress the boundaries of the state sponsored political discourse, a crisis of legitimacy of the state results. Politics is about the dialogues and contestations that society has with the state. The site at which these encounters take place is civil society.
Civil society has historically been associated with attempts to control the state and to subject state practices to critical evaluation. Civil society cannot ask for a democratic state if it is itself undemocratic, and a democratic state requires a democratic society.
Civil society can in one sense be identified with democratization and liberalization, but it is a far more comprehensive and deeper concept than democracy. Democratic practices have often been reduced to rituals and staged political events, such as elections, parliamentary representation and plebiscites which are meant to reaffirm the legitimacy of the state. The concept of civil society, on the other hand, embraces an entire range of assumptions, values and institutions, such as political, social and civil rights, the rule of law, representative institutions, a public sphere and a plurality of associations, which are preconditions of democracy.
The question of global ethics and human rights
Human rights are a sphere where the clash of civilizations becomes most obvious. Today, every civilization insists upon its own ethics of human rights. The dissatisfying discussions during the UN conference on human rights in Vienna in 1993 have proved that mankind in the age of clashing civilizations can only live in peace if there do exist individual human rights based on universally accepted ethics.
Human rights are the rights of individuals as against state and society. These rights, supported by the ethics and world view of cultural modernity, have been raised to institutionalized legal standards by the west; they have become part of western civilization. Following the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the two human rights packages of the UN in 1966, which became ratified in 1976, they have become universal law and stand for international morality. Human rights, democracy and legitimate government are inseparably linked with each other. Wherever individual human rights are not implemented, there can exist neither democracy nor a constitutional state.
Today, the international political system is based on the formal criteria of nation state, which are applied for the whole world, but there is no international society. In order to implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights we need global ethics of human rights, that are respected and accepted in all cultures, i.e. we need a common global normativity, an international morality. Many politicians and political experts are not really interested in questions of ethics. They only concentrate on international security politics and world economy. Acute human rights violations may be discussed, but only if this is opportune and inevitable. But the politicians donít see the necessity of a cultural analysis of international relations. The current clash of civilizations has focused the attention on the demand for ethical principles that are accepted by all cultures and civilizations.
Human rights standards are based on the pre-condition of universal legal norms and ethic values. They should not be mistaken for political power and hegemonic supremacy. Unfortunately, political leaders all over the world tend to disregard this principle. This is true for western as well as for eastern states, and Nepal is no exception.
It has become a principle of human rights activists to see human rights violations only as a result of authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, i.e. their conception is primarily purely political. This means in other words, that cultural conditional factors are not or not aptly taken into consideration. Some human rights activists take it for an expression of cultural arrogance to investigate or only to name cultural reasons of human rights violations.
Democracy is a form of political culture created by western civilization, but it has not become universal, yet. The ignorance of cultural standards may be typically eurocentric, but it does not necessarily mean that such practice must be transferred to non-western societies, where democratic values are disregarded. The lack of democracy can also have cultural reasons. And, I think, Nepal is an ideal example to explain this.
Democratization and human rights: constitutional reflections
It closely depends upon the political system if human rights have any chance to be recognized or even implemented by the ruling elite of a country. The first time that fundamental rights of citizens became officially mentioned in Nepal was in the never implemented Rana constitution of 1948. But there was no further explanation what those rights should look like.
That the standard of human rights is closely related to the level of democratization can be seen from the treatment of fundamental rights by Nepalís later constitutions. The Interim Government of Nepal Act of 1951, especially in its original version, for the first time guaranteed fundamental rights to all Nepali citizens. I would call it Nepalís most democratic constitution before the current one. Many rights guaranteed by the 1951 constitution are almost 50 years later still not implemented. King Mahendras constitution of 1959 fulfilled the same aspect as the 1951 constitution, but it already contained a number of exceptions for the guarantee of fundamental rights. This tendency was further intensified by the Panchayat constitution and its three amendments. Not only were fundamental rights combined with fundamental duties, but there was also an ever increasing number of cases in which people could be totally deprived of their rights.
I remember well that human rights activist, especially those of FOPHUR and HURON, which actively participated in the organization of the jana andolan of 1990, preferred to speak of a movement for democracy and human rights than simply of a democracy movement. I think, this argumentation later found its reflection in the new constitution of November 1990. All of us know that the current constitution had to be elaborated under very difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, the product is rather democratic and fulfils most internationally accepted standards of human rights.
The longer the multiparty system is running in Nepal the more often you can read doubtful questions if the jana andolan has really brought a change or if only persons at the top of the system have been exchanged. This is, of course, an exaggerated argument and one may see it in a different way depending upon the own political opinion. I am a Nepali only by heart and not by citizenship. So, I donít want to interfere in party political affairs. This may be decided by the Nepalis themselves. But viewing the regulation of fundamental rights in the current constitution I must say that there has definitely been a change after the peopleís movement of 1990. Fundamental rights are guaranteed, they can be sued for before an independent judiciary and there is freedom of opinion and expression and for the formation of organizations, etc. And many events after 1990 have proved that these regulations are not merely on paper.
Is there a political will to implement human rights in Nepal?
But the constitution of 1990, elaborated in such a short period of time by representatives of the leading parties of the movement and not by an elected constitutional assembly, as it is necessary for a really democratic system, and also not blessed by a public referendum, of course, has a number of shortcomings. The partiesí and politiciansí will to correct these shortcomings and to implement already guaranteed rights can be a barometer for the level of democracy and civil society the country has reached today. And it is this aspect that fills me with worries.
I donít want to mention names of parties or politicians. All of you know that the moral decline and corruption of party politicians is an exercise in brinkmanship. One of my jobs in Germany is to provide area instruction to persons going to work in aid projects in Nepal. And I must openly declare here that I find it more and more difficult to explain the ongoing events and the behaviour of the Nepali politicians. Those people know about my special relations to the country, and I sometimes feel ashamed for what is happening in Nepal.
I know that the directive principles and policies as mentioned in part 4 of the constitution cannot be enforced by a court, but this does nevertheless not mean that they are totally useless. Rather, they are a list of duties for all those people elected into responsible positions. If the politicians disregard their duties mentioned in part 4 of the constitution, then they definitely are no longer within the law.
I donít want to explain this further. The politicians may be asked what they have done towards the implementation of human rights during the past nine years. Instead, I will now come to the analysis of some selected aspects of human rights in Nepal.
Self-determination of the Nepali state
Please allow me to start with one of the few shortcomings of the constitution, the self-determination of the Nepali state as it is found in article 4 of the constitution. I know that this is a highly discussed issue and that persons criticizing the current definition are often attacked as anti-national or anti-cultural, i.e. anti-Hindu. But such accusation must be rejected as long as the critique is based on rational grounds. And these rational arguments are very simple: The same article 4 concedes that Nepal is a multiethnic and multilingual Kingdom. These facts are proved by the data of the national census of 1991. What is missing in article 4, but what is also not necessary in my opinion, is the fact that Nepal is also a multireligious state. The traditional culture and religion of most ethnic group Ė they constitute more than 40% of the population according to the national census Ė is based on animist and shamanist practices. So my simple question: Does not the definition of Nepal as a Hindu state deprive all those people, who are practising other forms of religion, of a number of fundamental rights? Why, after all, must the politics of a multiethnic state be combined with a special religion? This has nothing to do with the status of monarchy or even with the prohibition of missionary practices. The combination of politics and religion has led to hate and violence in many parts of the world. A secular definition of state would help to solve many problems in Nepal: For example, many demands of ethnic organizations or even of the Maoists would become baseless.
I remember well a very interesting article in the Kathmandu Post issue of 19 November 1998. This article was on a conference organized by CNAS and its topic was on ethnic equation after the jana andolan. Please allow me to cite a few passages from this article which are identical with my on stand.
"The 1990 Peopleís Movement was a major political upheaval but it has had very little impact on the countryís ethnic equation and that the dominant classes--mainly the Bahuns and Chhetris--continue to enjoy the pre-eminent position in the Nepali society, according to some political analysts."
"There are a number of reasons why minorities feel alienated in the majoritarian-ruled Nepali society, the most conspicuous being the Constitution itself which regards Nepal as a Hindu Kingdom." (Kapil Shrestha)
"The Maoist ĎPeopleís Warí is primarily a class-based war. However, given the social structure of the Nepali society and the collective memory of different groups of people, they have invited various indigenous ethnic groups to join in and support the Peopleís War." (Krishna Bhattachan)
So far my citations. They prove that I donít stand alone with my worries. I highly welcome that after years of open critics from ethnic or dalit organizations a steadily growing number of Nepali scholars openly warns of the dangers originating from the state definition in the constitution. In its current form article 4 of the constitution is not integrating but disintegrating.
Part 2 of the constitution defines the citizenship right. Here we meet one of several discriminations against women in the constitution. People are treated differently depending upon their gender. This is a clear contradiction to article 11 (2) of the same constitution, which declares that all people are equal before the law. The right for Nepali citizenship depends solely upon the nationality of the father. Only persons whose father is a Nepali citizen have the right for Nepali citizenship. In the same way, foreign marital partners of Nepali citizens are treated differently. The foreign wife of a male Nepali can acquire Nepali citizenship without any problems, while there are very hard conditions for the foreign husband of a Nepali woman. This proves the inherited thinking that women are not real citizens, that they always depend upon male persons (father, brother, son), that they have to leave their family Ė and in case of marriage with a foreigner even their country and culture Ė after marriage. This comes close to an indirect form of exilement, even though this is prohibited by article 21 of the constitution.
Such way of thinking may be called traditional in Nepal, but it is in contradiction not only to the guarantee of gender equality before the law (article 11) but also in contradiction to internationally accepted human rights principles. Not long ago there was a similar way of thinking in western democracies, and the status of women is still far away from being equal even in these countries. But there does exist at least legal gender equality, and this is one of the most important pre-conditions for every civilized modern nation.
The contradictions on gender equality inherent in the constitution are the basis of general legal insecurity for women in Nepal. One of the most confusing discussions in this context is that on the womenís demand for equal inheritance rights. Watching these discussions from a distance I sometimes feel torn between amusement and anger. How can, for example, any intelligent person declare the son would lose half of his property in case his sister gets an equal share? Does not the son get the same amount from his wifeís side in compensation? The women need equal economic and property rights, the latter being guaranteed by article 17 of the constitution. They are a pre-condition for equality in other spheres of political and social life.
Traditional behaviours like not sending girls to schools, having them work in the house or field from a very early age onwards, not taking enough care for their health, marrying them very young, the flesh trade of Nepali girls and women to Indian brothels, all these bad practices have their final reason in the lack of economic rights for the girls.
And one other thing may be added. Critics often mention the Hindu culture as reason for the low status of women in Nepal. It is surely true that the status of women is lower than that of men in Hindu culture, and it is also true that this codified Hindu law is transferred upon the whole Nepali society by declaring Nepal a Hindu state. But such argumentation closes the eyes before the fact that also non-Hindu Nepali cultures are far away from being free of discrimination against women. And here I must also oppose the declaration of ethnic organizations which speak of traditional gender equality within ethnic groups.
Ethnicity and culture
Other contradictions within the constitution have to do with Nepalís multicultural society. The already mentioned article 4 has brought a break with the Panchayat tradition of "one nation, one people, one culture". Declaring that Nepal is a multiethnic and multilingual state is a first positive step towards recognizing social realities. But it still seems to be a long way until the country becomes proud of her multiethnicity and multiculturalism. Instead, the constitution in its present form still limits the rights of Nepalís numerous ethnic groups and depressed castes.
One often discussed aspect in this context is the use of language. Here we meet confusing arguments from the ethnic elites as well. The country needs a common official language, and there is no other language than Nepali to fulfil this need. The situation of Nepal is totally different from that of her southern neighbour, India, where the language of the former colonial power is used as official language. Nepal has neither been a colony nor is English of any importance for the common people. The problems for the ethnic groups with the rastra bhasa Nepali do not originate from its use as such, but from its exclusive use. Speaking Nepali as a second or even third language the members of ethnic groups have numerous disadvantages in the everyday competition with those people, whose mother tongue is Nepali. These disadvantages become obvious, for example, in their access to information, jobs or official positions, in their dealing with government offices or law courts, or simply at school.
Itís surely not easy to solve this problem. I can only make some suggestions: One is to upgrade the role of other national languages (rastriya bhasa). This could, for example, happen by helping the ethnic groups to preserve and improve their respective languages (which is part of the directive principles and policies of state) and by making the learning of at least one rastriya bhasa obligatory for all pupils instead of Sanskrit. The latter must not be totally abrogated. I have learnt ancient European languages like Latin and Old-Greek at school myself. But their learning should be on a more liberal basis, and it should also be recognised that there are other ancient languages of great importance for a number of ethnic cultures, e.g. Classical Tibetan. The corresponding curricula changes would help to equalize the chances of pupils from different groups in the school leaving exams.
Another suggestion is concerning the Nepali language itself. Iím not a linguist and I speak Nepali very badly, even though I really love this language. But I know that there have been discussion for long among Nepali linguists about how to develop the Nepali language to make it appropriate to modern tasks. Iíve got the impression that those scholars have gained the upper hand who pleaded for a greater Sanskritization of Nepali for that purpose. This makes the use of the modern Nepali language even more difficult for people having other mother tongues. They are even deprived of their right of information (article 16), because they have problems to follow the news provided by the media. I know this from my own experience with Nepali ethnic groups; Iíve married into one some 25 years ago. Why cannot the Nepali language be enriched by incorporating terms from other rastriya bhasaharu?
A third thing, I want to mention in this context, already goes beyond the use of language. Itís concerning the presentation of culture in the Nepali media and school books. Both still have a one-sided way of presenting Nepali culture, i.e. that of the ruling elite and the Kathmandu valley. The ethnic groups and their culture, as it is still found in the villages of rural Nepal, are not present. It is not enough that the ethnic groups learn about the culture of the Hindu castes, but the same process must start vice versa, if Nepal wants to become in integrated and civilized multiethnic state. And here, the school books as well as the media have a lot to improve.
The Nepali state and the implementation of human rights
So far, I have talked about some fundamental aspects of human rights that need some kind of improvement not only towards their implementation but also in respect to their treatment within the constitution itself. Now I would like to turn to some other issues that are regulated by the constitution in a satisfying manner, but which are not implemented well by the Nepali state. Under Nepali state I want to understand here the government, the political parties, the extra-parliamentary opposition, the security forces, the legislative, the judiciary and the common people in general.
Law and order
Please allow me to start with the law and order situation. Observing the Nepali press for so many years IĎve got the impression that not only the political order is deteriorating more and more, but there is also a sharp increase in criminal cases generally. Of course, I want to concentrate here upon the political affairs, even though I think that the behaviour of Nepali politicians is a bad example in general.
I remember well the times of the first term of Girija Babu as prime minister, a time that was still deeply shaped by the political changes that had taken place. The waves were going high sometimes, when both government and opposition were trying to learn their dealing with democracy and power sharing under a multiparty parliamentary system carefully watched by an ever growing number of human rights organizations. I saw the numerous mistakes and human rights violations of the government in dealing with the never ending demonstrations and bandhs of the opposition; I observed the misunderstanding and misuse of democratic freedoms and tools, like that of strike, by oppositional forces; I recognized the use of force and torture by security forces against demonstrators and activists.
At that time, I thought that the country still had to learn how to deal with the new political system. But now, some seven or eight years later, I am sad to say that the situation has even turned to the worse. Not only are there reports of ongoing malpractices by the police and other security forces but governments of different composition have even tried to introduce so-called anti-terrorist laws, which totally contradict the genius of the Nepali constitution and the international treaties on human rights signed by the Nepali state.
Surely, neither endless strikes and bandhs nor terrorist like behaviour of political activists under the banner of another revolution can be accepted by the Nepali state, but the medal has two sides. Let me first talk about the strikes and bandhs. Both are legal forms of protest by people feeling distressed by certain situations in a democratically run state. But they only work as long as they are carefully used as a last measure if other kinds of argumentation and protest are insufficient. This has not been the case in 1990ís Nepal. There have been times when there was hardly any day left without strikes or bandhs. Such misuse of democratic tools by dissatisfied people is not less wrong than its aggressive and violent suppression by the state.
Two other things must be mentioned in this context. Even in a free democratic system there must be some kind of regulation in the application of demonstrations. The administration must have the right to prohibit demonstrations under special constellations, if law and order are in danger. It seems to me, that in Nepal the decision to hold demonstrations is totally in the hand of their organizers.
The other great problem I see is the way bandhs are organized in Nepal. Iíve got the feeling that most of them aim at a total stop of public and economic life in the country or at least in parts of it, often accompanied by destruction of public or private property. People who donít follow the order of the organizers are forcefully and brutally attacked. This has nothing to do with democracy; it is a criminal act and a violation of fundamental rights of the owners or of the attacked or hindered persons. This is an example that human rights violations not only originate from government and administration, but also from other groups and individuals.
The other side of the medal is the stateís reaction against protest movements, strikes and bandhs. This is an area where all liberal democratic states have problems, and therefore it is necessary that it is carefully watched by independent organizations. It seems to me that the Nepali state in many cases overreacted in such situations. Especially the means used by the state have come under critics: arbitrary shooting, detention and lathi charging, but also cases of torture and disappearance in police detention have been reported.
A special issue is the Maoistsí so-called jana yuddha and its treatment by the state. The problem lies within the mixture of political demands and the means chosen by both sides. Only a few of the Maoistsí 40 demands, at least as they have been published in the Peopleís Review (7 May 1998), are really critical in respect to democracy and the fundamentals of the Nepali state. One may like the revolutionary style of language or not, but there should be no reason for honest politicians to enter into a dialogue with this radical party or organization. But it seems neither the state nor the Maoists really wanted such kind of dialogue. The Maoists preferred the jana yuddha, and that means killing people, destroying private or public property and destructing the law and order situation in the country. Standing for peaceful means I cannot justify this way, because it is an infliction upon the fundamental rights of other people.
But the stateís answer does not seem to be better. When I, day by day, read the newspaper articles about security forces killing numerous suspected Maoists rarely leaving nobody alive while, on the other side, hardly anyone of the government forces is hurt, then a distant observer must get the feeling that deliberate killings have taken place. And this would be one of the strongest possible violations of human rights by the state. I really do hope for Nepal that both sides will be willing and able to find a solution rather soon. A pre-condition will be that the government starts to implement programs and initiatives towards a socially, politically and economically equal participation of the disadvantaged sections of society.
Next topic: corruption. You may wonder but yes, corruption as it seems to be practiced every day in highest circles of Nepali government and administration is a violation of fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution. The money and goods misappropriated by Nepali officials for their own benefit are the common property of the general public; they belong to every Nepali citizen. In so far, it is an offence against article 17. And besides, of course, is such behaviour in contradiction to the already mentioned directive principles of state (article 25).
Hand in hand with this criminal kind of corruption Nepal is faced with political corruption, as well. Everybody knows that Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. This requires an extraordinary conscientious dealing with the countryís resources. I will not participate in the discussions on the use of Nepali territory and water resources, since these are political issues packed with Indo-Nepali sentiments. But I would at least say that even the formation of governments with up to 48 ministers, as it happened in the past, are irrational and only serve to keep persons or parties in power and, thus, in access to national resources. Such politics, too, means waste of public property, which is so much needed for other purposes.
And I will even go further and say that tax evasion and similar practices, which seem to be very common in Nepal, are another kind of corruption and misuse of public property. Whoever has his income and makes profits from the countryís resources or trade must also pay taxes. Without this no country can survive. The state has a lot of obligations that must be fulfilled like constructing roads, hospitals, schools and drinking water or power projects, to mention only a few. So, every citizen has to pay his contribution for these common things in the form of tax. Evading this means to requisition the common property of the general public.
Child labour and child rights
Another great problem of Nepal is that of child labour. This problem goes far beyond the boundaries of Nepal; it is a prominent feature for the whole of South Asia. Article 20 (2) prohibits the engagement of minors in factories, mines or any other hazardous work. This article is supplemented by the Child Act 1992 (Jestha 7, 2049). The latter regulates the employment of children under the age of 16 in a way close to international statutes.
But there seems to be lack, if not to say absence, of implementation of this law. All of you know that there has been a great upset over the revolt in western countries, especially Germany, against child labour in Nepali carpet factories, putting great damage to this besides tourism most important industry of the country. The western campaign meant great economic and image loss to Nepal, but the real victims have again been the children. Losing their arduous jobs they found themselves back on the streets of Kathmandu metropolis without any perspective. The government not only failed to implement article 20 (2) and the Child Act, but it is my impression from outside, that it also did nothing to reintegrate the children into society. The situation is more than children organizations can cope with, and corresponding activities of the boycotting western carpet importers have only been a drop in the ocean.
In this context it should be mentioned that article 18 of the constitution, regulating educational rights, is also insufficient in its present form. It is missing the fundamental right that every person has the right to education as it is laid down in article 26 of the General Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. The great number of child labourers in Nepal also depends on the shortcomings of the education system. Responsible is not only the state but also the parents who do not regularly send their children to school, especially the girls.
On the government side I would like to criticize two things. First, it is overdue that the Nepali state implements compulsory education for all children. Second, there must be changes in the formal school system. The first demand is self-explanatory, but the second has to be explained further. Western human rights activists often criticize all kinds of child labour, even those within the family complex. I think this is a very short-sighted transfer of western conditions and values upon a country like Nepal with totally different socio-economic conditions. It is a matter of fact that the children in rural areas have to support their families in different ways from a very early age onwards; else the families cannot survive. The problem is that this support of the family very often means that the children cannot go to school at all or only very irregularly. But I think, this must not be. One of the main problems is that the urban school system of Kathmandu with its hour and holiday regulations has simply been transferred to the rural areas as well. Here the country very urgently needs a system that is applied to the different regional situations, and that also takes the socio-economic conditions of the childrenís families into consideration. This would surely help to increase the school attendance of children in rural areas.
A problem that goes beyond the borders of modern Nepal is that of refugees. During the past decades refugees have come to Nepal from different countries: Chinese occupied Tibet, new born Bangladesh, northeastern India or Bhutan. One may distinguish between people with ancestors of Nepali origin and those for whom Nepal is a totally new country. But all of them were in need because of political, social or economic suppression in their respective home country and they found shelter in this small and poor Himalayan kingdom. I think this selfless stand of Nepal cannot be highlighted enough.
But what makes me worrying is the different treatment of refugees depending upon their origin as it has occurred especially in the press, but sometimes also in official statements. The Bhutanese refugees, for example, find great support by numerous organizations, the political parties, the government and the press. I think thatís o.k. There is hardly anybody besides the Bhutanese government and its supporters who does not criticize the way these people have been expelled from Bhutan. But I wonder about the way the press is writing about Tibetans still fleeing their home country because of the suppression by the Chinese. Itís not a question of the political status of Tibet, if human rights are not implemented in Tibet, if people have to flee because of their lack of freedom. Nepal should preserve the human dignity of the Tibetan refugees, as well. It must not support the political demands of the exiled Tibetans; this might be unwise in face of the countryís geopolitical situation. But why are Tibetan refugees almost always called illegal immigrants or even hooligans and why have they sometimes even been extradited to the Chinese authorities? Here, Iím especially missing any kind of engagement of Nepali human rights organizations.
The implementation of human rights is one of the main preconditions for the introduction of a civilized and equal society. A democratic system of government has been introduced with the promulgation of the 1990 constitution, which also guarantees fundamental rights along international standards, even though several passages within the constitution are still in contradiction to these guarantees.
But the greatest problem is the implementation of the positive spirit of the constitution. Unchanged political, social and economic inequalities prevent the development of civil society in Nepal. Almost totally neglected, so far, have been culture based discriminations. Nepal, as most other states on earth, is a multiethnic, multilingual, multicultural and multireligious state. Nepal, a country so often praised for her great tolerance, has still problems with this cultural diversity.
So, the preconditions for civil society have improved a lot after 1990, but one is still missing the political will of the ruling elites. Nepal is on the eve of parliamentary elections, another chance for the politicians and parties to change their behaviour and attitudes and to work for a civilized society based on equality, participation, tolerance and humaneness.
Copyright © 1999, Karl-Heinz Kršmer