United Nations questions rights body’s autonomy after controversial appointmentsFive National Human Rights Commission office bearers were appointed after the Oli government introduced an ordinance in December to amend recommendation rules.
The appointment of the chair and four commissioners to the National Human Rights Commission continues to be under international scrutiny.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has sought clarification from the commission if its autonomy and independence, as mandated by the Paris Principles, was ensured in the appointment process.
Adopted in 1993 by the United Nations General Assembly, the Paris Principles set six criteria that national human rights institutions need to follow. These include autonomy from the government and the independence guaranteed by the constitution besides adequate competence, resources and powers to investigate as well as pluralism.
“The OHCHR has raised serious concerns over the appointments,” Bed Bhattarai, secretary at the commission, told the Post.
On February 3, President Bidya Devi Bhandari administered the oath of office to the chair and the four commissioners of the Human Rights Commission along with 27 other appointees to various constitutional bodies.
The Constitutional Council, headed by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, had made a total of 38 recommendations on December 15 after amending the Constitutional Council (Functions, Duties, and Procedures) Act through ordinance, allowing the council to recommend names in the presence of its majority members.
Speaker of the House of Representatives Agni Sapkota and Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba, the leader of the opposition in the House, boycotted the meeting that made the recommendations.
The constitutional provision that parliamentary hearings must be conducted for the appointments was not followed as Oli went on to dissolve the House on December 20.
In the absence of hearings, the candidates could be appointed 45 days after their names were recommended to the President.
The Geneva-based United Nations human rights body has demanded clarification on the appointments after complaints from four human rights organisations that they were made against the Paris Principles without following the due process.
Advocacy Forum, Lawyers Association for Human Rights of Nepali Indigenous Peoples, Terai Human Rights Defenders Alliance and the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission had filed complaints with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, pointing out the flawed appointment process and thus raising questions over its impartiality.
Human rights advocates say the question from the UN body reflects the degradation in the country’s human rights records.
“It is unfortunate that questions have been raised over the impartiality of the constitutional commission that has the mandate to hold the government accountable on human rights issues,” Govinda Bandi, a human rights lawyer, told the Post. “The understanding at the international level that democratic institutions are being brought under the government’s shadow will have a long-term implication.”
The appointments had earlier been questioned by three international human rights groups.
On March 1, the New York-based Human Rights Watch, the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists, and the London-based Amnesty International had urged the government to immediately withdraw the appointments to the National Human Rights Commission as they undermined the independence of the constitutional human rights body as they were made without consultation or parliamentary approval.
“The back-to-back concerns from the UN and the international human rights organisations are not a good sign,” Gauri Pradhan, a former member at the commission, told the Post.
Human rights experts say the National Human Rights Commission could be downgraded by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions. Currently, Nepal is among 84 countries whose human rights commissions are listed under the ‘A’ grade.
In the alliance’s review in January, Nepal continued to maintain the position and the next review is slated for 2023. However, the decision can be reviewed at any time before then. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is the secretariat of the alliance which has 127 members.
“There are high chances that the human rights commission could be downgraded if the appointments are not corrected,” said Bandi.
The ‘A’ grade status of the human rights commission was one of the points Nepal presented while seeking a vote to get elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
After serving a three-year term from 2018 to 2020, Nepal was elected for a second term from 2021 to 2023. As a member of the council, Nepal has the responsibility of monitoring human rights situations in various countries and of asking them to adhere to the universal principles of human rights.
“It will lose the moral ground to raise the issues of other countries if its own human rights records are questioned,” said Pradhan.
Fearing that the country’s image could be tarnished because of five individuals, officials at the Human Rights Commission have already asked the new appointees for their resignations.
“The image of the commission shouldn’t be kept at stake for the sake of jobs for the five people,” said a senior official at the commission on condition of anonymity. “We have already conveyed our message to them.”
But the commissioners do not seem to be keen to hear criticisms against their appointments if the rebuttal to the three international organisations’ concerns in March is anything to go by.
The commission issued a rebuttal saying it was unfortunate that the three organisations were interfering in the internal matter of a sovereign nation. But the commission’s statement was dragged into controversy as it, an independent constitutional body, was defending the actions of the government.
Their response to the United Nations body’s concern is along the same lines.
“I don’t want to comment on the matter,” said Tap Bahadur Magar, chair of the commission, when the Post reached out to him. “Please talk to our officials.”
The matter has been forwarded to the government, according to officials at the commission.
“As it was the Constitutional Council that made the appointments, we have forwarded the letter to the government for a reply,” said Bhattarai, the commission secretary. “We will forward the response from the government if it replies. Otherwise, the commission will write its own reply.”