Nepal’s abstention on Myanmar resolution at UN raises questionsDiplomats, experts and rights defenders say Nepal, despite being a member of the Human Rights Council, failed to show its commitment to human rights and democracy.
The United Nations General Assembly last week adopted a resolution condemning Myanmar’s military junta and called for a stop to the flow of arms to the Southeast Asian country.
There were expectations that the 193-member Assembly would approve the resolution unanimously by consensus, but Belarus called for a vote.
According to Reuters, the UN resolution was approved with 119 countries voting “yes”. Belarus voted against, and 36 members abstained. Nepal was one of the countries to abstain, along with India, China and Russia, among others.
Nepal’s decision to abstain from voting on a crucial resolution adopted against the atrocities committed by the junta in Myanmar has once again raised a question over its commitment to human rights and democracy. It has also left many wondering, as Nepal is currently a member of the UN Human Rights Council for a second term.
Diplomats, experts and observers say Nepal's move of abstaining from voting has shocked them and this could deal a serious blow to Nepal’s credentials.
“There was nothing objectionable for Nepal in supporting the resolution which was approved by a cross-section of countries from all regions of the world, including many members of the Non-aligned Movement and the Group of 77 developing countries at the UN,” Kul Chandra Gautam, a former UN assistant secretary-general, told the Post.
Nepal’s commitment to democracy and human rights had come into question back in February also, when it issued a routine statement in response to the military coup in Myanmar. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had limited its statement to “following the developments closely”, calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders.
Despite being a member of the UN Human Rights Council, Nepal has closed its eyes to atrocities committed by the military junta in Myanmar in the past as well.
In November 2018 also, Nepal was among the 26 countries to abstain from voting on the UN resolution on human rights violations against Rohingya muslims, who fled the country to escape the junta’s atrocities.
After the February army coup, there was pressure on the Nepal government to stand strongly against the move. Civil society members had taken to the streets in Kathmandu against the brutal military repression in Myanmar where, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a local rights group, at least 871 people have been killed so far as Myanmar’s military continues to use brutal methods to quell anti-coup protests.
A Nepali diplomat familiar with instructions from Kathmandu told the Post that there are some reasons why Nepal abstained and did not vote in favour of the UN resolution.
“First, from our region, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka have abstained,” said the diplomat who did not wish to be named. “Second, two veto power countries, China and Russia, also abstained. Third, ASEAN member states like Thailand, Loas, Cambodia and Brunei too have abstained, saying abstaining means staying neutral.”
According to the diplomat, when India, China, Russia and other nations can abstain, there is nothing wrong for Nepal to abstain.
“After all, we also have to think about the fate of around 300,000 people of Nepali origin living in Myanmar when it comes to such resolutions,” said the diplomat. “What will happen if the Myanmar government takes harsh measures against them?”
Government officials also defended Nepal’s decision to abstain from voting, saying it was in line with the position taken by the other member states from the region like India, China, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka.
Questions, however, remain even if “abstaining means staying neutral”, how Nepal as a member of the Human Rights Council can choose to remain neutral when it comes to voting on a resolution that concerns democracy and human rights.
Gautam, the former UN assistant secretary-general, says Nepal failed to take a conscientious decision.
“There cannot be an argument like regional consensus by pointing fingers at some of the countries from the region that abstained,” said Gautam. “From the SAARC region, two of its members, Afghanistan and the Maldives, have voted for the resolution. Of the 10 ASEAN countries, six including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam have voted for the resolution.”
Human rights activists and defenders of democracy say it’s a shame on the part of Nepal to lose an opportunity to demonstrate that it attaches highest importance and has unflinching commitment to democracy and human rights.
Many believe Nepal’s decision to abstain from voting on the resolution was guided largely by India and China.
One Nepali diplomat, who had formerly served in the UN, said Nepal might have taken a cue from its two large neighbours, China and India, and followed them.
“It looks like Nepal is trying to play safe rather than follow the principles,” the diplomat told the Post, asking anonymity.
Given China’s own interests in Myanmar, it has always rallied behind the Southeast Asian country. Beijing barely reacted to the coup in February.
India has its own stakes, which it admitted in its explanatory remarks for abstaining. India said that it has “direct stakes in the maintenance of peace and stability in Myanmar.”
For India, Myanmar sits awkwardly in its regional equation. New Delhi does not want to lose its communication with Myanmar generals, as a pre-emptive measure to stop them from falling into China’s lap. India’s abstention is nothing new, as it comes in line with its long-standing position–it strongly believes in working with any government in Naypyidaw, regardless of who comes to power, so as to protect its bilateral and regional interests.
What guided Nepal’s abstention, however, is surprising, say rights defenders in Nepal.
“I am shocked to learn that Nepal abstained from voting,” Mohana Ansari, a former member of the National Human Rights Commission, told the Post. “My conclusion is Nepal toed India’s line.”
What’s even more shocking is, according to Ansari, Nepal decided to abstain despite being a member of the Human Rights Council.
“Should it not be the duty of a country that is a member of the Human Rights Council to vote to adopt a resolution that is in favour of human rights?” said Ansari. “Should not we stand in favour of democracy, human rights and call for restoration of civil rights in Myanmar? As a member of the Human Rights Council, at least Nepal should maintain the minimum integrity in such an important issue.”
The UN resolution has called on the Myanmar military to “immediately stop all violence against peaceful protesters” and end restrictions on the internet and social media. It also called on Myanmar to swiftly implement a five-point consensus the junta forged with ASEAN in April to halt violence and start dialogue with its opponents.
General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding but carry political weight.
“If Nepal had voted for the resolution, it would have been in the company of those democratic countries better known for respecting human rights than in one of those autocratic, military-backed regimes, with a few exceptions,” said Gautam. “If Nepal was guided by the principles of its own constitution and the UN charter and voted in support of the resolution, I doubt China or India would have put pressure on Kathmandu. I don’t see any compulsion. Nepal appears to have a choice on its own.”
Human rights defenders say as a member of the Human Rights Council, Nepal has larger obligations to lobby for the protection of human rights and democracy.
The Council’s mandate is to promote “universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all” and “address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon,” and every member state has to play a role.
“On the one hand, we say we have an unwavering commitment to human rights and democracy, and on the other, we close our eyes to violation of human rights,” said Charan Prasain, a rights defender. “We must practice what we preach.”
According to Prasain, the recent abstention clearly demonstrates Nepal’s double standards.
“This move will definitely erode our credibility and tarnish our image globally because before the election to the UN Human Rights Council, we committed to standing in favour of democracy, human rights and civil liberties,” Prasain told the Post. “Nepal’s decision is a matter of grave concern. It shows that Nepal is not fully committed to protection of human rights and democracy.”