Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Nepal's civil liberties rating dropped from 4 to 5 due to a further deterioration in the rule of law and in free economic activity under the Maoist insurgency.
Conditions in Nepal worsened in 2004 as the standoff between King Gyanendra and the political parties showed few signs of resolution and the ongoing Maoist insurgency continued to destabilize much of the country. In the wake of the collapse of a ceasefire in August 2003, the incidence of extrajudicial murders, abductions, and other human rights violations by both sides once again rose dramatically, with several thousand soldiers, rebels, and civilians being killed during the year. Maoist strikes, blockades, and violence directed at key business targets caused added hardship for civilians and further crippled the economy. Although a new interim prime minister and government with somewhat more legitimacy than the king's previous appointments took power in June, the relationship between the palace and the main political parties remained unproductive. Meanwhile, the Maoists continued to reject official invitations to resume negotiations unless their primary demand - the convening of a constituent assembly mandated to write a new constitution - was on the agenda.
King Prithvi Narayan Shah unified this Himalayan land in 1769. Following two centuries of palace rule, the left-leaning Nepali Congress (NC) party won Nepal's first elections in 1959. King Mahendra abruptly dissolved parliament and banned political parties in 1960, and in 1962 began ruling through a repressive panchayat (village council) system. Many parties went underground until early 1990, when the NC and a coalition of Communist parties organized pro-democracy rallies that led King Birendra to re-legalize political parties. An interim government introduced a constitution that vested executive power in the prime minister and cabinet, and turned Nepal into a constitutional monarchy.
In Nepal's first multiparty elections in 32 years, Giraja Prasad Koirala, a veteran dissident, led the NC to victory and formed a government in 1991. Riven by intraparty conflicts, the NC was forced in 1994 to call early elections, which it lost to the Communist Party of Nepal/ United Marxist-Leninist, or CPN-UML. The Communists, however, failed to win a majority in parliament. Hopes for a more stable government rose after the NC won a majority in elections held in 1999. The campaign centered on the problems of rampant official corruption, stagnant economic growth, and the Maoist insurgency. Led by Baburam Bhattarai and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the Communist Party of Nepal/Maoist (CPN-M, or Maoists) insurgent group has said that it wants an end to the constitutional monarchy and the feudal structure that persists in many parts of the country.
In June 2001, Gyanendra ascended the throne after a palace massacre in which the crown prince apparently shot to death the king and nine other members of the royal family before killing himself. After Sher Bahadur Deuba became interim prime minister in July, the rebels agreed to a ceasefire, but when they broke the ceasefire in November, Gyanendra declared a state of emergency. The government's subsequent decision to use the army to fight the Maoists marked a sharp escalation in the conflict; an estimated 5,000 people were killed in 2002, and Nepal's infrastructure and economy were severely damaged.
Political instability heightened in May 2002, when the prime minister dissolved parliament and called for fresh elections to be held in November. When caretaker prime minister Deuba, citing the worsening security situation, asked the king in October to postpone the elections, Gyanendra dismissed Deuba and assumed executive powers himself. While postponing elections indefinitely, he also installed an interim administration headed by Lokendra Bahadur Chand, a former prime minister and the leader of a small royalist party. Mainstream parties termed his decision undemocratic and have intermittently organized anti-government protests calling for a return to the democratic process. The subsequent installation of Surya Bahadur Thapa, a member of a right-wing royalist party, as prime minister by royal decree in June 2003 also lacked legitimacy, and in June 2004, Deuba, who enjoys somewhat more support than his predecessors, was reappointed as prime minister and formed a coalition government. However, the NC and three other parties refused to join the government and parliament remained dissolved. Deuba was also charged with holding an election before April 2005, and restoring peace.
The latter task proved virtually impossible during the second half of 2004. A ceasefire between the rebels and government forces, which had been in effect from January to August 2003, collapsed following disagreements that emerged at a third round of peace talks about the possible formation of a constituent assembly. After that, the rate of killings on both sides once again escalated dramatically. During 2004, the Maoists continued their policy of bombing, assassinating government officials, particularly at the local level, and attacking key targets such as an Indian-owned five-star hotel and the America Center in Kathmandu. Periodic strikes and blockades called throughout the year crippled the economy and caused further hardship for Nepali civilians and business interests. In August, the Maoists announced that they were preparing for a "strategic offensive." The cabinet formally invited the Maoists to negotiate in September 2004, but they appear unwilling to engage in sustained and serious negotiations unless the government will agree to convene a constituent assembly to write a new constitution.
The Nepalese cannot change their government democratically. The 1990 constitution provides for a 205-seat lower house of parliament that is directly elected for a five-year term and a 60-seat upper house whose members are either elected by national or local government bodies or appointed by the king. During 2004, these constitutional provisions remained suspended, and polls that would have elected a new parliament in November 2002 have been indefinitely postponed. King Gyanendra rules through an interim prime minister and cabinet; since October 2002, he has appointed three such puppets who have had limited powers and little legitimacy. The king's influence is bolstered by his authority to wield emergency powers and suspend many basic freedoms. He also serves as commander in chief of the army.
A wide range of political parties have been allowed to operate since 1990, although the constitution bans political parties that are formed along religious, caste, ethnic, tribal, or regional lines. Recent elections have been free, though not entirely fair. In the 1999 elections, interparty clashes led to several election-related deaths and Maoist violence caused balloting to be postponed in dozens of districts.
As a result of the escalation in the insurgency, government institutions have all but fallen apart in much of rural Nepal. Elected governments have made few reforms to Nepal's bloated, inefficient civil service, and ministries operate with little openness or accountability. Corruption is perceived to be endemic in politics and government administration. Legislation passed in 2002 disqualified those convicted on corruption charges from contesting political elections for five years and placed the burden of proof in corruption cases on the accused. However, compliance with anticorruption regulations remains weak and the prosecution of high-level officials is rare, which contributes to a climate of impunity. Representation of ethnic minorities, lower castes, and women in state institutions is negligible. Nepal was ranked 90 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Both the constitution and the Press and Publications Act broadly suppress speech and writing that could undermine the monarchy, national security, public order, or interethnic or intercaste relations. The government owns both the influential Radio Nepal, whose political coverage favors the ruling party, and Nepal's main television station. Although access to the Internet is generally unrestricted, in February the government instructed privately-run Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to the Maoists' website.
Conditions for the media, which deteriorated sharply as the Maoist insurgency escalated in late 2001, have remained poor. Journalists who are suspected of pro-Maoist leanings or who produce material critical of the government are regularly arrested and detained by police and security forces, and a number have reportedly been subjected to harassment, torture, and occasionally death. During the daily pro-democracy demonstrations that engulfed Kathmandu in April, hundreds of reporters who were attempting to cover unfolding events were arrested and several were beaten or otherwise injured by police. While many private publications continue to criticize government policies, self-censorship is a growing concern.
Media professionals are also under increasing pressure from the Maoists. Rebels killed Dakendra Raj Thapa, a journalist with the state-owned Radio Nepal, in August, and other reporters have been abducted and threatened as well as being expelled from rebel-held areas. In November, the Maoists imposed a reporting ban in five western districts and put into place provisions that required journalists to obtain permission from local Maoist leaders before reporting from the area.
Although the constitution describes Nepal as a Hindu kingdom, there is a considerable Buddhist minority. The constitution provides for freedom of religion, but proselytizing is prohibited and members of religious minorities occasionally complain of official harassment. Although the government does not restrict academic freedom, more than 100 teachers have been killed both by security forces and by Maoists, and Maoists regularly target private schools in the rural areas. A strike called by a pro-Maoist student union in June affected more than 33,500 schools and forced an estimated six million students to stay home, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Freedom of assembly and association is occasionally restricted, and police sometimes use excessive force against peaceful protestors. In April, the government declared Kathmandu to be a riot zone and banned the assembly of more than five people after the main parliamentary parties organized daily demonstrations calling for a return to democracy. Protestors defied the ban, and more than 900 were arrested on April 9 alone, while dozens were injured by police during the course of the demonstrations.
The government generally allows nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to function freely. However, Amnesty International and others reported that human rights activists faced increasing harassment from both police and Maoist guerrillas during 2004, including threats, torture and detention, and occasional violence. The insurgency has forced a number of NGOs working in rural Nepal to substantially curb their activities, as the Maoists require NGOs to seek their permission to function in many districts and have expressed hostility towards international development organizations, according to Human Rights Watch. In May, three major Western donor organizations announced that they were indefinitely suspending their operations in western Nepal, citing persistent intimidation and extortion by the Maoists.
Trade unions are independent, but they have notched up few real gains for workers. By law, workers in certain essential services cannot stage strikes and 60 percent of a union's membership must vote in favor of a strike for it to be legal. In March, the government expanded the list of "essential industries" to cover entire sectors such as transport, tourism, telecommunications, and public utilities. While export-oriented carpet factories have reduced their use of child workers, smaller carpet factories and several other industries continue to depend on child labor. Although bonded labor was outlawed in 2000, it persists in rural areas.
The Supreme Court is viewed as largely independent of the executive. However, lower-level courts are subject to political pressure and endemic corruption, and effective access to justice for many Nepalese remains limited. Because of heavy case backlogs and a slow appeals process, suspects often spend longer in pretrial detention than they would if convicted of the crimes for which they stand accused. Prison conditions are poor, with overcrowding common and detainees sometimes handcuffed or otherwise fettered.
In ordinary criminal cases, police at times commit extrajudicial killings and cause the disappearance of suspects in custody. They also occasionally torture and beat suspects to punish them or to extract confessions. The government generally has refused to conduct thorough investigations and take serious disciplinary measures against officers accused of brutality. Nevertheless, BBC reports in January and March 2004 quoted an official spokesman as saying that a number of soldiers had been imprisoned or dismissed from the army after having committed human rights abuses. Set up in 2000, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has a mandate to investigate alleged human rights violations, such as the extrajudicial killing of 19 people in Ramechhap district by the army in August 2003. However, both the government and the Maoists have refused to sign a Human Rights Accord prepared by the NHRC that would give it greater powers to monitor violations with technical assistance from the United Nations.
Both the government and the Maoists have been accused of increased human rights violations in the context of the insurgency, which now affects the entire country and has claimed more than 10,500 lives since 1996. The army and poorly equipped police force have been implicated in extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, rapes, and the torture of suspected Maoists and alleged supporters. The NHRC has recorded several thousand extrajudicial executions since 2001 and several hundred disappearances in each of the last few years, a situation that confers on Nepal the dubious honor of having the highest number of unexplained political disappearances worldwide. In November 2003, then prime minister Surya Bahadur Thapa announced plans to arm civilians to help defend villages against the Maoists, a move that was criticized by the International Crisis Group and others.
Domestic human rights groups accuse the government of using tough security laws such as the Public Security Act (PSA) and the Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Act (TADA), promulgated in April 2002, to deter civilians from supporting the Maoists. Both laws allow officials to detain suspects for up to six months without filing charges. The government detained dozens of civilians under TADA, including journalists, teachers, lawyers, and political activists. TADA expired in April 2004, but had been kept in force as an ordinance (TADO), and in October, the government amended TADO, extending the period during which suspects could be detained without trial to one year.
The Maoists have killed, tortured, or kidnapped civilians, including suspected informers, landowners, local officials, teachers, and members of mainstream political parties. The rebels, estimated to consist of approximately 5,000 well-trained guerillas supported by some 15,000 fighters who control perhaps 45 percent of Nepal's territory, have also set up "people's courts" in some districts that hand down summary justice and "people's governments" that levy taxes on inhabitants' income and landholdings. Villagers are regularly coerced into providing food and lodging for traveling Maoist cadres and have been forced to take attend political programs in which they are indoctrinated in Maoist ideology. Adding to civilian hardship, the guerrillas fund themselves in part through extortion and looting, and they ordered a number of strikes and blockades throughout the year that paralyzed major urban centers. The Maoists also use forcibly recruited children as soldiers, human shields, and couriers. An intensified campaign of abductions during 2004 caused thousands of students to flee to other parts of Nepal and even to India, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Members of the Hindu upper castes dominate government and business, and low-caste Hindus, ethnic minorities, and Christians face discrimination in the civil service, courts, and government offices. Despite constitutional provisions that ban caste-based discrimination, dalits (untouchables) continue to be subjected to particularly severe exploitation, violence, and social exclusion. Nepalese officials at times extort money from, or otherwise harass, Tibetan asylum seekers who cross the border into Nepal, and occasionally hand Tibetans back to Chinese authorities, according to the U.S. State Department's human rights report for 2003. Some 2,000 to 3,000 Tibetans escape into exile via Nepal each year, with most ending up in India. Nepal also provides asylum to more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees. International organizations estimate that several hundred thousand Nepalese have been internally displaced as a result of the Maoist insurgency.
Women rarely receive the same educational and employment opportunities as men, and there are relatively few women in government and civil service. Although a 2002 law legalized abortion and broadened women's property rights, several dozen women remain in jail on abortion offenses, and many other laws relating to property, divorce, and several other areas discriminate against women. Domestic violence and rape continue to be serious problems. The government has taken few steps to curb violence against women or to assist victims, and authorities generally do not prosecute domestic violence cases. Organized gangs traffic some 5,000 to 12,000 Nepalese girls to work in Indian brothels each year, according to estimates by local NGOs. Because the majority of prostitutes who return to Nepal are HIV-positive, nearly all returnees are shunned and are unable to obtain help to rebuild their lives.