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 political rights rating improved from 6 to 5, its civil liberties rating rose from 5 to 4, and its status improved from Not Free to Partly Free, due to the return of Parliament and the end of King Gyanendra’s direct rule following April protests, along with improvements in the rule of law, and media and NGO freedoms.
An April 2006 protest movement, inspired by an alliance of mainstream political parties and a Maoist-organized general strike, brought thousands of ordinary Nepalis into the streets in a powerful display of civic resistance. Bowing to the pressure, King Gyanendra that month ended his direct rule and restored parliamentary government, now led by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala. The Maoist rebels agreed to a ceasefire following Parliament’s return, and in November they signed a peace deal with the multiparty government, in which they agreed to disarm and join the parliamentary system. Despite these developments, however, a wide range of human rights abuses were reported in Maoist-controlled areas. Elections to a constituent assembly, tasked with writing a new constitution, are tentatively scheduled for mid-2007.
King Prithvi Narayan Shah unified the Himalayan state of Nepal 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 he 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 prodemocracy rallies that led King Birendra to lift the ban on political parties. An interim government introduced a constitution that vested executive power in a prime minister and cabinet responsible to Parliament but retained the monarch as head of state.
In Nepal’s first multiparty elections in 32 years, Girija Prasad Koirala, a veteran dissident, led the NC to victory and formed a government in 1991. Torn 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. Separately, the more militant Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) launched a guerrilla insurgency in 1996 that eventually engulfed much of the countryside. Hopes for a more stable government rose after the NC won a majority in elections held in 1999.
In June 2001, King Birendra’s brother Gyanendra ascended the throne after a bizarre palace incident in which the crown prince apparently shot and killed Birendra 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 agreement 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 increased in May 2002, when Deuba dissolved Parliament and called for fresh elections to be held in November. After Deuba, then acting as caretaker prime minister, asked the king in October to postpone the elections because of the worsening security situation, Gyanendra dismissed him and assumed executive powers himself. Postponing elections indefinitely, he 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 organized antigovernment protests calling for a return to parliamentary rule. The subsequent June 2003 appointment of Surya Bahadur Thapa, a member of a right-wing royalist party, as prime minister also lacked legitimacy. In June 2004, Deuba, who enjoyed somewhat more support than his predecessors, was reappointed as prime minister with a mandate to hold elections and reestablish peace. However, the NC and three other parties refused to join the government, and Parliament remained dissolved.
Peace with the Maoists proved elusive. After the collapse of a ceasefire between the rebels and government forces in August 2003, the rate of killings on both sides once again rose sharply. The Maoists continued their policy of staging bombings, assassinating local government officials, and attacking key economic targets. Periodic strikes and blockades crippled the economy and caused further hardship for Nepali civilians and business interests.
The equation changed dramatically on February 1, 2005, when King Gyanendra dismissed the government, assumed executive powers, and imposed a state of emergency. His officials detained politicians, arrested thousands of party activists, outlawed demonstrations, and shut down numerous media outlets and other means of communication, such as telephone and internet services. Although the state of emergency was lifted in April, restrictions on travel, assembly, and media stayed in place, and many politicians and others remained in detention or under house arrest. Civil society groups continued to protest against the restrictions placed on their activities, while the parties themselves struggled to overcome their divisions and form a united front against the palace. The seven main parties banded together in support of a “road map” for a return to democracy that included as a first step the restoration of Parliament. Antigovernment protests and agitation became a regular feature of life in Kathmandu. In response, official pressure on civil society and the media was stepped up; the government amended six media laws to increase controls on both content and ownership, and a 15-point code to regulate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) was introduced in 2005. Despite the king’s justification that a royal takeover of the government was needed to crush the Maoist insurgency and improve the security situation, there is little evidence that either occurred during the latter half of 2005.
Realizing that their attempts to engage the king were unlikely to bear fruit, the seven-party alliance (SPA) entered into talks with the Maoists in October 2005. Their efforts culminated the following month in a 12-point agreement that called for an end to absolute monarchy and the restoration of democracy. Despite the inclusion of an option to accommodate the monarchy in a revised political structure, the royal government refused to recognize the agreement, leaving little room for a future settlement between the palace and the Maoist-SPA coalition.
The Maoist leadership, which had been shaken by an internal dispute between leaders Bhattarai and Prachanda during 2005, demonstrated a more coherent and effective military and political strategy in early 2006. In January, the Maoists ended a ceasefire declared in September 2005, launching a set of coordinated attacks in and around Kathmandu and mounting at least 50 bombings that month alone. The SPA continued to organize protests, including a demonstration in Janakpur that drew 100,000 people in January. Amid increased tensions, the government cracked down on opposition groups on January 19, disrupting plans for rallies on the following day. All telephone services were cut off for a time in Kathmandu, and roughly 100 SPA leaders were arrested. An indefinite ban on protests was imposed.
The Maoists and the SPA both opposed municipal elections that took place in February. Although the government claimed that they were a democratic step forward, the polls’ legitimacy was undermined by a widespread lack of participation by mainstream parties and voters and by the compromised independence of the election commission. Many of the posts at stake had no candidates at all, while others attracted only a single candidate who ran unopposed.
In March 2006, the SPA and Maoists reaffirmed their commitment to the November 2005 deal and began planning a series of strikes and rallies scheduled for April. Although the parties maintained executive control over the planning of the demonstrations—a request by the Maoists for a joint appeal was rejected by SPA leaders—the Maoists played an integral role in the movement, rallying their rural base and deploying political workers in Kathmandu to direct protesters. When the strikes came into effect on April 4, however, public response was far greater than either the Maoists or the SPA had expected.
The initial plan was for a four-day strike, and after it proved successful, the SPA called for an extension and a tax boycott. Maoist leaders also publicly supported the continuation of the movement. In the following days, the scale of the protests increased dramatically, despite curfews and a government crackdown. Thousands took part in demonstrations across the country on a daily basis. The general public, led by professionals, civil society leaders, human rights leaders, and the civil service, formed the core of most demonstrations and marches; party cadres and leaders were initially rarely seen in the streets, and the vast majority of protesters were neither hard-core Maoists nor party loyalists. Domestic radio and television coverage helped encourage and organize protesters. Violent responses from the government fueled the marches; a major clash between security forces and protesters at Gongabu on April 11, in which the police fired live ammunition at crowds, only helped to draw more people into the streets. Meanwhile, in the early weeks of the movement, the king remained aloof. He did not mention the protests in an April 14 address to the public, seemingly confident that security forces could quell the unrest.
By April 21, however, it had become apparent that the king had to respond to the mounting pressure. Fourteen people had died in the protests, which showed no sign of slowing, and several government ministers had gone into hiding. The king issued an April 21 proclamation stating that “executive power of the kingdom of Nepal, which was in our safekeeping, shall from this day forward be returned to the people.” He then called on the SPA to recommend a candidate for prime minister. The SPA and Maoists dismissed the offer as insufficient, however, noting that the king was only agreeing to return to the status quo before January 2005; he would retain power to dismiss the prime minister and exercise article 127 of the constitution, which had been central to his use of unilateral powers. The groups demanded that the king acquiesce to their demands for the restoration of Parliament and empower a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. Gyanendra’s proclamation also raised the ire of the public, who took to the streets of Kathmandu on April 22 in greater numbers than before, with estimated crowds of 200,000 to 300,000 people.
The firm rejection of the king’s proposal convinced the palace that significant change was necessary. Reading a text approved by the SPA leadership, the king on April 24 agreed to reinstate Parliament and follow the SPA road map in accordance with the November 2005 agreement. The SPA formed a new Parliament led by G. P. Koirala. It was quick to pass several measures limiting the palace’s power, including resolutions removing the king’s immunity from prosecution and making him liable to income tax, amending the national anthem to remove references to the king, and giving the cabinet the sole right to appoint the chief of the army. While the Maoists objected to the king’s capitulation to the SPA, stating that it did not fully meet their demands for the end of the monarchy, they agreed to a three-month truce and began negotiations with the Parliament on disarmament and their entrance into the formal political sphere. In November, the two sides agreed to peace accords that stipulated that the Maoists would lay down their weapons, which would be placed under UN monitoring, and join the transitional Parliament. However, the Maoists were unable to follow the ambitious disarmament timetable set in the agreement and did not join Parliament on December 1 st as originally planned. They are expected to enter the government in early 2007.
Ongoing Maoist-SPA tensions were apparent in late December, when Maoists threatened a general strike following the appointment of several foreign ambassadors without their consultation. Although the issue was resolved, the episode underlined the fragility of Maoist-SPA relations. While Constituent Assembly elections are scheduled for June 2007, the interim government will also be forced to confront growing ethnic unrest in the southern planes, continued hostility from Maoist splinter-groups, and frequent strikes and protests in the capitol in the run up to the summer elections.
Nepal is not an electoral democracy. 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 monarch. King Gyanendra ruled from 2002 to 2005 through interim prime ministers and cabinets that had limited powers and little legitimacy; in February 2005 he dispensed with this façade, ruling by decree until protests in April 2006 led to the reinstatement of Parliament. The current Parliament is comprised of members elected in 1999. The government is operating under the 1990 constitution, but some lawmakers have asserted that recent resolutions regarding the power of the king override the constitution. A new, interim constitution was signed in December and is expected to be promulgated in early 2007. The monarchy was pushed into the political background after the April protests; in May, the king was stripped of his power to veto laws and his control over the army. The Parliament is now the focal point of all legislative functions, and executive power is vested in the cabinet. After the return of Parliament, the formal designation of the government was changed from “His Majesty’s Government of Nepal” to simply “the Nepal government.”
A wide range of political parties have been allowed to operate since 1990, although the constitution bans parties that are formed along religious, caste, ethnic, tribal, or regional lines. Representation in state institutions of ethnic minorities, lower castes, and women remains inadequate, although a resolution passed by the lower house in April called on the government to reserve 33 percent of all public positions for women. Several arrests of party activists took place early in 2006, but after the April protests, political parties have operated with far greater freedom.
Government institutions have all but fallen apart in much of rural Nepal. Municipal elections in February 2006 were neither free nor fair; only 20 percent of voters cast ballots, and voting took place in just 36 out of 58 towns and cities due to individuals running unopposed or because seats had no candidates. Local army officers act as de facto governors of districts, while higher-ranking officers and retired generals have been appointed to a number of influential posts.
Elected governments have made few reforms to Nepal’s bloated, inefficient civil service, and ministries continue to operate with little openness or accountability. Corruption is perceived to be endemic in politics and government administration. Legislation passed in 2002 disqualifies those convicted of corruption from running in political elections for five years and places 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. After its return to power, the Parliament made some effort to prosecute corrupt officials from the king’s government. In July 2006, Chief Election Commissioner Keshav Raj Rajbhandari and Nayan Bahadur Khatri, the head of the National Human Rights Commission, were impeached for incompetence and corruption. In February, the Supreme Court dissolved the much-criticized Royal Commission for Corruption Control, deeming it unconstitutional. Former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who had been imprisoned by the commission in 2005, was released shortly after the ruling. The government later formed a panel to probe possible abuses by the body. Nepal was ranked 121 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Although several press freedom problems remain, the media have been allowed greater liberty to operate since the transfer of power in April. The government has declared several media controls to be defunct. In May 2006, the Supreme Court discarded Article 8 of the 1992 National Broadcasting Act and Article 15 (1) of the 1991 Publications and Newspapers Act, deeming them incompatible with a 1990 constitutional provision guaranteeing press freedom. The first article gave the government the right to cancel the licenses of radio and television stations that broadcast news. The second allowed the government to restrict or censor coverage of sensitive issues. A restrictive media ordinance passed in October 2005 was also annulled, as was a 2005 decision to ban official advertising in private news outlets. A high-level media commission was formed in June to further review media laws and practices. The interim constitution signed in December provides for press freedom and specifically prohibits censorship. Authorities are also forbidden to close or cancel registrations for print and media outlets due to content.
The media now function in a less dangerous environment than during Gyanendra’s rule, when harassment, intimidation, and violence toward journalists was commonplace. However, journalists still face threats from Maoists and government forces. There were several reports of journalists being threatened, kidnapped, or attacked in Maoist-controlled areas in the second half of 2006. Although cases involving government forces were less frequent, police and soldiers have mistreated journalists in some instances. Members of the press have also been attacked by independent groups or mobs when addressing sensitive topics; reporters covering the treatment of minority groups in rural areas have been threatened or attacked in the past year.
The government maintains control of both the influential Radio Nepal, whose political coverage is supportive of official policies, and Nepal’s main television station. The issuing of new licenses for media outlets was halted under King Gyanendra’s direct rule, but in October 2006 it was reported that the government had awarded licenses to six new television channels and 50 FM radio stations across the country. A ban on FM news reporting had been lifted by the king in December 2005.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion. In 2006, the Parliament proclaimed that Nepal would be recognized as a secular, rather than a Hindu, country. Although religious tolerance is broadly practiced, proselytizing is prohibited, and members of some religious minorities occasionally complain of official harassment, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2005 Report on International Religious Freedom. Christian groups have considerable difficulty registering as religious organizations and thus are unable to own land on which to build churches or cemeteries.
The government does not restrict academic freedom. More than 100 teachers were killed by security forces and Maoists during the civil conflict, and Maoists regularly targeted private schools in rural areas, often abducting and forcibly conscripting school children. Since the April 2006 truce, the number of attacks on schools has dropped, although there were reports of school kidnappings in Chitwan District in November 2006.
The government imposed curfews and an indefinite ban on demonstrations in 2006 following a crackdown in January. During the April demonstrations, government forces put in place a shoot-to-kill curfew in Kathmandu; 14 protesters were slain during the two weeks of protests, with several reports of live ammunition being fired into unarmed crowds. Following Parliament’s return to power, curfews and restrictions were lifted, although several protests by Maoists and workers were forcibly dispersed later in the year in Kathmandu. A protest by pro-Maoist demonstrators demanding information concerning missing rebels on September 5 was dispersed by police with batons, and at least 30 people were injured. Dozens of Maoist protesters were arrested later in the month.
NGOs played an active role in the April protests, and conditions for the groups improved somewhat following the transfer of power. Organizations working in Maoist-controlled areas, however, continued to face restrictions on their work. In May, the government repealed the November 2005 “NGO code of conduct,” which had barred the groups from work that would disturb social harmony. Hundreds of NGOs currently work on a variety of issues in Nepal, and there have been no reports of government restrictions in the second half of 2006. NGOs operating in western Nepal were forced to put work on hold in August after Maoist forces warned them not to work without their permission. Earlier in the summer, Maoists had banned all NGOs from one western district.
Until the April protests, labor rights were severely restricted, with union rights suspended and meetings banned. However, since Parliament’s return to power some improvements have been made. 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 2004, the government expanded the list of “essential industries” to cover the transport, tourism, telecommunications, and public utilities sectors. Under pressure from labor unions, the lower house in May 2006 endorsed a proposal to ensure basic trade union rights for professionals and civil servants, guaranteed by International Labor Organization conventions. The draconian labor ordinance put in place by Gyanendra’s government was repealed, and restrictions on civil service members forming unions were lifted. Although bonded labor was outlawed in 2000, it persists in rural areas, and the incidence of child labor has increased due to conditions created by the insurgency.
Although the Supreme Court has been viewed as largely independent of the executive, this status was increasingly threatened during the latter stages of Gyanendra’s rule, as court orders were routinely flouted by the government and the court itself repeatedly delayed issuing habeas corpus writs. Following Parliament’s restoration, the Supreme Court reasserted its independence by ordering the release of three ministers who had been held on charges of plotting to repress the April demonstrations. The court found that there was insufficient evidence for their prosecution. Lower courts remain subject to political pressure and endemic corruption, and many Nepalese have only limited access to justice. Because of heavy case backlogs and a slow appeals process, suspects are often kept in pretrial detention for periods longer than their prospective prison sentences. Prison conditions are poor, with overcrowding common and detainees sometimes remaining 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 or take serious disciplinary measures against officers accused of brutality. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), set up in 2000 to investigate human rights abuses but slowly co-opted by the king’s political allies, has been defunct since the return of Parliament.
Both the government and the Maoists have been accused of an array of human rights violations in the context of the insurgency, which affected the entire country and has claimed nearly 13,000 lives since 1996. Prior to April 2006, the army and the poorly equipped police force were regularly implicated in extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, rapes, and the torture of suspected Maoists and their alleged supporters. The NHRC recorded several thousand extrajudicial executions since 2001 and several hundred disappearances in each of the last few years, giving Nepal the highest number of recorded disappearances worldwide. Nevertheless, a March 2005 Human Rights Watch report detailing the phenomenon noted that the incidents may have been underreported.
Throughout the insurgency, the Maoists killed, tortured, or kidnapped civilians, including suspected informers, landowners, local officials, teachers, and members of mainstream political parties. The rebels—estimated at 5,000 well-trained guerrillas supported by some 15,000 fighters who control perhaps 75 percent of Nepal’s territory—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 have regularly been coerced into providing food and lodging for traveling Maoist cadres and forced to attend political programs in which they are indoctrinated in Maoist ideology. Guerrillas have funded their operations in part through extortion and often closed schools and forcibly recruited children as soldiers, human shields, and couriers.
Conditions have improved markedly since the April ceasefire. Hundreds of Maoist prisoners were released in May, and the rebels agreed to lay down their arms in November. However, Maoists have faced criticism for continued human rights abuses in the second half of 2006. A UN report in September 2006 documented numerous cases of murder, abduction, torture, extortion, and the abuse of captives in Maoist-controlled areas. Reports also criticized the Maoists for continued policies of child recruitment, and “people’s courts” still function in many districts. Continued abuses have meant that few of the estimated 200,000 people displaced by the conflict have returned to their homes. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center reported in 2006 that the Maoists are actively opposing the return of displaced residents whom they consider “antirevolutionary.”
Members of the Hindu upper castes dominate government and business, and low-caste Hindus, ethnic minorities, and Christians face discrimination in the civil service and courts. Despite constitutional provisions that ban caste-based discrimination, dalits (untouchables) continue to be subjected to particularly severe exploitation, violence, and social exclusion. Ethnic tensions mounted following the return of parliament, and violence broke out in late 2006 in the southern planes region, known as Terria, where several groups began campaigns for greater autonomy and freedom from upper-caste domination. In December, a strike called by Nepal Sadbhawana Party-Anandidevi, the political party representing the largest group, the Madhesis, turned violent and led to several injuries when Madhesis clashed with the Pahades, a rival group. Some 2,000 to 3,000 Tibetans escape into exile via Nepal each year, with most ending up in India. In a bid to improve relations with China, the Nepalese government closed all offices related to the Tibetan refugees in January 2005, according to Agence France-Presse. Nepal also provides asylum to more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees.
Women rarely receive the same educational and employment opportunities as men, and there are relatively few women in government and the civil service. Although a 2002 law legalized abortion and broadened women’s property rights, many other laws relating to property, divorce, marriage, and citizenship 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. Amnesty International and others have documented a number of cases of custodial rape of women and girls by both security forces and state-sponsored village militias. Thousands of women and girls are trafficked annually, many to Indian brothels; while the majority are lured by false promises of work or sold by a family member, some are abducted by organized gangs. Because most prostitutes who return to Nepal are HIV-positive, nearly all returnees are shunned and find it difficult to rebuild their lives. In December 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that women under 35 would no longer need their parents’ or husbands’ permission to apply for a passport. The ruling came after petitions from two women claiming that the law—which had been intended to curb trafficking of women—was discriminatory and violated the constitution. In May 2006, the Parliament voted unanimously in favor of a resolution under which children born to Nepalese women would be given full citizenship.