Freedom in the World
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 5 to 4 due to relatively free and fair elections held in 2008.
In a significant step forward for national reconciliation, Nepal held relatively free and fair Constituent Assembly Elections in April 2008 in which Maoists won a convincing victory. However, violence marred the election campaign, leading to the deaths of two candidates. While significant improvements in law and order have been made following the 2006 ceasefire, attacks on journalists were commonplace in 2008, and ethnic violence continued in the Southern Nepal.
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. 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 1999 elections.
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. 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. Gyanendra assumed executive powers, postponed elections indefinitely, and installed a right-wing, royalist administration. In June 2004, former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who enjoyed somewhat more support than his predecessors, was reappointed 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. Meanwhile, fighting between the Maoists and security forces mounted, and periodic strikes and blockades crippled the economy.
In February 2005, Gyanendra once again 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. Realizing that their attempts to engage the king were unlikely to bear fruit, the seven-party alliance (SPA) of mainstream political factions entered into talks with the Maoists in October 2005, yielding a 12-point agreement in November that called for an end to absolute monarchy and the restoration of democracy.
In March 2006, the SPA and Maoists began planning a series of strikes and rallies scheduled for April. Thousands took part in daily demonstrations across the country, with the general public—led by professionals, civil society and human rights activists, and the civil service—forming the core of most marches. The SPA and Maoists demanded the restoration of Parliament and the election of a Constituent Assembly (CA) to write a new constitution. Gyanendra relented on April 24, agreeing to reinstate Parliament and follow the provisions of the November 2005 SPA-Maoist pact. Parliament quickly removed most of the king’s powers, and the SPA announced plans for CA elections.
After months of Maoist-SPA tension over Maoist disarmament and the fate of the monarchy, the groups concluded a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in November 2006, stipulating that the Maoists place their weapons under UN monitoring and confine their fighters to camps across the country. The national army would lock up a similar number of weapons. The Maoists further agreed to disband their parallel government and join a new interim government alongside current members of Parliament. Maoists joined the new Parliament in January 2007, and weapons decommissioning was finished later in the month. An interim constitution was promulgated on January 15, 2007.
Optimism following the peace agreement proved short lived, however, as violence broke out in mid-January in the Terrai plains region along the border with India. The combination of violence in the south and a lack of finalized election laws led to the postponement of CA elections, originally scheduled for June 2007, to November. The elections were postponed again until April 2008 due to disagreements between the Maoists and the SPA over the election system and the future of the Monarchy.
In a significant step forward in Nepal’s peace process, CA elections were held as planned on April 10, 2008. International observers found the elections to be generally free and fair, with few incidents of violence on election day. However, campaigning prior to the election was marred by widespread violence, with candidates and campaign workers regularly attacked, and two candidates were killed during the campaign; Maoists were responsible for the bulk of the violence. The Maoists won a conclusive victory, capturing 229 seats—a 100-seat advantage in the CA over their closest rival, the Congress Party. While Ram Baran Yadav, who was supported by several opposition parties, defeated the Maoist candidate for President in July, Maoist leader Prachanda was elected Prime Minister in August, and the Maoists formed a coalition government shortly after.
The government’s first budget was released in September, increasing government expenditure by 40 percent with the inclusion of debt cancellation programs, allowances for the poor, and free primary education. However, the Maoists had yet to release a concrete set of long-term goals by year’s end; commentators have speculated that the party is split as to whether to pursue democratic, market-friendly policies or attempt to form a single party, Communist state.
Nepal is not an electoral democracy. Elections held on April 10, 2008 were found to be “generally organized in a professional and transparent manner” by an EU observation team. However, the EU noted that the elections did not fully meet international standards due to restrictions on freedoms of assembly, movement, and expression. While there were some minor incidents of violence on election day, polling was generally peaceful; however, violence was more widespread during the campaign.
The government is operating under an interim constitution promulgated on January 15, 2007. The Constituent Assembly (CA), a 601-seat body, is the only legislative house. In addition to legislative duties, the Assembly is tasked with writing a new constitution. Members are elected in a mixed electoral system: 240 seats are allocated based on a first-past-the-post system, 335 seats are allocated through a proportional representation system, and 26 members are appointed by a council of ministers. Both the president and prime minister are elected by a majority of the CA and together form the executive branch. The monarchy was pushed into the background after the April 2006 protests; King Gyanendra has no political power.
A wide range of political parties are currently in the CA. Unlike the 1990 constitution, the interim constitution has no limitation on parties formed along ethnic lines. Thirty-three percent of the seats in the CA are reserved for women, and substantial allocations were made for Madhesis, Dalits, and other minority groups. Representation in state institutions of ethnic minorities, lower castes, and women remains inadequate, although in August 2007, Parliament passed a civil service bill reserving 45 percent of posts for women, minorities, and Dalits.
Corruption is perceived to be endemic in politics and government, and enforcement of anticorruption regulations remains weak. High-level officials are rarely prosecuted, although the central bank governor Bijaya Nath Bhattarai was convicted of corruption in March 2008. Many members of the CA have been accused or convicted of corruption in the past. Graft is particularly prevalent in the judiciary, with frequent payoffs to judges for favorable rulings. Nepal was ranked 121 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The legal environment for the press has improved significantly since the April 2006 uprising. Several restrictive media controls were repealed shortly after Parliament returned to power. The interim constitution promulgated in January 2007 provides for press freedom and specifically prohibits censorship, although these rights can be suspended during an emergency. Authorities are forbidden to close or cancel registrations for media outlets due to content. 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 Electoral Commission’s Code of Conduct, implemented on January 16, 2008 and enforced throughout the campaign, contained provisions requiring state-owned media to provide airtime to all parties during the campaign. Under the Code, state-media are also required to remain impartial and devote equal time to different political views.
Violence and intimidation toward journalists continued to be a serious problem in 2008, following a violent year in 2007. The Federation of Nepali Journalists reported 20 cases of physical attacks on journalists during election campaigning in early 2008. There were also several reports that journalists covering the election had received death threats Maoists and the Young Communist League (YCL) continued to harass journalists throughout the year. Several cases of assault were reported, including a series of attacks in the western region of Kailali in May 2008 which led to the closure of several newspapers. In late December, the editorial offices of Kantipur Publications, a publisher of two major newspapers, were occupied by Maoist-aligned groups and prevented from publishing for several days. Ethnic violence in southern Nepal resulted in the death of two journalists in January.
The interim constitution identifies Nepal as a secular state, signaling a break with the Hindu monarchy. While 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 2008 Report on International Religious Freedom. Christian groups have considerable difficulty registering as religious organizations and thus are unable to own land. Tibetan groups have faced restrictions in organizing public events. In March 2008, a Mosque in the Biratnagar district of southern Nepal was bombed, killing two people. A Hindu fundamentalist group, the Nepal Defense Army, claimed responsibility.
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. However, the number of attacks on schools has dropped significantly following the 2006 ceasefire.
Freedom of assembly is guaranteed under the interim constitution. However, in early 2007, Madhesi protesters in Terrai clashed violently with police, leaving at least 30 protesters dead. In the first half of 2008, police repeatedly used violence to disperse Tibetan protesters, frequently using tear-gas and beating protesters with sticks. Several injuries were reported. Many protesters were arbitrarily arrested and detained, although most were released within hours. Over 500 women were detained at an anti-China rally in Kathmandu in May.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) played an active role in the April 2006 protests, and conditions for the groups improved somewhat following the transfer of power. In May 2006, the government repealed a November 2005 code of conduct that had barred NGOs from work that would disturb social harmony. The YCL occasionally threatened or attacked NGOs in 2008. Several attacks on NGOs aiding victims of sexual violence were reported.
The labor act provides for the freedom to collectively bargain, and unions generally operate without state interference. A draconian labor ordinance put in place by Gyanendra’s government was repealed in 2006, and restrictions on civil service members forming unions were lifted. By law, workers in a broad range of “essential” industries cannot stage strikes, and 60 percent of a union’s membership must vote in favor of a strike for it to be legal. 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. The Nepali Ministry for Labor and Transport Management estimates that there are approximately 2.4 million child laborers in Nepal.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but most courts suffer from endemic corruption, and many Nepalese have only limited access to justice. In July 2008, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Kedar Prasad Giri, acknowledged that the court was often subject to political pressure. There are currently 52,098 cases pending in all courts across the country. 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. In November 2008, Human Rights Watch reported that police had beaten over 200 children while in custody for petty crimes in 2008. The government generally has refused to conduct thorough investigations or take serious disciplinary measures against officers accused of brutality.
Both the government and the Maoists have been accused of an array of human rights violations in the context of the insurgency, which claimed nearly 13,000 lives between 1996 and 2006. While the formation of a truth and reconciliation commission was called for in the November 2006 CPA, a bill to create the commission had yet to be enacted at the end of 2008. The Maoists impounded their weapons under UN supervision in January 2007, and people’s governments and courts were officially abandoned in February 2007. Some 31,000 Maoist fighters are currently living in 28 camps throughout the country. However, Maoists have faced criticism for continued human rights abuses. The YCL, established by the Maoists following the CPA, has kidnapped, harassed, and beaten party rivals and has been accused of meting out vigilante justice in rural areas. Although its overall level of activity was scaled back somewhat in 2008, the YCL allegedly killed two youths in Dhading District in November. YCL members have also attacked journalists and demanded protection payments from businesses across the country. In 2008, Maoists called for the integration of Maoist fighters into the security forces, although opposition parties have delayed the move, arguing that it could reignite tensions.
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 continue to be subjected to particularly severe exploitation, violence, and social exclusion. Nepal also provides asylum to more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees.
Madhesis, plains-dwelling people with close connections to groups across the border in India, are often described in contrast to Pahades, or hill-dwelling people. Madhesis are underrepresented in politics, receive comparatively little economic support from the government, and until an amendment to the citizenship law in 2006 had difficulty acquiring formal citizenship due to Nepali language requirements. Several armed separatist groups continued to operate in southern Nepal in 2008; in November, the Maoist led government announced intentions to begin talks with the groups as soon as possible. A significant portion of CA seats are reserved for minority groups, among them Madhesis.
Women rarely receive the same educational and employment opportunities as men, and there are relatively few women in government and the civil service. However, the interim constitution reserves a third of all seats in the forthcoming CA for women. 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 security forces and state-sponsored village militias. Thousands of women and girls are trafficked annually, many to Indian brothels. Because most prostitutes who return to Nepal are HIV-positive, nearly all returnees are shunned. 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. While homosexuality is not outlawed, an “unnatural sex act” carrying a one-year jail sentence was used against gay men and transgender people. In December 2007, however, the Supreme Court ordered the government to abolish all laws that discriminate against homosexuals. The court in November 2008 gave its consent to same-sex marriages.