Since the end of a decade-long civil war in 2006, Nepal has held a series of competitive elections and adopted a permanent constitution. As politics have stabilized, pressure on journalists has decreased, and authorities have been somewhat more tolerant of peaceful assembly. However, political protests are still sometimes marred by violence, and corruption remains endemic in politics, government, and the judicial system. Other problems include gender-based violence, underage marriage, and bonded labor. Transitional justice bodies have struggled to fulfill their mandates.
Key Developments in 2018:
- Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli was sworn in as prime minister in February, following national elections in late 2017 that were generally well conducted.
- In May, the Communist Party of Nepal–Maoist (UCPN–M) and the Communist Party of Nepal–Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN–UML) officially merged into one party, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
- A new criminal code which came into effect in August included privacy provisions that press freedom advocates claimed could criminalize normal newsgathering activities.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 25 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 10 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
The president is the head of state and is elected to up to two five-year terms by a parliamentary electoral college and state assemblies. The prime minister is elected by Parliament. Thus, the legitimacy of executive office holders is largely determined by the conduct of legislative and provincial elections.
Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli (widely known as KP Oli) was sworn in as prime minister in February 2018 after his party, the CPN–UML, won majorities in the elections for the upper house of Parliament, the House of Representatives, in late 2017, as well as the lower house, the National Assembly, in February. An election observation mission from the European Union (EU) declared the 2017 polls largely credible, despite incidents of violence at some campaign events.
The current president, Bidhya Devi Bhandari, was reelected in March.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
Members of the 275-seat House of Representatives are elected to five-year terms; 165 members are directly elected in single-seat constituencies, while 110 members are elected by proportional representation. The 56 members of the National Assembly are indirectly elected to six-year terms by an electoral college comprised of provincial and local leaders.
Local elections—the first since 1997—were held in several stages in 2017, and national and provincial elections were held late in 2017. The polls were generally well conducted and saw healthy turnout, and their results were accepted by the participating parties. However, the Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N), an umbrella group representing ethnic Madhesis, boycotted several rounds of local polls due to grievances related to provisions in the 2015 constitution.
While more peaceful than the 2013 election period, there were occasional incidents of election-related violence in 2017. Police killed three people during a CPN–UML campaign rally. There was sporadic violence in the lead-up to the national elections, in which one temporary police officer was killed. There was a significant uptick in violent incidents before elections held in the south; those clashes were related to interparty tensions and separatist opposition.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4
The legal framework for elections is largely sound and facilitates the conduct of credible polls. However, Parliament has yet to address the grievances that many have with the 2015 constitution, which are related to province demarcation, proportional representation based on population, and provisions in the citizenship law.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 10 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 3 / 4
Political parties are generally free to form and operate, though the risk of political violence represents an effective restriction on free political participation. Opposition figures sometimes face arrest. CK Raut, the leader of the Alliance for Independent Madhesh, which has advocated for secession from Nepal, was arrested in October 2018 on charges of disturbing law and order and voicing views against the state and nationality, over his remarks at a demonstration. Raut remained in custody at year’s end, and his case was ongoing.
In May, the UCPN–M and the CPN-UML, which had formed an alliance to contest the 2017 parliamentary elections, officially merged into one party, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3 / 4
Opposition parties have a realistic chance of gaining power through elections. The CPN–UML won control of the government as an opposition party following the 2017 elections. Smaller opposition parties have difficulty gaining power at the national level, partly due to a 3 percent threshold parties must reach to win proportional-representation seats in the House of Representatives. However, smaller parties perform better at the local level.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 2 / 4
People’s ability to freely exercise their political choices is limited by sporadic outbursts of political violence, as well as by heavy-handed security agents who at times have cracked down on political demonstrations. There were reports of vote buying during the 2017 campaign period.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 2 / 4
Though the constitution has requirements for the participation of women and minorities in the legislature, discrimination continues to hinder the political involvement of these groups. A limited definition of citizenship has resulted in the disenfranchisement of stateless people. Bhandari is Nepal’s first female president, but few women hold senior positions in politics.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 5 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4
Nepal ratified a new constitution in 2015, which represented an important step in its democratic transition. Successful legislative elections were held in 2017, with new lawmakers seated in 2018. However, despite democratic improvements and political stabilization in recent years, representative rule has yet to be consolidated.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4
Corruption is endemic in Nepali politics and government and often goes unpunished. Corruption by officials continued to obstruct the delivery of foreign aid that poured into the country after a devastating 2015 earthquake.
In 2017, the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority filed charges against Chudamani Sharma, former director of the Inland Revenue Department at the Tax Settlement Commission, for alleged embezzlement and the improper granting of tax exemptions to large businesses. Additional charges of illegal wealth possession were filed against Sharma in January 2018. After a number of delays, the case against Sharma was ongoing at year’s end.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4
The government generally operates with opacity. The Election Commission, as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP) are among bodies that have been criticized for a lack of transparency. Mechanisms for utilizing the 2007 Right to Information Act are poorly defined, and the law is inconsistently enforced.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 29 / 60 (–1)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 9 / 16 (–1)
D1. Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4 (–1)
The 2015 constitution provides for freedom of expression and prohibits prior restraints on press freedom, though these rules can be suspended in a national emergency. The constitution also states that the prohibition against prior restraint does not forbid restraints placed on the press in the interest of national security.
A newly revised criminal code, which came into effect in August 2018, includes provisions that criminalize publicizing private information about a person without consent, photographing an individual without consent, and satire that is “disrespectful.” Press freedom advocates argued that the new code could be used to prosecute journalists engaged in normal newsgathering activities.
High-level government officials have attempted to muzzle criticism in the media through pressure, intimidation, and legal maneuvers. In February, the chief justice of the Supreme Court issued an order to prevent the Kantipur Daily newspaper from publishing unflattering reports about him. In November, the minister of information and communications directed state media outlets to minimize reporting that criticized the government response to the murder of a 13-year-old girl.
Also in 2018, the Ministry of Information and Communications advised public institutions to “prioritize” state-run media outlets when selling advertisements, a move that some rights activists claimed was intended to financially hobble private media.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to growing restrictions on journalistic activity, including broadly written new criminal code provisions that impede newsgathering on privacy grounds, political interference with state broadcasters, and bias in the distribution of government advertising.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2 / 4
Like the interim constitution before it, the 2015 constitution identifies Nepal as a secular state, signaling a break with the Hindu monarchy that was toppled as part of the resolution of the civil war in 2006 (it was formally abolished in 2008). Religious freedom is protected under the new constitution, and tolerance is broadly practiced, but members of some religious minorities occasionally report official harassment. Muslims in Nepal are a particularly impoverished group, occupying a marginalized space. Proselytizing is prohibited under a 2017 law, and some Christians have been prosecuted under the law.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 2 / 4
The government does not restrict academic freedom, and much scholarly activity takes place freely, including on political topics. Student unions affiliated with the country’s major political parties sometimes clash violently, and the police occasionally use force to disperse demonstrations organized by student unions. Minorities, including Hindi- and Urdu-speaking Madhesi groups, have complained that Nepali is enforced as the language of education in government schools.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4
The freedom to engage in private discussions on sensitive topics has expanded alongside Nepal’s political stabilization. However, authorities have cracked down on some individuals who post content on social media that criticizes or insults the government. In August 2018, a man was arrested and detained for several weeks for posting an image on Facebook that superimposed the prime minister’s head on the body of a monkey.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 6 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 2 / 4
Although the constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, security forces violently disperse some protests and demonstrations, particularly in the southern regions, where there is a large Madhesi population. In August 2018, a teenage boy was killed, and dozens more were injured, when security forces opened fire on a protest in Mahendranagar against the police response to the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl. In July, dozens of people were injured when the police fired tear gas and used batons to disperse a protest in Kathmandu demanding improved health care.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 2 / 4
Although the new constitution allows nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to form and operate within the country, legal restrictions have made this difficult in practice. The District Administration Office (DAO), which is responsible for registering NGOs and associations, is often understaffed and lacks essential resources. Foreign NGOs must enter project-specific agreements with the Nepalese government. There is a widespread view that NGOs should not be overly political, which hinders some groups from engaging in certain forms of public advocacy.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4
The 2015 constitution provides for the right to form trade unions. Labor laws protect the freedom to bargain collectively, and unions generally operate without state interference. Workers in a broad range of “essential” industries cannot stage strikes.
F. RULE OF LAW: 6 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 2 / 4
The 2015 constitution provides for an independent judiciary. However, judicial independence is compromised by endemic corruption in most courts.
The state has generally ignored local court verdicts, Nepalese Supreme Court decisions, and National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recommendations addressing crimes committed during the 1996–2006 civil war.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4
Constitutional guarantees of due process are poorly upheld in practice. Reports of arbitrary arrests continue. Due to heavy case backlogs and a slow appeals process, suspects are frequently kept in pretrial detention for periods longer than the sentences they would face if tried and convicted. The government provides legal counsel to those who cannot afford their own, but only at a defendant’s request. Therefore, those unaware of their right to a public defender often end up representing themselves.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4
Rights advocates continue to criticize Nepal for failing to punish abuses and war crimes committed during the 1996–2006 civil war. Moreover, there has been no institutional reform of the security forces, which stand accused of carrying out torture, murder, and forced disappearances during the conflict. Some alleged perpetrators of wartime abuses serve in government.
Due to a lack of will on the part of the security forces and political parties, neither the TRC nor the CIEDP, two key transitional justice bodies, have implemented reforms demanded by the United Nations and two Nepali Supreme Court rulings. The mandates of both bodies were extended by one year in February 2018. Although the TRC and CIEDP have received thousands of reports of human rights violations and enforced disappearances, no alleged perpetrators have been prosecuted.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4
The 2015 constitution enshrines rights for sexual minorities. The first passport on which the holder was permitted to select a third gender was issued in 2015. However, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people reportedly face harassment by the authorities and other citizens, particularly in rural areas.
The constitution frames the protection of fundamental human rights for Nepali citizens only. This potentially leaves equal rights of noncitizens, including migrants and people who cannot prove citizenship, unprotected.
Tibetans in Nepal face difficulty achieving formal refugee status due to Chinese pressure on the Nepalese government. Women rarely receive the same educational and employment opportunities as men.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 8 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4
Freedom of movement is generally respected in Nepal. There are legal limits on the rights of refugees to move freely, but restrictions are inconsistently enforced. Citizens generally enjoy choice of residence, though bribery is common in the housing market, as well as to gain admittance to universities.
In rural areas, women remain subject to chaupadi, a traditional practice in which menstruating women are separated from their families and communities in sheds. The practice was criminalized under a law that went into effect in August 2018, but enforcement is uneven.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4
Although citizens have the right to own private businesses, starting a business in Nepal often requires bribes to a wide range of officials. Licensing and other red tape can be extremely onerous. Women face widespread discrimination when starting businesses, and customs and border police are notoriously corrupt in dealing with cross-border trade.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4
Gender-based violence against women remains a major problem. The number of reported rapes nearly doubled from 2016 to 2017, which some analysts partly attribute to a greater willingness to report the crime. The August 2018 rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl highlighted the extent of the problem, and caused widespread outrage. The 2009 Domestic Violence Act provides for monetary compensation and psychological treatment for victims, but authorities generally do not prosecute domestic violence cases. Underage marriage of girls is widespread.
Foreign men married to Nepali women must wait at least 15 years to obtain naturalized citizenship, while foreign women married to Nepali men can immediately become citizens. Furthermore, children of foreign-born fathers and Nepali mothers must apply for naturalized citizenship, while children of foreign-born mothers and Nepali fathers are automatically granted citizenship.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4
Trafficking of children and women from Nepal for prostitution in India is common, and police rarely intervene. Bonded labor is illegal but remains a serious problem throughout Nepal. Child labor also remains a problem, and children can be found working in the brickmaking, service, and other industries, as well as engaged in forced begging and sex work.
The 2015 earthquake left millions of people homeless. Many of those affected lack opportunities for social mobility, as they struggle to recover from the disaster.