An opportunity for a fresh start
There is much anticipation in Nepal as the nation awaits the results of its recent historic parliamentary and provincial elections—the first under its new constitution, says David Anderson.
This is also a significant time for Nepal on the international stage, as it begins its mandate as a member of the UN Human Rights Council for the first time.
What many are not aware of is that 16 October 2017—the date on which Nepal was elected to the UN Human Rights Council—was the same day that a criminal code bill which severely restricts freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief in Nepal was signed into law.
In October, the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief organised, at the invitation of its Nepal Chapter, for an international delegation of parliamentarians to visit Nepal with the objective of pressing the government to uphold freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. It remains our firm conviction that these and other rights must be firmly protected as Nepal transitions into a secular federal democratic nation.
Nepal’s constitution, which was promulgated in 2015, is in many ways a remarkable achievement, signalling as it does the country’s pathway out of a violent civil conflict. But it has its limitations and weakness, not least the lack of protection of the rights of marginalised and vulnerable communities including women, Dalits and religious minorities.
Nepal’s constitution stipulates that ‘Sanatana Dharma’ (Hindu faith) will be protected by the state. Nepal is not the only country with such lofty ambitions but the constitution goes further, as in Article 26 (3), by restricting the fundamental right of every individual to follow a religion of his or her own choice and to manifest that religion in word and action. It states:
“No person shall, in the exercise of the right conferred by this Article, do, or cause to be done, any act which may be contrary to public health, decency and morality or breach public peace, or convert another person from one religion to another or any act or conduct that may jeopardize other’s religion and such act shall be punishable by law.”
Possibility of misuse
Last June, this clause was used to charge eight Nepali Christians in Charikot with attempting to convert children after they had shared a comic book on the story of Jesus with them. Although they were acquitted of all charges in December 2016, similar cases may occur in the future if the new law and the constitution remain unchanged.
This is not an isolated concern but sadly part of a wider process of systemic discrimination against Nepal’s minority religious communities. Clause 160 in Section 9 of the criminal code bill, which restricts religious conversion, could be invoked against a wide range of legitimate expressions of religion or belief, including the charitable activities of religious groups, or merely speaking about one’s faith.
The wording of Clause 158 of Section 9 of the criminal code, which criminalises the ‘hurting of religious sentiment’, is worryingly similar to the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, which make it a criminal offence to insult another’s religion. These laws are poorly defined and widely misused to settle personal scores, to target religious minorities or to further extremist agendas.
By curtailing the rights to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression, both the constitution and the new law undermine Nepal’s commitments under international law, which Nepal is meant to uphold according to its 1991 Treaty Act. This contradiction has become ever more striking as Nepal prepares to assume its seat on the UN Human Rights Council.
Nepali parliamentarians and civil society actors, both representing diverse coalitions of actors from a variety of faith groups and across political spectrum, need to redouble their efforts to hold the government to account for its human rights obligations. And the international community must stand up and assert that the Nepali government protect these fundamental human rights by amending both this law and Article 26 (3) of the Constitution.
However, whilst continuing to make these calls, we must also recognise the practical implications of their current existence, and do all we can to ensure that they are not implemented in their fullest form.
Nepal has elected its first ever provincial level governments, and those elected now have the power to influence the wording of the provincial laws. Bilateral donors such as the Department for International Development, and multilateral donors like the World Bank, will be supporting this transition through various projects. Alongside local actors, they are in prime position to influence the attitudes of these individuals and governance structures towards religious freedom. And ensure that, moving forward, we don’t see another Charikot incident—or worse.
As Nepal begins its first ever term on the UN Human Rights Council at the start of 2018, this new role brings with it a responsibility to ensure, among other human rights promotion and protection measures, the implementation of freedom of religion or belief in its entirety worldwide.
To hold this position, whilst retaining the aforementioned clauses in its penal code and constitution and standing idly by as its own citizens’ rights are being violated, is incongruous. There must be change.
* Anderson is a Member of Parliament for Cypress Hills, Canada, and Chair of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief
* The opinion was first published in The Katmandu Post
* The picture was taken in regards of a fact finding visit to Nepal in October 2017 by a delegation of IPPFoRB MPs, including Anderson (front middle).