Nepal was historically a Hindu kingdom, but during the last two decades it has evolved into a modern democratic republic. Before 1990, Nepalis were not permitted to change their religion, and converts to Christianity were severely harassed and imprisoned. A decade-long military conflict with Maoist Communist forces ended with the establishment of a democratic republic, but the peace process has yet to produce a constitution.
CSW is advocating for the new constitution to guarantee every person the right to choose or change their religion or belief, and to communicate it to others, which draft proposals would endanger. There is also a need to safeguard harmonious coexistence between people of the many different faiths which exist in Nepal.
State of freedom of religion or belief
At present, there is no systematic discrimination or organised repression of members of minority religions. Buddhists and Muslims have generally been treated with respect, as have members of local traditional religions. But religions which are newer to Nepal, such as the Christian and Baha’i faiths, have not always been tolerated. Militant movements with links to India were responsible for religiously-motivated killings of Christians in 2007 and 2008.
A key issue now is that the right to freedom of religion or belief must be protected fully in the new constitution. The mandate for the constitution is that it must be fully consistent with universally accepted human rights, including the conventions ratified by Nepal, but this is not the case with draft proposals on the right to freedom of religion or belief.
The issue of conversion is emotive in Nepal. Although at present there exists a general freedom to choose one’s personal faith, public evangelism and the teaching of a new faith to those under eighteen can provoke strong antagonism.
Draft proposals for the new constitution deal with conversion in a problematic way. The provision that “no person shall be entitled to convert another person from one religion to another” leaves little room for seeing religious conversion as a positive choice, and it is not consistent with Nepal’s international human rights obligations.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, the bodies of the dead are traditionally cremated, although there is one ethnic community, the Kirats, who bury their dead. There is no land in Nepal traditionally allocated to Christians for burial. Christians and Muslims both find themselves seeking land for burial, but this is a particularly severe problem for Christian churches who find Hindus are unwilling to sell land if it is to be used for burial. In some rural areas, Christians seeking to bury their dead have found themselves victims of violent reactions from local Hindus who have seized and forcibly cremated the body. The Supreme Court of Nepal has established that the state is not responsible for providing land for burial, but is responsible for providing protection when there are obstructions to the burial of the dead on church owned land.
Promoting inter-faith harmony
Representatives from all the main faiths have been working together for inter-religious cooperation since 2004. The National Council of Churches of Nepal (NCCN) and its General Secretary, Dr K B Rokaya, played the lead role in bringing together leaders from various faiths to work together on issues of common concern. This inter-religious cooperation has contributed positively to the peace process and to promoting human rights and inter-faith understanding, by establishing some common principles about the treatment of religions in a secular democratic republic, such as the independence of government from any one religion, and the non-interference of government in religious affairs and appointments. The state needs to recognise the benefits of establishing a single statutory body which brings together all the different religious communities, rather than the separate single religion commissions which are being established.
Situation of Dalits
As in other parts of the region, CSW is concerned about the situation of those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. Dalit human rights defenders consistently say that they view the right to freedom of religion or belief as a significant part of their struggle against oppression and marginalisation.
Since women have traditionally had such a low status in society, the development and protection of women’s rights and the participation of women in education and all sectors of society is a key issue for the future of Nepal. Gender-based violence is still a major problem within the family, on city streets, and in rural areas. Dalit and ‘low’ caste women are particularly vulnerable. The requirement in the 2008 elections that 33% of MPs must be women was an historic step forward, but this has not been matched in other areas of society.
However strong Nepal’s laws may be, they are irrelevant if they are not implemented properly. The widespread impunity for those committing serious crimes is a major issue. No one has yet been prosecuted for crimes committed during the decade-long conflict. Since that time, the perpetrators of murders, tortures, rapes and other serious crimes are not being arrested, prosecuted or convicted. Police inefficiency and corruption are partly responsible, but political leaders show little determination to implement the law, and political interference at the highest level into criminal investigations and prosecutions has been a major cause of impunity for criminals.
CSW’s Work in Nepal
CSW has been working for over twelve years with the NCCN and other groups, including the inter-religious network, to promote freedom of religion or belief and related human rights.
CSW’s current priority is to promote proper protections for the right to freedom of religion or belief in the new constitution, showing how draft proposals are inconsistent with the international human rights framework. We have published a detailed briefing which analyses the constitutional proposals, and have discussed our concerns in meetings with the government minister responsible for religious affairs, numerous members of the former Constituent Assembly, the chair of the National Human Rights Commission, the National Dalit Commission, other civil society groups, and foreign embassies and institutions providing support to the constitution drafting process.
We have also sent letters in the Nepali language to 90 Constituent Assembly members, and requested UN experts to take action. The UN Special Rapporteurs on freedom of religion or belief and freedom of opinion and expression jointly wrote a letter to the government of Nepal on this issue.
CSW has also engaged extensively in the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of Nepal’s human rights.
1769 : Nepal becomes a unified nation state and a Hindu Kingdom
1846-1950: Autocratic rule of Rana family
1950: Popular revolt succeeds in removing Rana regime and introducing multi-party democracy with constitutional monarchy
1960: King dissolves parliament, removes elected prime minister, and bans political parties. There is no religious freedom, conversion is illegal, and Christians are harassed and imprisoned
1975: King Birendra crowned “Divine Emperor” of all Hindus
1990: Pro-democracy demonstrations establish multi-party parliament, forcing king to become constitutional monarch. State persecution of Christian converts ends
1996: Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) begins what is to be a 10-year civil war
2002: King Gyanendra dissolves parliament, removes prime minister, rules as absolute monarch, declares emergency, and deploys the army against the Maoists. Political parties start street protests against unconstitutional rule of king
2006: Mass people’s movement and demonstrations force king to restore parliament. Peace agreement signed with Maoists. Democratic secular republic established
2008: Election of the Constituent Assembly (CA)
2012: CA fails to meet extended deadline to draft and promulgate new constitution and is dissolved, leaving president, advised by caretaker cabinet, to rule by decree
March 2013: Non-political government formed under Chief Justice. Elections for new CA announced for 19 November 2013