Today, December 10, is the anniversary of the adoption and promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly in 1948. This anniversary, celebrated every year as Human Rights Day, is an appropriate occasion for us to reflect on the state of human rights both in our own native countries and here in Nepal.
There is a second annual event of international importance that, fittingly, shares the same date: the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony. The timing is not accidental. It has long been felt appropriate to celebrate progress in promoting peace on precisely the same day as we recall the principles of human rights that, if upheld, safeguard and empower all of humankind.
This year, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union, in recognition of six decades of advancing peace and reconciliation, human rights, and democracy. While those of us who belong to this unique political Union are well aware that significant internal challenges remain, we are nevertheless justly proud of the contribution that this regional integration project has made to security and prosperity both within European borders and beyond.
December 10, then, is significant to us for two reasons. As Europeans, we are celebrating the receipt of a hugely prestigious prize for peace. As international citizens, we are reaffirming our commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With these two occasions falling on the same day, we cannot help but meditate on the deep connections between peace and human rights.
The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the first steps towards the formation of a European Union both came in the aftermath of the Second World War, a conflict that began in Europe but swiftly radiated outwards to engulf much of the globe. In the following years, revised Conventions on the Protection of Victims of War (1949) and on the Protection of Refugee (1951) were adopted in Geneva. The EU was constructed to prevent further war from breaking out in Europe by transforming historical enemies into mutually-dependent friends. At the centre of the Union are two states whose enmity had previously seemed to be intractable: France and Germany. It is testament to the effectiveness of our regional integration that the very idea of war between these countries now strikes us as almost impossible.
The loss of life in the Second World War was devastating and unprecedented, as were the indignities to which people were subjected. The reality is that the worst atrocities against humanity, and the worst abuses of human rights, are committed in times of war. In the aftermath of a conflict in which law and decency have been so comprehensively flouted, the pursuit of justice for victims cannot be disentangled from the process of rebuilding peace. In the same way, a widely-affirmed and institutionalized respect for human rights is vital for the prevention of future wars.
Several years have now passed since the cessation of hostilities here in Nepal. As friends and well-wishers of this country, the EU missions and Switzerland, have been encouraged by the progress towards securing peace and consolidating democracy in Nepal. There have been very real achievements, but there remains much to do.
The theme of this year’s Human Rights Day ‘My Voice Counts’, puts the spotlight on every person’s right to be included in political decision-making. We are encouraged by the increased inclusivity of Nepal’s democratic institutions and by the commitment of the political classes to addressing discrimination and inequality. Caste-based discrimination is unfortunately still prevalent in Nepali society despite the existence of domestic constitutional and legal provisions and international human rights instruments. No country can afford to exclude a large part of its population from participating in the development process, and Nepal has seen that discrimination and exclusion may lead to social unrest, instability and—ultimately—armed conflict. We therefore particularly endorse the prioritization by the National Human Rights Commission of ending caste-based discrimination, and we extend our support to the National Dalit Commission and National Women Commission.
On the occasion of Human Rights Day, however, there remains a principle crucial to the peace process that has not been heeded: that it is truth, justice and reconciliation that transform a cessation of hostilities into a durable peace. This is not a principle that we import from abroad and try to impose. This principle, like the Declaration of Human Rights, is universal. In speaking up for this principle, we are supporting all those voices within Nepal who have been constant in their commitment to justice: voices from the Supreme Court, from the National Human Rights Commission, from conflict victims’ groups, from multiple Nepali NGOs, lawyers, academics, journalists and civil society actors. These voices cannot be ignored or sidelined.
No one can deny that major violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law took place during the decade of civil war. The Nepal Conflict Report, released in October by the United Nations Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights, estimates that up to 9,000 serious violations occurred during this period. Despite this, not a single person has yet been prosecuted for a serious conflict-related crime. Not only is this an affront to justice and to victims’ rights, but it also has the potential to seriously compromise peace in Nepal. Experience from across the world demonstrates that a culture of impunity is conducive to further conflict.
It is tempting and understandable to cite the absence of Truth and Reconciliation and Disappearance Commissions as the reason for the delay in prosecutions. But it is an established principle of international practice that such Commissions are not a replacement for criminal justice processes. Sufficient evidence has already been compiled for certain cases to be prosecuted in the courts immediately.
International norms are further clear that implicated individuals should be removed from positions of influence. We encourage the government to comply with the request made by the Supreme Court in August to establish guidelines for vetting security service personnel during the consideration of promotions.
The manner of the establishment and the mandates of the Commissions themselves are a matter of considerable concern. We have consistently urged the government to create strong and independent Commissions that meet international standards. We reiterate that the EU and Switzerland will be unable to support mechanisms that facilitate amnesties for serious crimes, such as torture, enforced disappearance, and sexual violence. In keeping with the theme of this year’s Human Rights Day, we urge the government to take account of the views of victims and civil society organizations to design appropriate and effective Commissions.
We encourage Nepal to strengthen its international cooperation, for example, by launching a standing invitation to all UN special rapporteurs. Nepal should consider ratifying soon fundamental human rights instruments as well as the Rome Statute of the ICC. This would be an important signal and useful instrument for strengthening peace and human rights in Nepal.
On this Human Rights Day, we would like to pay tribute to all Nepal’s Human Rights Defenders who continue to speak up for human rights and justice in difficult circumstances at considerable personal risk. We fervently hope that they will soon receive the ultimate tribute: the inclusion, truth, justice and reconciliation for which they campaign.
The missions of the EU (Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the UK, and the Delegation of the EU) as well as
Switzerland subscribe to this joint editorial