All elected Member States of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) have a special obligation to protect and promote human rights. While every State has a responsibility to uphold human rights, in theory and in practice, Member States on the Council are in a unique position; and to that end, it is important that they practice what they’re supposed to preach.
During the HRC elections, candidates submit voluntary pledges, committing to the promotion and protection of human rights, and once elected, to maintaining high standards towards the protection and promotion of human rights.
Often, a State’s campaign for election is not free from criticism. Indeed, current HRC Council Members include Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and China; countries which are frequently pulled up for serious human rights violations.
“While every state has a responsibility to uphold human rights, in theory and in practice, Member States on the Council are in a unique position; and to that end, it is important that they practice what they’re supposed to preach.”
In 2017, Nepal was elected as a Member of the HRC. The country will serve for a period of three years, and could serve up to two consecutive terms. It is important that Nepal embraces its position on the Council, calls out human rights abuses, makes recommendations, and promotes peace and reconciliation and supports the work of Special Procedures among other human rights mechanisms.
However, Nepal must also address the concerns pertaining to its own commitment to human rights, including the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) if it is going to be seen as a serious member of the Council.
Legal Challenges to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Nepal
The 2015 Constitution
In June 2016, eight Christians in Charikot, Nepal were charged under Article 26(3) of the Constitution with attempting to convert children through distributing a comic book on the story of Jesus. Although the group was acquitted of all charges in December 2016, concerns remain that similar cases may occur in the future if problematic clauses within the penal code and constitution remain unchanged. While the constitution establishes Nepal as a secular state, it also stipulates that ‘Sanatana Dharma’ (the Hindu faith) will be protected by the state. In neighbouring India, anti-conversion laws have been misused to foster social intolerance and violence towards peaceful religious activities, and to falsely accuse religious minorities of forcefully converting others.
“While the constitution establishes Nepal as a secular state, it also stipulates that ‘Sanatana Dharma’ (the Hindu faith) will be protected by the state. In neighbouring India, anti-conversion laws have been misused to foster social intolerance and violence towards peaceful religious activities, and to falsely accuse religious minorities of forcefully converting others.”
At Nepal’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in November 2015, both Spain and the USA made recommendations to amend Article 26 of the Constitution to allow for full religious freedom to be upheld. However, Nepal did not accept these recommendations.
Criminal Code Bill
In addition to the penal code and constitution, a Criminal Code Bill was signed into law on 16 October 2017 by President Bidhya Devi Bhandari. This new law restricts both freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. The provisions of Clause 158 in Section 92 has the potential to curtail a wide range of legitimate expressions of religion or belief, including charity activities and speaking about faith, while the wording of Section 93 criminalises the ‘hurting of religious sentiment’ and reflects the rhetoric of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Registration of Places of Worship and Burial Rights
The government of Nepal continues to further restrict the right to FoRB by denying religious minorities the ability to register their places of worship and by refusing to supply them with land to use for burial. Nepali law does not make provision for Christians, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists, Baha’is and other religious minority groups to register their places of worship as religious organisations. These groups are obliged to register the buildings as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) under the NGO Act 2034 or as individually-owned properties, which restricts their activities in those buildings.
This is further complicated by the fact that NGOs need the approval of local District Development Committees (DDCs) to carry out their activities. In June 2016, the Department of Federal Affairs and Local Development instructed all DDCs to deny permission to any NGOs that apply for activities that involve ‘dharmapracharak’, or sharing of one’s faith.
Concrete steps to improve FoRB
Nepal can take concrete steps towards displaying its commitment to human rights, as a member of the Council.
This includes investment in initiatives that address religious hatred and discrimination, providing burial land for religious minorities and repealing the order restricting how faith-based organisations work. Work must be done to ensure human rights are upheld in new provincial laws and bring all domestic legislation in line with its obligations under international law.
These measures stand in stark contrast to the government of Nepal’s recent decisions to criminalise conversion and the ‘hurting of religious sentiment’ in the penal code and constitution, measures which clearly conflict with its commitments under international law to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression – commitments which the country’s own 1991 Treaty Act obliges it to uphold.
They are even more striking as Nepal assumes its seat as a first time member of the UN Human Rights Council this year.
By Claire Denman, CSW’s United Nations Officer
Featured Image: Prayers inside the Catholic Church of the Ascension, Kathmandu