FoRB on the Frontlines: Fighting misconceptions on a daily basis

In the run-up to Human Rights Day on 10 December and the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders on 9 December, CSW has been speaking with HRDs across South Asia to find out what it means to be a FoRB defender in the region.

John* is a human rights defender working in Nepal:

“It has been almost a decade since I was (first) involved in human rights advocacy. Initially, it was a learning phase as a member of an international movement, which later turned into social action.

Since then I have been supporting public advocacy for the full realisation of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) for all in Nepal, especially in the current context as we welcome a new constitution and political environment.

Aside from this I have been raising areas of concern regarding conflicts of interest in non-governmental sectors. A fully functioning and empowered civil society is vital for Nepal to achieve its transitional aims, and I view this as an important part of my work, especially when trying to encourage and defend the right for all to practice their religion or belief, regardless of racial class or social background.

Generally, my activities include, but are not limited to, providing general human rights training to the youth, as well as running awareness-raising activities among concerned rights holders. I am also actively present at consultation meetings and working groups, and act as a representative at national and international meetings and write articles about human rights and social concerns on a regular basis.

I had the opportunity to collaborate with a coalition of local NGOs in 2014. This coalition prepared and submitted reports on Nepal’s 2015 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process at the UN. This process saw me help prepare reports covering eight human rights issues including the freedom of religion or belief among a number of other thematic issues.

Freedom of religion or belief is inter-sectional; if this vital right is violated, it is highly likely that others are also being infringed upon, or are about to be. Such work therefore requires me to work with a wide range of people across the spectrum of civil society in Nepal.

All of my human rights-related involvements have so far only been on a voluntary basis through wider domestic and international civil society networks, such as CSW. These organisations enable people like myself to elevate the voices of the oppressed through the correct channels, allowing for an opening of dialogue and reconciliation that would not otherwise be realised through my efforts alone.

All human rights issues are inter-linked with each other, and each should be considered equally important. Some, such as FoRB, are ‘bellwether’ rights through which other trends of violations might be identified before they take place. Despite this, many of us within the Nepalese HRD community feel limited to a certain issue of our choice or belonging, and therefore unable to interlink one thematic issue with others.

As far as FoRB is concerned, I have met many HRDs in Nepal that feel uncomfortable speaking out on the issue due to the social pressures regarding the ‘national interest’ this can bring. For many, speaking on religion is, to some extent, an unnecessary taboo. Some even believe FoRB is just an agenda of the Christian population or the ‘Western’ world.

As a result of this mis-classification of my work, I find myself fighting misconceptions daily. I have faced many occupational hazards which threaten both my physical and psychological wellbeing, including intimidation and physical threats from acquaintances, pseudo and/or individual bureaucrats, yellow-journalists and anonymous individuals, including self-proclaimed underground extremist political groups.

Additionally, I often see my ideology regarding rights of minorities in the context of FoRB being misinterpreted by people around me. Misconception breeds contention surrounding my work, and over the course of my career I have found myself forced to defend my own position as an HRD, rather than defending those I set out to help.

Although there is general impunity, there exists a complaints mechanism for human rights violations and abuse by the authorities in the public sector. However, there is a lack of good governance among the non-governmental institutions, and their accountability towards rights holders and benefactors is questionable in absence of such mechanisms. This allows for the state freely to impose restrictions on NGOs and HRDs in Nepal.

This is apparent in a stay order issued on 21 July 2016, which required NGOs to seek approval from their local District Development Committees (DDCs) in order to carry out their activities. This threatens to limit the work of international and national NGOs operating in Nepal. DDCs have been ordered to reject any organisation whose work involve dharmapracharak, or sharing one’s faith. This has been used to limit the activities of HRDs and organisations advocating for FoRB in Nepal.

As an individual human rights defender, I find myself trapped between a rock and a hard place. I face pressure from authorities and at the same time am not able to fall back on a strong Nepalese civil society to support me, which remains limited by the  strict penal code that allows authorities to harass and intimidate peaceful and legally protected HRDs and organisations.

Despite this fact, the worldwide solidarity provided by organisations like CSW has been always a great motivational factor for me to continue my contribution towards human rights, even if I might feel that my work happens on a small scale. I am looking forward to fulltime engagement in the human rights sector wherever possible in the future, so that I might continue to speak up for those most in need in Nepal.”

*Name changed for security reasons.

Read last week’s interview with Nehemiah Christie here.