Over the past month CSW has been speaking with HRDs across South Asia to find out what it means to be a FoRB defender in the region. Today, International Human Rights Day, we present a guest blog post by Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders.
“Human rights defenders are those community and religious leaders, journalists, activists, lawyers, trade unionists and others who take on the plight of the most marginalised in their society. These defenders of human rights represent people in the face of oppression, violence and harassment, doing what they can to hold perpetrators to account, and uphold the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), among many other resolutions that states across the world are committed to upholding. Many of these defenders face the same intense persecution as those they seek to defend, with many facing threats and risks of violence, torture and even death on a daily basis.
That is why, this year, I joined calls to award the Nobel peace prize to the global community of human rights defenders – especially as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders on 10 December.
As the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, I believe that this declaration must be given foremost importance amongst the international community moving forward, with regards to the protection and sanctity of all human rights worldwide. Indeed, this year the recipients of the Nobel peace prize were human rights defenders Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, further proof that the work of HRDs worldwide helps to bring about lasting change, peace and reconciliation.
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.
Three years on from the date that Nepal adopted its new constitution, there are concerns about its ‘anti-conversion’ clause, which seemed designed to specifically protect Hinduism at the expense of other religions.
The clause, in Article 26 (3) of the constitution, 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.”
These provisions were strengthened in the Penal Code 2017 which came into force in August 2018. Section 158 states that “No person shall convert any one from one religion to another or make attempt to or abet such conversion” and carries a punishment of up to five years imprisonment and a fine of up to fifty thousand rupees.
The criminalisation of conversion is a direct infringement on freedom of religion or belief as it robs individuals of the right to change their religion. These provisions also threaten the right to freedom of expression as they could be used to prohibit a range of legitimate expressions of religion or belief such as charitable activities or speaking about one’s faith.
Prayers inside the Catholic Church of the Ascension, Kathmandu, Nepal
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.
Notes to Editors: The eight Christians in Charikot, eastern Nepal were acquitted of all charges on 6 December 2016.
“For the last two years we have been unsure about how long the doors will be open for us to practise our faith freely. We were not expecting this level of harassment”. Tanka Subedi, Christian leader and human rights defender, Kathmandu, Nepal
On 21 September, eight Christians in Charikot, eastern Nepal will attend their next (and possibly final) court hearing – one day after Nepal marks the first anniversary of the promulgation of its long awaited constitution. They all face charges of attempting to convert children to Christianity through the distribution of a comic book which explains the story of Jesus.
Bimal Shahi, Prakash Pradhan and Shakti Pakhrin from Charikot holding copies of “The Great Story”comic book. Photo Credit: Giulio Paletta/CSW 2016, Nepal
The arrests took place in June 2016, following two trauma counselling sessions organised by Teach Nepal, a Kathmandu-based non-governmental organisation (NGO). The sessions sought to address the psychological needs of children affected by the earthquakes that hit Nepal in April 2015 and were held on 8 and 9 June in two schools in Charikot: Modern Nepal School and Mount Valley Academy. When they finished, the organisers distributed a small gift pack to the children, which included a handkerchief and a 23-page comic book entitled The Great Story.