Address by Ms. Louise Arbour, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on National Human Rights Commission Human Rights and Peace Conference

Jan 24, 2005

National Human Rights Commission Human Rights and Peace Conference
(Kathmandu, 24 – 25 January 2005)

Address by Ms. Louise Arbour,
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Right Honourable Prime Minister,
Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission,
Members and staff of the National Human Rights Commission,
Representatives of His Majesty’s Government
Representatives and leaders of Nepali civil society,
Ambassadors and Representatives of the diplomatic community,
Distinguished participants and guests,

It is a great pleasure for me to be in Nepal, and to be with you today for this conference hosted by the National Human Rights Commission.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has enjoyed a close association with the Commission since its establishment in 1999. This association acquires new and promising potential through the recent agreement – a Memorandum of Understanding – between my Office and His Majesty’s Government aimed at providing technical assistance to the Commission as it expands its presence into all five regions of Nepal.

As a result, we presently have a growing number of international advisers at the Commission to assist it in its vital work. They form part of a larger effort by UNDP to provide major support aimed at building the capacity of the National Human Rights Commission.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
In its relatively short life, the Commission has grown considerably in its unique role as the country’s statutory body for promoting and protecting human rights. It is vital that this support continues: from His Majesty’s Government, which established the Commission; from civil society, which advocated for a strong and independent Commission and which continues to work closely with it; and from the international community, which has recognized the key role of the Commission in addressing the human rights crisis arising from the continuing and deepening armed conflict here in Nepal.

I am aware that the Commissioners’ current terms expire in May. I cannot stress enough how important it is that the Commission’s work does not deteriorate after that date and that neither its independence nor its effectiveness be adversely impacted. This is particularly so in light of the conflict, which overshadows this country and which is characterized by grave and systematic human rights violations occurring on both sides.

While His Majesty’s Government carries the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of state institutions and while it bears the heavy burden of ensuring the safety and security of its people, it must do so in full compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law. The Maoist insurgents, for their part , do not operate in a legal vacuum: they are equally bound under international law.

Yet despite these obligations, the people of Nepal are now prey to disappearances, summary executions, abductions and torture. Its human rights defenders are subjected to harassment in the pursuit of their vital work. And the country’s children are at the mercy of being press-ganged by the insurgents. There are few crueler means of ending a childhood than through military conscription. Children, incapable of complex moral and political choices, should not be induced to utilize dubious means to pursue dubious ends, and risk, in so doing, being tainted for life – should they even survive – by their coerced association with a political agenda that they could not freely embrace or influence.

In short, the fabric of society is being grievously frayed by the conflict.

As we have seen in many countries around the world, injustice fuels violence and violence fuels only greater violence. One generation’s loss becomes the next generation’s rallying cry. This is particularly true in a country such as Nepal where half of the population is under 18 years of age.

It is this crisis that has brought us together today in the hope and the belief that we can and we must do something to halt the wave of violence and destruction that, over the past nine years, has swept away so many innocent victims. It is critical that ways be urgently sought to bring an end to the systematic and grave human rights abuses and the culture of impunity that pervade Nepal today.

Actively defending human rights, particularly during an armed conflict, is a far from easy task. Political and military leaders at times prefer not to confront the difficult question of how to deal with grave human rights violations, particularly those perpetrated in support of their own cause. It is always easier to point the finger at the transgressions of the other side than to take a sober, hard look at the failings of one’s own. Yet it is precisely these leaders who bear primary responsibility, under international humanitarian law, for the actions of those under their command. Increasingly they can expect to be held to account.

Throughout my career, I have often confronted situations which are rich on the rhetoric of human rights – we all stand ready, after all, to affirm the need to ensure their respect – but which, in reality, demonstrate contempt for the values of human dignity and security.

My concern is that Nepal not enter into that category.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
One important initiative to halt such a regression, and which I commend to you today, is the Human Rights Accord proposed by the National Human Rights Commission. At its heart, this Accord recognises that the armed conflict in Nepal affects, above all, innocent civilians. It asserts further that this must end and that if war is inevitable then it must be carried out in accordance with certain basic rules, well articulated in international law.

It should not be difficult to conclude this Accord: after all, it is nothing more, in effect, than a reiteration of those legal obligations under human rights and international humanitarian law to which all parties to the conflict are already bound. Those obligations are there for a reason. A conflict that is waged without regard for fundamental human rights and international humanitarian law not only causes unimaginable misery to innocents but, in so doing, it has a corrosive, embittering effect for those members of the societies on which it impacts.

This not the first time that the National Human Rights Commission has proposed a human rights accord. A similar initiative was ultimately rejected in March of last year. Since then, an estimated 1600 additional Nepalis have lost their lives in the fighting and the fighting has escalated with no tactical advantage acquired by either side. The only tangible result of the continuation of the conflict since last March has been to dim further the prospects for peace and to exacerbate the risks to the life and safety of everyone in the country.

This Human Rights Accord provides a genuine platform for peace: an opportunity that Nepal cannot afford to disregard. I say it again: the Accord should not be a difficult document for either party to sign. It simply affirms the legitimate statutory role of the National Human Rights Commission to monitor human rights violations, to undertake investigations and to report on its findings. But importantly, it entails a genuine commitment to recognize, respect and facilitate that role.

Yet until today, the National Human Rights Commission has not been able to count on the cooperation necessary for it to carry out its work effectively. This is particularly true with regard to its need for unhindered access, without prior notice, to all places of detention.

I know from the experience of our offices around the world that human rights monitoring can prevent human rights abuses. If the Commission’s monitors were to have unhindered access to all places of detention, I have no doubt that there would be a significant improvement in the human rights situation, particularly in regard to disappearances, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, torture and other serious abuses.

Preventing these abuses will help lay the foundations for a dialogue on peace. Human rights do not favour one side or another: they are neutral and universal entitlements. Their sole purpose is to protect the security and preserve the dignity of each one of us. Through their respect, space can be carved out in which a settlement for peace can be more vigorously pursued. Violations of human rights, committed by either side, achieve the twin, destructive goals of inflicting misery on those whose rights are denied, and fuelling grievances which do nothing but push back the prospect for peace.

I therefore join the call of the National Human Rights Commission and appeal to the people of Nepal to remove that obstruction from the peace table. And to do so now.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to end this statement with a direct call to each of the parties to the armed conflict.

Firstly, I call upon both sides to make an unequivocal and formal commitment to uphold fundamental human rights and to fully respect international humanitarian law.

Secondly, I call upon the CPN-Maoists to end, immediately, the recruitment of child soldiers and to desist from using children in any way to further their military goals.I also call upon them to demonstrate their good faith by signing the Human Rights Accord and by allowing full access by monitors of the National Human Rights Commission to all areas under their control.

Thirdly, I call upon His Majesty’s Government also to sign the Human Rights Accord and to fully implement the human rights commitments made on 26 March 2004.

In closing, I would like to express my appreciation to the members and staff of the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal for inviting me here and for the good work that they are carrying out under very difficult circumstances. An independent, effective national commission can continue to count on the full support of my Office.

I also very much appreciate the excellent work that is being carried out by the human rights defenders in civil society, including the NGOS, the Nepal Bar Association and the media. Nepal is fortunate to have strong and active organizations and individuals in civil society alongside its National Human Rights Commission. It is vital that they be afforded the space in which to continue their courageous and vital work.

Lastly, I would like to express my appreciation to the Prime Minister for his continuing support for the work of the Commission. My Office and indeed the United Nations system will continue to assist its national partners in His Majesty’s Government, the National Human Rights Commission and civil society in their efforts to work together towards a peaceful and democratic Nepal where the fundamental human rights of all are fully respected. Now, more than ever, the future of this country depends on the success of those efforts.

Thank you.

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