-  Monday 24 June 2019

Nepal tribes to raise own flag in Geneva

KATHMANDU (IPS) - The world will be watching from this week as the United Nation's human rights body evaluates Nepal's unelected palace government but many of this nation's indigenous people will have one eye focused on a separate meeting.

The Commission on Human Rights is expected to gauge the steps taken by the regime of King Gyanendra to improve human rights since the 2005 session. There, member nations decided to install a rights office in the capital Kathmandu to monitor violations that increased after the monarch seized power Feb. 1, 2005.

The commission in Geneva will base its analysis on an extra-long report prepared by Nepal office representative Ian Martin. But missing from that assessment is consideration of human rights violations against indigenous people, according to one organisation.

"The government and other human rights organisations are submitting reports but they are excluding violating against indigenous people so we are raising these issues," says Shankar Limbu, president of the Lawyers Association for the Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP).

Nepal recognises 59 such "nationalities" that it says make up 37 percent of the 25 million people in this small South Asian nation but others estimate the groups could account for as much as half of Nepal's people.

Squeezed between Asian giants China and India, Nepal has been gripped by a violent Maoist uprising for the past decade. Roughly 13,000 people have been killed, mostly villagers caught in the crossfire as the rebels -- who say they are fighting for social justice and to erase an inherited monarchy -- have extended their reach over three-fourths of the countryside.

"There are a large number of indigenous people being killed and abducted; some are used as human shields. None of the human rights groups are raising this issue," said Limbu in the small LAHURNIP meeting room Friday evening, where a half-dozen members worked to finish the report a stone's throw away from the parliament whose doors were locked in 2002.

They will send the paper to the UN's special rapporteur for the rights of indigenous peoples, who will submit it to a special session of the six-week-long Commission that opens Monday.

The impoverished mid-western hills from where the Maoists emerged with their homemade guns and pressure-cooker bombs a decade ago are home to a large indigenous population, which is said to comprise a disproportionate fraction of rebel forces (6,000-7,000 full-time fighters and 20,000-25,000 militia, according to 2005 army estimates).

Rebel leaders (few of them indigenous) have carefully couched their discourse in the language of liberation for tribal peoples, along with freedom for women and Dalits (so-called untouchables) from the Hindu-dominated state. A half-dozen or so forces that fight in the name of various indigenous groups have been born from the rebellion but their motivations, aims and links to the Maoists are unclear.

In his report, the UN office's Martin said "Nepal has experienced gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) in the course of its insurgency and by security forces in the state's response".

There is "greater international concern (over Nepal) than at any time since Feb. 1, 2005", Martin added at a public discussion of the report here last month.

For LAHURNIP, the international community is "very important", says Limbu. "The government doesn't listen to the Nepali public very much so the international voice can have an impact. That's why we're submitting this report."

Many other human rights groups are expected to attend the Commission meeting to pressure members to take stronger action against the king's government.

Late in 2005 the Nepal office of the UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO) critiqued the government's efforts to reduce poverty among indigenous people.

It accused the authorities, and Nepal's large donor community, of: "insufficient awareness of indigenous issues and their specific experience of discrimination; lack of development and under-funding of appropriate institutional structures and lack of participation and consultation of indigenous peoples in the design and implementation of poverty reduction and development initiatives".

One of LAHURNIP's aims is for the government to ratify the ILO's Convention 169, an international law that calls on states to promote and protect the rights of indigenous people. "If the government ratifies this, the indigenous people will be included in the decision-making process. They will have to be consulted before the government takes any step that affects them," says Limbu.

Even the development process itself sometimes penalises indigenous groups, he adds. In recent years, for example, the Department of Forestry has passed control of tracts of land to community forest users groups, "banning Sherpa communities from grazing their animals there. So they are compelled to take their animals to Tibet to graze and they must pay taxes to do so," according to Limbu.

While various past governments have taken steps to improve the lives of indigenous peoples, LAHURNIP argues that such provisions, like providing mother tongue education, should be entrenched in law as rights so that they cannot be easily removed.

Nepal's umbrella group of indigenous communities, the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), has publicly supported the opposition-civil society movement to rollback the royal takeover. But last month the indigenous Newar community (known as the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley) went a step further when a dozen of its organisations called for a boycott of local elections.

Newar National Forum President Malla K Sundar told IPS that people heeded the call because it was presented as a step toward gaining Newari rights. Equal language and religious rights as well as self-rule top the community's demands, he added.

"We want self-rule for indigenous communities on their own historic lands and where they are the dominant population", not on the basis of whether they form the majority community today but based on their historic relationship with the land, said Sundar.

The LAHURNIP report does not make such a demand but it does call for compensation for lands that were given to indigenous communities by royal order hundreds of years ago but nationalised by later governments. "Today, indigenous people within their homelands have no land," said Limbu.

IPS Terra Viva

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