Global Policy Forum

Nepal King Wages War on NGOs


By Sudeshna Sarkar

ISN Security Watch
November 14, 2005

Human rights activists fear a "humanitarian crisis" in Nepal as thousands of non-governmental organizations defied the government led by King Gyanendra, saying they would rather shut down their operations than obey a controversial new code of conduct that limits their activities. At least seven people were arrested when the first protests hit the streets on Friday. The NGO Federation - an umbrella organization of over 2,600 associations - led rallies in the capital, Kathmandu, as well as in 35 of Nepal's 75 districts, where copies of the code were torched.

Since he came to power through a bloodless coup in February, King Gyanendra first cracked down on democracy by banning political rallies in the capital's key areas, then took on the media by introducing new press curbs. Finally, he reined in civil servants by banning them from forming political associations. "The code of conduct for NGOs is another onslaught in this systematic attack on democratic forces," Sapana Pradhan-Malla, a leading lawyer who also heads the Forum for Women, Law, and Development (FWLD) NGO, told ISN Security Watch. "It is not the content alone that matters, but the intent behind it as well," she said.

The new code, which came into force on Thursday, prevents local or international NGOs from disclosing confidential information, doing anything that affects social and religious harmony, and forming any political alliance. Their members and officials cannot draw any remuneration and the organization heads cannot hold their positions for more than two terms.

But according to the Social Welfare Council, which set up the framework for the code of conduct, said NGOs were exaggerating the situation."They have not understood the provisions," Sharad Sharma, a council member and spokesman, told ISN Security Watch. "The code is to make them transparent and effective. "It is also to ensure that they spread out to the remote areas instead of concentrating in the capital or district headquarters," the spokesman added.

However, the protesters say the council has no authority to impose the code. "The medical council draws up the doctors' code of conduct, the bar association does it for lawyers," Dr. Arjun Karki, the president of the NGO Federation, told ISN Security Watch. "But the NGOs' code of conduct has been drawn up by an agency that has no legality."

The council members were nominated by Durga Shrestha, minister for women, children, and social welfare, who herself was nominated by the king after he had seized power in February and ousted the government, accusing it of failing to halt the Maoist insurgency that seeks to overthrow the monarchy and establish a Communist government. A three-month unilateral truce called by Maoist insurgents is scheduled to end in early December, and the king has announced local elections for 8 February. Human rights activists fear the new code of conduct will make it illegal for NGOs to publish human rights violations by the government and security forces.

"Look at the Doramba massacre, the Kavre killing," says Dr. Gopal Siwakoti, who heads the Inhured International human rights organization. In August 2003, Nepalese security forces entered Doramba, a tiny village in Ramechhap district in central Nepal, and arrested 19 people, including Maoist cadres, disarmed them, and then killed them. In the other incident, a 15-year-old school girl, Maina Sunuwar, was arrested and tortured to death inside an army barracks in February 2004 to prevent her relatives from talking about the extra-judicial killing of another teenaged girl they had witnessed. "For more than two years, the army has denied any wrongdoing," Siwakoti adds. "It was the human rights organizations who brought the killings to light. The new code tries to deter us from investigating such deeds."

The code will also affect people not involved with NGOs, according to activists from the Dalit community, a group of people at the bottom of Nepal's social hierarchy whose members are still treated as untouchables. "I was thrown out when I tried to enter a temple because I am a Dalit," says Padma Sundas, vice president of the Dalit Freedom Society. "Nearly one-fourth of Nepal's population are Dalits who are treated as less than human. We have been trying to challenge that, but a code that asks you not to disturb social harmony blocks such efforts."

In the meantime, NGOs have planned a nationwide rally for 4 December, to be followed by another rally on 10 December, which is observed as Human Rights Day. After that, they plan to move to international courts for justice. "The code has helped us in a way," Subodh Pyakurel, chief of Informal Sector Services Center, Nepal's biggest human rights organization with representatives in all 75 districts, told ISN Security Watch. "You can't file a case at the UN or the International Court of Justice until all national resources have been exhausted. But now, with the government nipping all resources, we can approach them [the international courts] directly."

An estimated 12,000 people have been killed in the nine years of fighting between the rebels and Nepalese forces since the Maoist rebels began their armed struggle to replace the monarchy with a secular, Communist state. The leftist fighters take their political lead from the teaching of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong and have become highly influential in Nepal's rural communities. Social injustice is chief among the rebels' complaints, as Nepal still adheres to a rigid caste system where some communities are regarded as untouchable, as accorded by the Hindu faith.

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