We wonder why K P Sharma Oli’s government is committing one after another mistake on safeguarding freedom and strengthening constitutional institutions. The government is becoming hostile to media and intolerant to criticism. Recently a journalist from Pokhara was arrested without explaining with substantive reason why such an arrest had to be made in the first place. Few months back, Information and Communication Technology Minister Gokul Baskota even went to the extent of issuing veiled threat against big media houses not to write critical news against the government. Such moves have raised the question mark on the democratic credentials of the government.
The latest in the series is the government’s move to render National Human Rights Commission toothless by curtailing its powers. The government has forwarded the Bill to Amend the NHRC Act 2012 to the House of Representatives for registration. According to NHRC chief Anup Raj Sharma the proposed bill aims to end the existence of NHRC’s 10 regional and sub-regional offices. Wise move would have been to bring the regional offices under the provinces, which would also make it easier for human rights bodies to work from the province level. To scrap those offices altogether would make NHRC weak. The amendment bill contains a procedure for filing court cases over human rights issues upon the recommendation of NHRC but NHRC itself cannot take such decisions. Attorney General’s Office has an upper hand in such decisions. According to the bill, NHRC should recommend to the AG’s office for filing cases along with the evidence and the AG’s office may decide to file if it feels a need to do so. Which means if AG’s office does not feel the need to recommend investigations on certain cases, those cases might remain unaddressed. NHRC has already objected to this provision citing that the bill is against the spirit of Article 293 of the Constitution, against the Supreme Court ruling that makes implementation of NHRC orders mandatory, and against the international standard for human rights watchdog bodies.
Besides, the amendment bill also proposes mandatory consent by the Finance Ministry for accepting additional financial sources for the NHRC to carry out human rights related activities. Such move does not strengthen the constitutional body. We have a human rights body in place precisely to independently investigate the cases of rights violations and recommend actions to the government based on its findings. This is why the Constitution has also assigned the duty “to ensure the respect, protection and promotion of human rights and their effective implementation” to NHRC. NHRC is the body for the people to approach when their rights are violated, and the body to safeguard basic human rights. It should be left as such. We demand that the government drops the clauses from the amendment bill that could potentially make filing cases and investigation on rights violations difficult for NHRC. A nation thrives when its democratic institutions are empowered through legal and policy reforms. Functioning democratic institutions contribute to strengthening democracy as well. The government still has time to amend the proposed bill.