Q & A: Mandira Sharma
MANDIRA SHARMA, one of the country's emerging human rights activists, who, on November 2, was recognized in New York by Human Rights Watch for her work, answers wide-ranging questions on HR issues as well as monitoring abuses.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based nongovernmental organization, recently honored Mandira Sharma, a Nepali lawyer and human rights activist, along with two other human rights crusadors from Mexico and Zimbabwe. Sharma was recognized for representing and defending the Nepali people during the serious political oppression and a bloody civil war spearheaded by the Maoist guerillas. Her efforts seem even more important today, as lasting peace and respect for human rights in Nepal may rely on effective monitoring of the peace efforts by neutral and independent groups like ‘Advocacy Forum’ she set up in 2001.
Originally from a remote village in western Nepal, Sharma studied law in Kathmandu, and later obtained a Ll.M. degree from the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. Her NGO has been recognized for exposing "disappearances" and indiscriminate attacks against civilians. The annual HRW-sponsored dinner tour, November 2 to 15, spanned places beyond USA, such as Mexico, the UK, Germany as well as Canada.
During the tour this year with two other honorees, Sharma (who is also an Ashoka Fellow), took time to meet with the Nepali community in the USA and the professionals of the Ashoka Foundation in Washington DC. She spoke on the culture of human rights violations in Nepal and beyond. The following is the Q & A with her by Krishna Sharma, published here today as the world commemorates Human Rights Day 2006:
Let’s start with the Human Rights Watch award you won early this November. Why was it given to you? What does the award mean to you?
I think they presented the Human Rights Defenders Award to me along with two other societal torch bearers from Mexico and Zimbabwe to recognize my work of raising voice against extra judicial executions, torture, illegal detention, kidnapping, disappearances and rape. We have been constantly raising the unheard voices of the poor, marginalized and insurgency-affected people ever since we established the "Advocacy Forum" in 2001 keeping in mind the escalating violation of human rights after the military was sent to the field to combat the Maoists.
I believe the award has given a pat on my back and encouraged [me] to work more in this area.
Tell us a little bit about your US trip, beyond the award. You may have attended and participated in a number of public events. How significant have been your experience in terms of human rights issues?
It, indeed, was an interesting experience to come to the USA to receive the award and participate in the annual dinner tour. Every year the Human Rights Watch arranges the award winners an annual dinner tour. This time it happened to be in North America. We visited Canada, Mexico and various cities of the United States and acquired information about human rights situation in one of the world’s most civilized continents. During our visit we met with people from various walks of life that also included the government officials. We met with the foreign minister of Canada. Our meeting with officials of State Department and Pentagon were fruitful with regards to letting them know about Nepal’s human rights situation. The tour was significant as we learnt how human rights issues are raised in the developed world and how they are addressed. I would try to practice the lessons I learnt from the tour in enhancing the modalities of the human rights institutions so that we could ensure that human rights situation is improved in our country. I believe the implementing agencies of the governments should also learn the effective ways of addressing the human rights issues by visiting these types of countries where human rights issues are given a great importance.
Do you consider yourself to be “in exile” in the USA as some pro-democracy activists liked to describe themselves before the April revolution?
There is a misunderstanding created by some media. I was never in exile. I was very much there in Nepal while April movement had begun. Records would show that I was constantly working for the victims of human rights violations from both the government side and the Maoists side during the 15-month reign of the autocratic ruler Gyanendra. However, I must admit that while the peoples’ movement was gaining tempo, I had to visit Geneva, Switzerland in connection with a human rights meeting. During that time, along with a friend, I visited different countries to lobby for democracy and human rights in Nepal. As I had received constant threats from the then government and my activities were closely monitored, some members of the media must have reached to a notion that I fled the country for safety reasons while I flew for Geneva. I am now here in the United States at the invitation of the HRW to receive the award and participate in the annual dinner tour. And I am leaving USA tomorrow for my home.
There are so many human rights groups monitoring the conflict. How is your organization different and similar to other groups?
After the military was sent to the field to suppress the Maoist insurgency in 2001, we felt there would be more cases of human rights violation in the nation as the forces fought to suppress the Maoist movement. Hence, with a couple of like-minded lawyers and human rights activists, we set up the Nepal office of the “Advocacy Forum” which is now Asia’s leading human rights institution. The need of establishing the Forum was felt as there were virtually no such bodies that would use law to remedize the victims, investigate cases to provide legal aid and contest the culture of impunity. Apart from that, we are similar with other human rights organizations in terms of addressing the issues of HR violation and promotion of human rights issues and values. I think there should be no problem with the number of human rights organizations as they can have different approach and strategies to address the human rights issues.
You have documented human rights violations and monitored detention centers in Nepal. What methods and criteria do you use in your investigations and monitoring? What is the exact body county so far in this war? Is it 13,000 or 15,000?
Our institution basically started documenting the cases of encounters, disappearances and detention of the innocent people by the state and the non-state actors. The task in itself was challenging as the parties involved would be exposed to the people. We could do that with the help of the trainings and techniques provided by Advocacy Forum of Asia which is very much reputed for this. We discovered that people in villages were arrested and their whereabouts were not known to anyone. We trained people in the villages about how to keep record of all these unwanted events and it turned out to be tremendously helpful in this regard. There are more than 8,000 cases of torture and extra judicial killings. But fortunately we have village-based volunteers who are constantly mobilized to keep informing us about the HR violations by both the parties in conflict. We visited detention centers and gathered as much information as possible about the atrocities going on in the nation. Unfortunately, our institution did not go for counting the dead bodies. It tried to save the bodies from falling down.
Last year, Nepal was branded a country with the largest number of disappearances. How large is that figure? Do you believe that all the missing will be accounted for? There have been bigger and more dangerous wars in Rwanda and Somalia, for instance, but no reports of so many disappearances. Why do you think so many disappeared in the Nepali conflict?
United Nation’s Working Group Study Team last year had discovered increasing number of new cases of disappearances in Nepal. That could be the reason why Nepal was branded a country with largest number of disappearances. Their figure was 400 plus.
The recent agreement reached between the government and the Maoists has a provision for Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But we all know Nepal’s culture of impunity. Who will account for the Maoists’ excesses and atrocities? What model of reconciliation do you suggest for Nepal?
My short answer to this question is that the commission should work independently to pave ways to end the culture of impunity. The body should be given full authority to discharge its duty.
The royalists branded the political party leaders as corrupt and incompetent. Now the political parties are doing just that. The merry-go-round does not seem to stop. What does this mean to Nepal’s human rights?
I don’t think we have such a long history of democracy in Nepal where human rights issues are reflected. History shows that only after 1990, we entered the human rights regime when the constitution guaranteed people of their basic rights and Nepal became signatory to various human rights treaties and understandings. But after the Maoist movement started in 1996, the human values started eroding gradually.
Fortunately, we had enjoyed a great freedom of speech and press to counter the violation of human rights from both the government and the Maoists side and were open to criticize or defy the leaders who were corrupt. However, the dark side of that era was that the government institutions established to safeguard democratic norms and promote the human rights values became handicapped to such political party leaders.
I would still say that all who did corrupt things should be accountable for what they did if the society has to really learn from its senior leaders. The culture of accountability is what is lacking in Nepali politics.
How do you view the Rayamajhi Commission and its findings regarding the suppression of peoples’ movement during the direct rule of king Gyanendra?
I would say the Rayamajhi Commission interrogated only those who tried to suppress the movement. It should have widened its area of investigation from political issues to human rights violation.
Now that the report is already presented to the government for implementation, I would say the government should not make it another “Mallik Commission” All of those who have committed crime against humanity should be brought to justice. I am happy that the Commission has included the then head of state King Gyanendra to have become responsible in suppressing the movement and in violating the basic norms and values of human rights. Whoever [he is], whether it is king or a powerless poor person of a village, if he has violated the human rights of others, he should be brought to justice. The rule of law will become effective and the society will be a healthy place in terms of the values of life only when people are made responsible for what they do.
One thing, for sure, is that if we still become unaccountable [for] what we do, there will always be another conflict in the making. People are not going to keep quiet against corruption and political anomalies now.
How was the human rights situation before you left Nepal voluntarily while King Gyanendra directly ruled the nation? How do you access the human rights situation after the success of the peace talks between the government and the Maoists?
Before April uprising you could not even count deaths, detentions and disappearances happening in society [caused] by the state agency. Level of terror was so high among the general mass that even our family members would have to worry about us while we would go out to work. We had to be cautious. We were constantly threatened. Our offices were monitored. We were followed all the time by undercover agents of the then government. Our space was constantly shrinking. However, after April, things changed. We have been enjoying human rights. In terms of number, cases of human rights violation have gone down drastically. But the sad thing is that not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice so far.
What makes human rights function fully in societies of developing nations like ours? What are the challenges of human rights activists and movements in developing societies as compared to developed ones?
I think we have a very weak government in the region. The biggest challenge is the culture of impunity which is not contested. We need to end it totally. We need an overhaul in the judiciary as well. We have the judges who were trained before the 1990s and who have traditional mind-set when it comes to discharging justice. They find it difficult to really understand complex human rights cases. They lack knowledge over changing international human rights treaties which were ratified after 1990. Police administration is also the same. They are very much corrupt and are not updated about the human rights norms and values. Politicization of independent constitutional institutions is another grave challenge. The basic precondition to address these challenges is to establish the culture of accountability in the country. If we start to investigate human rights violation cases and bring the culprits to justice, the other cases of human rights violation will be deterred within no time. A political will to end the culture of impunity is what we need the most in Nepal now. I am sure, international communities will be more than willing to assist Nepal if we start the reform process. We do not have to worry about resources.
Being a woman, how do you distinguish between human rights and women’s rights? What is your view about the global women’s rights movement?
Ideally speaking, human rights should cover all the issues of all the sexes. Unfortunately, it has not happened that way. Women beings have their own experiences when it comes to facing the discriminations of many sorts. And it is happening in societies simply because they are women. That’s why there is a need to focus on women’s rights within human rights. Human rights and women’s rights should be complementary to each other. Women’s rights comes under human rights and human rights is about women’s rights also. So there is a need to recognize this fact and extend the support to Nepal’s women’s rights movement.
Finally, what inspired you to become a human rights activist? What are your immediate future priorities in this field?
Being a girl child and having been raised in a remote village of Nepal, I saw discrimination in the society from the very beginning. While I was a student, I could sense about all these anomalies to an unlimited extent. During the Peoples’ Movement of 1990 I witnessed my friend at the Law College being tortured by the military forces in the detention center. He was completely a different person as he was released from the center after late King Birendra surrendered to the movement and agreed to become a constitutional monarch. He was totally broken. He was no more what a normal human being should be. That very incident still pinches me so much. That was perhaps the moment I resolved myself to become a human rights activist so that I could help stop this inhuman atrocity against humanity.
My immediate priority would be to make the voices of the victims of human rights violations be heard. I would continue to raise the issue of ending the culture of impunity and help people to take responsibility for what they do, and I would lobby for peace with human rights. I believe peace without human rights is just an illusion.
Posted by Editor on December 10, 2006 8:53 PM