Responsibility factor

United Nations high commissioner for human rights Louise Arbour has, during her just concluded four-day visit to Nepal, raised serious concern over the poor human rights records of both the Maoists and the State. She spoke her mind clearly, not sparing any side widely perceived to be contributing to this situation — the rebels, the government, its security agencies, and even the judiciary. On Thursday, she called upon the government to sign and ratify the Rome treaty in order to enable international tribunals to try the violators of human rights even after the conflict is over. Her appeal to both the warring sides to observe human rights and international humanitarian laws as well as to sign the human rights peace accord goes well with what almost all domestic and international human rights organisations, including the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), have been urging.

Arbour rightly warned the rebels “not to misread the developments in the wider world” or to think that they could operate outside the law. She stressed that political and military leaders in various parts of the world who once took for granted immunity from prosecution for their crimes are now standing trials. She also called on the Royal Nepalese Army to match its domestic performance with its international performance. She did not call the Maoists terrorists per se but urged them to pursue their goal through methods that respected the “dignity of the people.” At the same time, she said the government had a responsibility to protect its people.

But this responsibility, she said, requires the government to protect legal rights of all. This implies that in the name of protecting the people, it cannot justify human rights violations. Arbour says she has been assured by all sides that they would uphold and protect human rights. Such assurances, however, do not mean much, as the past has shown. Only the fear of having to pay dearly for the crimes is likely to restrain would-be offenders. Obviously, if Nepal signed the Rome treaty, the number and severity of violations would fall off. The Rome treaty gave jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to try human rights offenders throughout the world from July 1, 2002. But a number of countries, including Nepal, have not signed the treaty yet. The US, a non-signatory, wants to keep its citizens outside the purview of the court and has pressured some countries into signing bilateral treaties towards this end. It has even linked its foreign aid to cooperation with this aim. But in order to encourage respect for human rights at home and to fall in line with international norms, Nepal should sign the treaty. Otherwise, its “commitment” to human rights would appear hollow.