Polity: Constitutional monarchy (insurgency)
Life Expectancy: 58
Religious Groups: Hindu (86.2 percent), Buddhist (7.8 percent), Muslim and other (6 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Brahman, Chetri, Newar, Gurung, Sherpa, Magar, Tamang, Bhotia, Rai, Limbu
Political Rights Score: 4
Civil Liberties Score: 4
Status: Partly Free
Nepal's political rights rating decreased from 3 to 4 due to a protracted political stalemate in which the king, citing the worsening security situation created by the left-wing insurgency, dissolved parliament, postponed national elections, and assumed executive powers.
Nepal faced heightened political instability and a worsening security situation in 2002. Infighting in the ruling Nepali Congress (NC) party led to the dissolution of parliament in May, and in October the king indefinitely postponed elections scheduled for November and assumed executive powers. An escalation in fighting between security forces and Maoist insurgents left more than 4,500 people dead throughout the year and devastated Nepal's infrastructure and economy. The Maoist uprising has affected the majority of Nepal's 75 districts and has claimed more than 7,000 lives since 1996. Both sides have been accused of increased human rights violations in the context of the insurgency.
King Prithvi Narayan Shah unified this Himalayan land in 1769. Following two centuries of palace rule, the left-leaning NC won Nepal's first elections in 1959. King Mahendra abruptly dissolved parliament and banned political parties in 1960, and in 1962 began ruling through a repressive panchayat (village council) system. Many parties went underground until early 1990, when the NC and a coalition of Communist parties organized pro-democracy rallies that led King Birendra to re-legalize political parties. An interim government introduced a constitution that vested executive power in the prime minister and cabinet and turned Nepal into a constitutional monarchy.
In Nepal's first multiparty elections in 32 years in 1991, Giraja Prasad Koirala, a veteran dissident, led the NC to victory and formed a government. Riven by intraparty conflicts, the NC was forced in 1994 to call early elections, which it lost to the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), or CPN-UML. The Communists, however, failed to win a majority in parliament. Hopes for a more stable government rose after the NC won a majority in elections held in 1999. The campaign centered on the problems of rampant official corruption, stagnant economic growth, and the Maoist insurgency.
In June 2001, Gyanendra ascended the throne after a palace massacre in which the apparently drunk Crown Prince Dipendra shot to death his parents – King Birendra and his queen – and seven other members of the royal family before killing himself. After Sher Bahadur Deuba became prime minister in July, the rebels agreed to a ceasefire, apparently in the belief that Deuba would be more flexible in negotiations than was his predecessor, Koirala, who had been forced to stand down. However, when the rebels broke the cease-fire in late November, King Gyanendra declared a state of emergency and ordered the army to fight the Maoists. The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M), led by insurgents Baburam Bhattarai and Pushpa Kamal Dahal, said that it wants an end to the constitutional monarchy and the feudal structure that persists in many parts of the country. The government's decision to use the army to fight the Maoists marked a sharp escalation in the conflict. The emergency was extended in February 2002 and again in May, but was allowed to lapse in September.
Political instability heightened in May when the prime minister asked the king to dissolve parliament and called for fresh elections to be held in November. Meanwhile, the ruling NC party split in June. When caretaker Prime Minister Deuba, citing the worsening security situation, asked the king in October to postpone the elections, King Gyanendra dismissed Deuba and assumed executive powers himself. While postponing elections indefinitely, he also installed an interim administration headed by Lokendra Bahadur Chand, a former prime minister and senior leader of a small royalist party. Mainstream political parties termed his decision undemocratic and are worried about a permanent return to an executive monarchy, but were divided on a suitable solution to the political stalemate.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties
Nepalese can change their government through elections. The 205-seat parliament is directly elected for a 5-year term. However, the king can wield emergency powers and suspend many basic freedoms in the event of war, external aggression, armed revolt, or extreme economic depression. Elections are free though not entirely fair; in the 1999 elections, interparty clashes led to several election-related deaths and caused balloting to be postponed in dozens of districts. In August, the government postponed local elections and formed unelected committees to carry out local governmental functions until elections could take place.
Elected governments have made few reforms to Nepal's bloated, inefficient civil service, and ministries operate with little openness or accountability. However, a bill passed in April disqualifies those convicted on corruption charges from contesting political elections for five years, while a new anticorruption law signed by the king in August places the burden of proof on the accused and may lead to a rise in convictions.
Conditions for journalists deteriorated sharply in 2002. The November 2001 emergency regulations restricted press and publication rights as well as free access to information, and journalists were urged by the government not to write articles "sympathetic" to the Maoists. Since the state of emergency was declared, authorities have arrested more than 150 journalists and many remain in detention; a number have reportedly been subjected to harassment and torture. In June, the editor of a pro-Maoist weekly died in police custody, while Maoists abducted and murdered the editor of an independent newspaper in western Nepal in August. Both the constitution and the Press and Publications Act broadly suppress speech and writing that could undermine the monarchy, national security, public order, or interethnic or intercaste relations. While many of Nepal's private publications continue to criticize government policies, self-censorship as a result of official intimidation is a growing concern. The government owns both the influential Radio Nepal, whose political coverage favors the ruling party, as well as Nepal's sole television station.
Although the constitution describes Nepal as a Hindu kingdom, there is a considerable Buddhist minority. The constitution provides for freedom of religion, but proselytizing is prohibited and members of religious minorities occasionally complain of official harassment.
Emergency measures in effect until September 2002 restricted freedom of assembly and movement. The government generally allows political parties and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to function freely, although it enforces a constitutional ban on political parties that are formed along religious, caste, ethnic, tribal, or regional lines. Both police and Maoist guerrillas occasionally threaten human rights activists to deter them from investigating rights violations, according to the U.S. State Department's human rights report. The insurgency has forced several NGOs working on agricultural and health projects in western Nepal to curb their activities, the report added.
Nepal's trade unions are independent, but they have notched up few real gains for workers. By law, workers in certain "essential services," such as water supply, cannot stage strikes, and 60 percent of a union's membership must vote in favor of a strike for the strike to be legal. Authorities weakly enforce laws on working hours and health and safety standards, the U.S. State Department report said. Only about 10 percent of workers in the formal (business) sector are unionized. Overall, more than 80 percent of workers are engaged in subsistence agriculture. While export-oriented carpet factories have sharply reduced their use of child workers, smaller carpet factories and several other industries continue to depend on child labor. Illegal bonded labor is common on farms.
The Supreme Court "has demonstrated independence; however, lower level courts remain vulnerable to political pressure, and bribery of judges and court staff is endemic," according to the U.S. State Department's report on Nepal's human rights record in 2001. Because of heavy case backlogs and a slow appeals process, suspects often spend longer in pretrial detention than they would if convicted of the crimes for which they stand accused.
Both the government and the Maoists were accused of increased human rights violations as the insurgency intensified in 2002. According to the Informal Sector Service Centre, violence between the two sides claimed the lives of 4,677 people between November 2001 and October 2002. The Maoists have killed, tortured, or kidnapped civilians, including suspected informers, landowners, local officials, teachers, and members of mainstream political parties. The rebels have also set up "people's courts" in some parts of Nepal that hand down summary justice. Adding to civilian hardship, the guerrillas fund themselves in part through extortion and looting, and ordered several national strikes throughout the year that paralyzed major urban centers. The Maoists reportedly also use forcibly recruited children as soldiers, human shields, and couriers, according to a December 2002 Amnesty International report.
Nepal's poorly equipped police force has been implicated in extrajudicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, rapes, and the torture of suspected Maoists and alleged supporters. Domestic human rights groups accuse the government of using tough security laws such as the Public Security Act (PSA) and the newly promulgated Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Ordinance (TADO) to deter civilians from supporting the Maoists. Both laws allow officials to detain suspects for up to six months without filing charges. In March, Amnesty International accused the government of detaining dozens of civilians under TADO, including journalists, teachers, lawyers, and political activists, for their perceived support for the Maoists. As of August 2002, authorities had arrested more than 9,900 suspected Maoists or alleged followers, of whom 1,722 remained in custody, according to Amnesty International. Human rights groups also criticized the government's April offer of bounties for the capture of Maoist leaders.
In ordinary criminal cases, police at times commit extrajudicial killing and cause the disappearance of suspects in custody, the U.S. State Department report said. They also occasionally torture and beat suspects to punish them or to extract confessions, the report added. The government generally has refused to conduct thorough investigations and take serious disciplinary measures against officers accused of brutality. Prison conditions are poor, with overcrowding common and detainees sometimes handcuffed or otherwise fettered. Set up in 2000, the official Human Rights Commission has a mandate to investigate human rights violations but lacks enforcement powers and the resources to pursue cases in court.
Members of the Hindu upper castes largely dominate parliament and the bureaucracy, and low-caste Hindus, ethnic minorities, and Christians face discrimination in the civil service, courts, and governmental offices, the U.S. State Department report said. The government in August 2001 formally banned discrimination against members of the lowest caste and said it would move to end the caste system. Nepalese officials at times extort money from, or otherwise harass, Tibetan asylum seekers who cross the border into Nepal, according to the U.S. State Department report. Some 2,000 to 3,000 Tibetans escape into exile via Nepal each year, with most ending up in India. Nepal also provides asylum to some 97,000 Bhutanese refugees.
Women rarely receive the same educational and employment opportunities as men, and there are relatively few women in government and the civil service. Laws relating to property, divorce, and several other areas discriminate against women. Independent studies and newspaper reports suggest that domestic violence and rape continue to be serious problems. The government has taken few steps to curb violence against women or to assist victims, and authorities generally do not prosecute domestic violence cases. Organized gangs traffic some 5,000 to 7,000 Nepalese girls to work in Indian brothels each year, according to the International Labor Organization. Because the majority of prostitutes who return to Nepal are HIV-positive, nearly all returnees are shunned and are unable to obtain help to rebuild their lives. Women's rights activists welcomed a law legalizing abortion and broadening women's property rights that came into effect in September.
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