This report from the Violence Monitoring and Shrinking Civic Space in Nepal amid Covid-19 (VMSCS) Project evaluates trends of violent and nonviolent public contestation with the objective of presenting their impact on civic space in Nepal from 16 December 2020 – 15 January 2021. Data of violent and non-violent incidents are compiled from reports mapped by NepalMonitor.org, which uses a broad range of information from all major online news portals, national and local newspapers, Nepal Police, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) working for human rights, and incident reports directly submitted to the Collective Campaign for Peace (COCAP). Multiple incidents of human rights violations, humiliation, physical assault, and use of force against citizens by security personnel tasked with enforcing the lockdown have been reported this month.
OVERVIEW OF INCIDENTS
From 16 December 2020 – 15 January 2021, the VMSCS project recorded a total of 370 incidents which marks an increment of incidents by 32.97% as compared to the previous month (from 248 incidents to 370 incidents). Of the total incidents recorded, 90 were violent and 280 were non-violent in nature.
Bagmati province had the highest number of cases of violence with 125 incidents followed by Province 2 and Province 1 comprising 64 and 51 incidents respectively. Likewise, about 40, 31, 30, and 29 incidents of violence were recorded in the Provinces of Gandaki, Far-west, Lumbini, and Karnali respectively.
This month witnessed a series of incidents contributing to shrinking civic space and violating human rights. Different forms of cases involving demonstrations, protests, sit-in/padlocking, riots concerning politically significant arrests of the cadres, and security force intervention have largely violated citizens' rights and impacted civic space. The primary causes of these incidents are surrounding political contestation, over the constitution and federal restructuring, over non-elective positions and influence, as well as government’s poor performance in ensuring the quality and accessibility of public services such as health, education, and safety, among others. Moreover, lots of demonstrations took place against Prime Minister Oli’s unconstitutional move on dissolving the House of Representatives. Oli’s decision to unilaterally dissolve the HoR is a flagrant violation of the constitutional text and spirit that invited a series of nationwide protests from the opposition political parties and civil society resulting in a number of violent incidents across the country.
CIVIC SPACE SITUATION AMID COVID-19
Although the constitution of Nepal 2015 has guaranteed the freedom of expression, association, and to assemble peacefully, there have been sustained efforts to curtail civic space in the country. In Nepal, there has been widespread opposition to the various attempts to pass laws that could systematically curtail civil liberties in the country. States need to be respecting and protecting civilians’ freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of information, freedom of association, and freedom to peaceful assembly. However, in the context of COVID-19 in many countries including Nepal, it is not necessarily practiced and the government is seen coming up with different restrictive measures to control the flow of information and crackdown on freedom of expression and press freedom. Similarly, increase in the incidents of arrest, detention, prosecution or persecution of political opponents, journalists, doctors and healthcare workers, activists and others for allegedly spreading “fake news”, also aggressive cyber-policing and increased online surveillance from the government side are some of the efforts from the government exercising their power over the civilians’ and against the shrinking of civic space.1
Thus, Civil society in Nepal has faced serious restrictions on its freedom to express and engage in activism to defend human rights following the COVID-19 pandemic. The government of Nepal has also displayed this form of control over civic space during the pandemic, from inconsistency in their approach toward CSOs, to tabling of the different legislative measures, and suppressing peaceful protestors in an attempt to silence all forms of criticism during the pandemic.
COVID-19 AFFECTING CIVILIANS' FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT:
Freedom of movement is a fundamental human right, protected by domestic laws and international treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 13) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (article 12). Both documents guarantee the right of everyone to leave any country including their own country and to return to it. They also protect the right of everyone lawfully in a country to move freely within the territory of the belonging country.
Unfortunately, the extent and danger of the COVID-19 pandemic threatened public health all over the globe. Since, Article 12(3) of the ICCPR allows restrictions on the right to freedom of movement for reasons of public health and national emergency, this justified restrictions on certain fundamental rights and freedoms, such as imposing travel bans, quarantine and isolation.2 Hence, in order to address the COVID-19 outbreak, governments around the world including Nepal took strict measures and curtailed their citizen’s freedom of movement since the beginning of the year 2020 and beyond. People were confined within the four walls, and lock-downs and quarantines further obstructed non-essential movement of the civilians’ outside of the home. In Nepal, a nation-wide lockdown came into effect on 24 March 2020, and ended on 21 July 2020, but Nepal’s border with India and China remained closed in the post lockdown period in order to control the spread of the virus.
This month observed non-violent events of sit-ins demanding the opening of borders with the neighboring nations, India and China, which was closed due to the coronavirus crisis since it’s outbreak. Local transport businessmen, hoteliers, travel businessmen and others have been holding programs such as signature collection campaigns, peaceful rallies and sit-ins demanding to open the checkpoints.
For instance: after the 6-day long consecutive demonstrations, the locals in the East of Nepal staged a sit-in and rallies on 16 December, in the presence of hundreds at the border. This movement was led by Hotel Entrepreneurs Association Mechinagar and Travel Association Jhapa, and also participated by the locals.3 Likewise, on 04 January, a pressure rally followed by an hour-long staged sit-in was organized by the cadres of Janata Samajwadi Party and a group of businessmen at No-man’s-land of West Nawalparasi, demanding immediate re-opening of the border, mentioning it has affected their business and religious celebrations.4 Since China also imposed an unannounced blockade at the Tatopani checkpoint in Sindhupalchowk, on 27 December, big traders, containers, and hoteliers were frustrated when the checkpoint was in ruins and protested against China demanding the opening of the Nepal-China border.5
INCIDENCES CONCERNING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND CIVIL RIGHTS:
Numerous pieces of legislation before parliament proposed to severely curtail freedom of expression. A new Special Service Bill, endorsed by the Upper House in May 2020, provided Nepal’s intelligence agency, the National Investigation Department (NID), with sweeping new powers to intercept communications and search properties without judicial oversight. Other bills currently before parliament, including the Media Council Bill, the Information Technology Management Bill, and the Mass Communications Bill, contain numerous stringent measures seeking to control the media and limiting freedom of expression for journalists and social media users, threatening custodial sentences for those who violate broad and vague prohibitions especially for online speech.6
However, this month saw a space for exercising civil liberties of freedom of expression and to assemble peacefully, through various non-violent incidents of mass protests against PM Oli’s move to dissolve the HoR on 20 December. Hundreds of people from various walks of life, that included intellectuals, writers, poets, artists, civil society activists, various professionals, businessmen, rights activists, students, youths group, and the general public gathered across various regions in Nepal, calling the move of PM Oli to be reactionary, unconstitutional, and an attack on the constitution. The protesters further accused the Prime Minister of trying to violate the constitution and democracy in an arbitrary and authoritarian manner. Civil Movement Chitwan then issued a press release stating that it will hold more protests and precautionary programs in the coming days and agitate until the sovereign rights of the people are restored in the country. Since the dissolution, the Nepal Communist Party has split into two, with one faction led by Oli and the other by Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal.
Then viewing the dissolution of the HoR as the government’s totalitarianism upon civil liberties, the Brihat Nagarik Aandolan (A Broad Citizen’s Movement), an alliance formed by civil society members and people from various walks of life, held a march as part of its protests triggered by the dissolution of the HoR. As part of this campaign the civil society members carried out demonstrations, mass assemblies, and symbolic protests including torch and candle light rally, drama shows, ethnic dance shows, and playing different types of Nepali musical instruments, throughout the country against the government, demanding the restoration of parliament.
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