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Nepal: A Second Look

Ethical Traveler’s list of “The World’s Ten Best Ethical Destinations for 2019” included Nepal for the first time, primarily for the progress the country has shown in areas such as LBGQT rights and animal welfare. And while the country was included to encourage even greater strides in ethical areas, Nepal still faces many serious concerns that were not fully addressed in our original report.

One troubling area is the government’s attempts to control and suppress social media. Nepal’s government recently drafted legislation that would impose harsh penalties for anyone posting content deemed “improper,” including attacks on national sovereignty, with punishments including a fine of NPR 1.5 million (USD $13,200) or five years in jail. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemned the legislation’s blatant attempt to muzzle free expression and called on Prime Minister K.P. Oli to hold immediate consultations and revise the proposed law as needed. Similarly, the Nepal Press Union (NPU) charged that by “trying to restrict the use of social networks, where the highest degree of freedom of expression is being practiced, the government is attacking democracy.” Nepali Congress leader and former information and communication minister Minendra Rijal echoed these sentiments, saying, “The bill registered by the government in the Parliament indicates that the communist government is moving towards authoritarian rule.” Even important media houses have come under scrutiny and threat. Himal Southasian, a monthly magazine, was forced to relocate its headquarters from Nepal to Sri Lanka in 2018 following threats from the government to shut it down.

Nepal has also failed to pursue justice through its Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and its Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP), founded in 2015 to investigate the forced disappearance of people during the decade-long Maoist Conflict (1996 to 2006) and to recommend reparations. When the mandate was due to expire in February 2019, neither commission had completed even one investigation into the tens of thousands of complaints filed by victims of human rights violations. Bowing to pressure from the international community and victims groups, the Nepalese government extended the commissions’ terms by one year. Given Nepal’s long history of failed commissions, however, the achievement of meaningful justice for these victims faces persistent challenges and renewed uncertainties. An even more significant challenge is the persistent culture of impunity in Nepal, and the sense that the TRC and CIEDP have been explicitly designed to ensure that powerful perpetrators of human rights violations enjoy immunity from prosecution.

Another area of concern is Nepal’s treatment of Tibetan refugees, which continues to deteriorate. This is due in large part to Nepal’s lucrative patronage from China, a country that leverages its growing financial assistance to coerce their smaller, poorer southern neighbor into toeing China’s hard line on Tibetans. The connection between economic investment and suppression of Tibetans was confirmed in the Chinese state media, with the Global Times stating that one of the reasons for China’s increasing investment was to reward Nepal for its “important role in guarding against Tibetan separatists.” Although most of the Tibetans were born in Nepal, they have no citizenship and are officially stateless; they cannot own property, and obtaining any kind of document is extremely difficult. Although the Nepali Home Ministry has worked for years on a national ID card, results that would give Tibetans rights they are currently denied are yet to be seen.

Furthermore, in 2018, the Tibetan community was again forbidden to commemorate the March anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising. This suppression of the right to free assembly and free speech has occurred in previous years, and now applies to virtually any public gathering of Tibetans—including the public display of “Free Tibet” signs, or even pictures of the Dalai Lama. And while the right of individuals to flee persecution and seek refuge in other countries is a universally accepted standard of human rights law, Nepal is not one of the 147 nations that have signed the United Nations Convention on the protection of Refugees, which guarantees refugee populations certain rights. In fact, Nepal has in the past returned Tibetan refugees to Chinese authorities, where they almost certainly face arrest and torture. More recently, Nepal has cooperated with the Chinese in making it virtually impossible for refugees to cross the border into Nepal regardless of their asylum claims, in blatant disregard for the right of non-refoulement—the obligation of States not to refoule, or return, a refugee to “the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” as stated in the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees.

According to the Nepalese press, a “joint action center” in Rasuwa, Nepal, has been established in order to ensure “cooperation between the two countries [China and Nepal] in border law enforcement.” There are reports of Chinese security forces operating freely on the Nepal side of the shared border, clearly speaking Chinese and making little effort to hide their presence. According to a confidential document from the American embassy in Nepal published by Wikileaks in 2010, Beijing is demanding that Kathmandu strengthen border troops. The document also states that “China rewards Nepalese forces by providing financial incentives for handing over Tibetans who want to flee across the border.”

Corruption continues to be a major problem in Nepal, even for foreign companies trying to register a business. The courts and law enforcement are plagued by corruption, exacerbated by the impunity of officials. According to Transparency International, on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean), Nepal ranks 31.

While Nepal has made some laudable progress on the rights of women, human trafficking statistics remain alarming. Thousands of women and girls are smuggled into India every year, making trafficking one of the biggest human security issues facing Nepal. Nepal has the third highest rate of child marriage in Asia—37 percent of girls marry before 18, and 10 percent by age 15. In 2016, the government launched a national strategy to end child marriage by 2030, but action on operationalizing and implementing the plan has stalled.

Additionally, chaupadi, a practice that forces menstruating women and girls from their homes, has received significant international news coverage after a series of deaths of women and girls in menstrual sheds. Under pressure from this negative publicity, the practice was criminalized in 2017. However, overcoming such long-entrenched traditional practices is a matter of education as well as enforcement, and both have been lacking since passage of the ban on the practice.

Finally, Nepal remains one of 26 countries that denies women the equal right to confer their nationality on their children, and one of roughly 50 countries that denies women the right to pass nationality to their spouses—and to even retain their own nationality. Amendments to the Citizenship Bill to address this issue are currently being debated, but there is no indication that the rights of women will be addressed, and real change would require amending the recently enacted Constitution of Nepal to address gender inequality: a much bigger challenge.

In terms of Nepal’s tourism industry, one recent concern has been a wide-ranging scam involving helicopter pilots and tour organizers. The enterprise has corroded Nepal’s tourism industry and sucked huge sums of money from insurance companies. In this wave of fraud, trekking guides, helicopter evacuation companies, and even hospitals have encouraged unnecessary evacuations and exaggerated medical symptoms in a scheme that charges travelers thousands of dollars and has defrauded insurance companies of millions. But on this front at least progress has been made: In September 2018, Nepal authorities launched a crackdown on the offending agencies and individuals, and insurance companies are threatening to exclude Nepal from any coverage. At a time when the country is trying to boost tourism, addressing this issue forcefully and swiftly will certainly enhance Nepal’s integrity as an Ethical Destination.

We believe that Nepal is a beautiful country, with rich traditions and a warm and welcoming population. But while it is making important progress on some of its ethical issues, many significant problems still need to be addressed. We encourage travelers to visit Nepal with your eyes open, and to respectfully engage with your hosts to better understand the dilemmas of this young democracy.

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