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Global Human Rights Issues

Mr. Sushil Pyakurel (Nepal)

Sushil Pyakurel is a former Commissioner of Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission, and a founding member of the first human rights organization of Nepal Forum for Protection of Human Rights (FOPHUR) and a front line human rights organization Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC). Currently he is an expert adviser to the President of Nepal Mrs. Bidhya Devi Bhandari on political and human rights affairs. He is also coordinator of the Former Commissioners' Society of National Human Rights Commission of Nepal (FOCOS-NHRC).He has been awarded with different national and international awards. He received the 2010 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights.

Struggle for Human Rights and Democracy in Nepal and the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights

The day of 21st April 2010 marked a climax day of my life's success, and I genuinely believe this. On that Day I had received a pleasing phone call from Gwangju while having morning tea that really surprised me. I recall someone on that phone from the Republic of Korea asking: Are You Sushil? As soon as I said yes, the caller said: Congratulations, you are the winner of the 2010 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights. This was pretty much an unexpected message for me. Several thoughts rambled in my mind whether it was a gen 7uyuine call or just a mix-up. With some skepticism, I replied: I am Sushil, but I am unaware of why I was awarded the prize. The caller responded: Please check your email and visit the website given there. Carrying on with the morning tea sips, I shared this 'news' with my wife. Delighted, she surmised it could be true. As I browsed my email immediately after, I found a letter and the text of press conference together, which clearly stated: Nepal's human rights defender Sushil Pyakurel had been awarded with the year's Gwangju Prize for Human Rights.

I, then, felt that the prize was the highest regard for my involvement, spanning over three decades, in the movement of human rights and democracy. This I still do and will continue to feel so.

The abstract of my prize note shed a brief but an intense light on my involvement in the movement, which it said was my contribution. It highlighted my engagement from the inception of the first-ever human rights organization of Nepal to the National Human Rights Commission, the closure of Maoist conflict and the end of royal autocracy. This was also a moment of a rare reflection I normally had on my role in these several junctures of the historical moments of my country. I say 'rare' because my whole youth passed fighting for 'present', with a wish of making a better future. My country was under the grinding tyranny of absolute monarchy with no democratic civil rights for the people. Defence of democracy and human rights was met with authoritarian suppression. My goal was the creation of a peaceful society and the road to it passed through human rights and democracy. In these struggles, as I look back today, moments of reflections would be a kind of luxury.

The phone call and the press note of 21 April that year, however, pushed me to my past. Now, I had to reflect on myself. I tried to figure out what I had actually achieved to be worthy for the prize. I had never dreamt of any award. The so-called accolades coming from the national organizations and movements now and then already seemed to be heavy on me. I felt and still feel that we all have discharged our duty as guided by our conscience, for which no awards are really consequential.

I fought against the tyrannical monarchy in Nepal as a conscious Leftist youth. Several of my seniors and compatriots laid down their lives under the cruel suppression of royal autocracy. Like those who chose to rise up when the tyranny asked them to stop, my struggle was for human rights, keeping the flag high. But I also knew, a democratic system was imperative for the prevalence of human rights. So, my struggle was also for democracy. However, no democracy can be human rights friendly just because it has 'democracy' in its name. Democracy instead demands constant vigilance and fight. Democracy did dawn in Nepal in 1990 and the citizens got an opportunity to express themselves freely. But that democracy still inherited entrenched feudalism and caste-based social hierarchy. Even under the democracy, we had restored after thirty years of constant fight, a handful of landlords had occupied a significant share of arable land. Nepal was an agriculture-based economy. So, control of farmland would also mean controlling the primary means of production. This feudal production relation essentially kept 60 percent of Nepali people below the poverty line when democracy was restored in the country. There was no minimum wage for agro workers.

To top on that, traditions like Haliya and Kamaiya -both forms of bonded labour are mutations of slavery- were still prevalent in western Nepal. Under these systems, not only labour but also the humans were traded. My concern at the time was to make it possible for the people living under these slavery-like conditions to transform into independent citizens. As such, I drove INSEC (Informal Sector Service Center), an institution founded by me, towards the movement of emancipation of Kamaiyas and Haliyas. After 10 years of continuous battle, finally, the Parliament of Nepal abolished Kamaiya system on 17 July 2000 and set free all bonded labours. Later, they transitioned to independent workers in other professions starting from agro-labourers. This process is yet to complete.

The twenty-year period of 1990 to 2010 marked great upheavals in Nepal. In 1990, we transformed the autocratic monarchy into a constitutional one. We converted the party-less political system into a multiparty parliamentary one. We were working to institutionalize economic, social and cultural rights of people for the stability of the nascent democratic polity. Right there from 1996, the parliamentary system of Nepal came under siege under duress of the Maoist armed insurgency.

Constitutionally, Nepal's political system was multiparty democracy since 1990. But Nepal was also a witness to the age-old economic exploitation and discrimination. The slogans of Maoists calling for the rule of proletariat, people's ownership of land and social reforms attracted a good segment of communities which were at the bottom of national attention. However, the Maoist want to capturing state power by the barrel of the gun led to an armed conflict. By 2000, Nepal was deeply embroiled in the insurgency waged by the Maoists. Repressive policies of the successive governments, coupled with the Maoist violence, shook the entire nation. Rapes and murders became common. People in droves were displaced from their origins. The monarch, who was brought under the constitution in 1990, smelled an opportunity and schemed staging a comeback. The unreformed Army was in favour of traditional leadership. It sided with the King. As the country reeled under violence and killings, the base of nascent democracy weakened.

During the conflict era, the protection of human rights was the central concern of human rights activists. We pressured the government to enforce National Human Rights Act and set up the National Human Rights Commission. We also had the responsibility of encouraging the Maoists to abandon violence, while at the same time, persuading the government for the observance of human rights and humanitarian law. Caught in the middle of the of Maoist violence and government oppression, I had to remain in police detention numerous times while fighting for the creation of the National Human Rights Commission.

Our actions for the establishment of the Human Rights Commission as a national mechanism of human rights came to fruition only in 2000. I myself became a member of that Commission. It was created when the country was at the height of the armed conflict. The whole nation was bleeding. As a member of the Commission, I was obliged to discharge the complex duties of establishing peace in the nation as well as protecting the citizens form the conflict. In my analysis, the demands of Maoists were social and political. But the route they had taken was violent and terrorizing. When the government declared them as terrorists by law, it became increasingly challenging to seek a peaceful solution to this problem.

As violence grew, and as the political system of Nepal started crumbling, the monarch dissolved the parliament and took governance in his own hands in 2002. The democratic system established after a long battle was once again snatched away by the King. Our functioning in the Human Rights Commission became even more demanding to protect human rights in Neap. The country embarked on a brutal crossing of terror and oppression unleashed by both the Maoist insurgents and State. Democracy succumbed at the hands of the monarch.

Nepal's human rights activists refused to bow down. They united to start another struggle for the restoration of democracy as well as to find a peaceful settlement of the Maoist conflict in Nepal. The Human Rights Commission actively engaged itself in its role of peacebuilding supported by the human rights organizations and civil society. Through several classified negotiations, it exercised pressure and persuasion on the Maoists to adhere to the humanitarian law, and cautioned the government on its constitutional obligations of human rights protection. The Commission also became a dialogue link between the Maoists and the parliamentary political parties who had witnessed the system now seized by the King. I could offer this role in my capacity as one of the members of the National Human Rights Commission. This, however, would jeopardize the King's political ambition. Hence, the King and the State security apparatus, already suspicious of my activities, targeted me. By the end of 2004, my movement was restricted and later it developed into a travel ban. I found that I was kept under state surveillance. Whatever little movement I could manage was being watched by the intelligence.

By March 2005, I had realized that staying in Nepal would not be useful for my human rights work. As a result of three years of suppression, many politicians were either in exile in India or in prisons in Nepal. The Maoist insurgency was getting worse. I managed to travel abroad under auspices of the UN Human Rights Commission, EU and some other international human rights organizations. With the National Human Rights Commission rendered toothless and national human rights organizations banned, I led efforts coordinating international support. As a result, a resolution for keeping a Mission of the UN Human Rights Commission in Nepal was endorsed. At the same time, an understanding was reached between the political parties of Nepal and the Maoists for ending the insurgency. This agreement ensured that the Maoists would enter into peaceful politics the political parties would agree to abolish monarchy by mobilizing a peaceful popular uprising. This agreement is now known as the Twelve-Point Understanding, signed in November 2005.

As the Maoists also expressed solidarity with the peaceful struggle, the King surrendered his powers in April 2006 and democracy was duly restored in the country. The coalition government of democratic parties signed a Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) with the Maoists in November 2006. The CPA devised three primary mandates for the State. Firstly, holding election to the Constituent Assembly which would frame a new Constitution of Nepal; secondly, managing the combatants and weapons of the Maoists and integrate their certain number into the national army and; thirdly, offering justice to the victims as per the established standards of transitional justice and punish the perpetrators as per the laws.

After the political change of 2006, though the first two mandates were set in motion, successive governments could not lend attention to the third mandate, that of transitional justice. For the Maoists who emerged as a new political force, consolidating power was of utmost importance over ensuring justice to the victims. Coalition governments between the democratic political parties and the Maoists left this issues out of convenience. Addressing the atrocities committed in the past have fallen into the backburner ever since.

I left the National Human Rights Commission by mid-2005, as I had put myself in exile. I returned back to my country with the restoration of democracy. Later in 2008, a Vigilance Committee, named as Accountability watch Committee was formed with a broad mandate to rally for justice and for bringing the peace process to a logical conclusion. During the time of my struggle for transitional justice, i.e. in 2010, I was awarded with the Gwangju Human Rights Prize in the auspices of all human rights organizations and civil society.

This Prize has felicitated me in consideration of my history. Even more, it lent me national and international credibility. It validated my past struggles, enabling me to contribute further at present and in future. I contributed half of the prize purse I received, which would be USD 25,000, into the Prakash Human Rights Award Fund, a Prize established by INSEC commemorating the founder General Secretary of Forum For Protection of Human Rights (FOPHUR) the first ever human rights organization of Nepal. This has become the highest and most valued human rights prize to be annually awarded in the country.

Due to the reputation that the Gwangju Human Rights Prize brought to me, my human rights endeavours have reached newer heights. It acknowledged my works in various facets of transitional justice. My pro-activeness has become a habit to stand for rights of people in Nepal and global world. As a result, I also became the human rights advisor of the first women President of Nepal Ms Bidya Devi Bhandari, elected as per the Constitution of Nepal. This constitution was drafted and promulgated in 2015 by the democratically elected Constituent Assembly.

Since late January, I have again returned as an independent human rights defender. I tendered my resignation from my position of Advisor to the President in protest of the selection of a Maoist leader as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, against whom a murder complaint is pending with the police on an insurgency-era case.

The Gwangju Human Rights Prize, established by the families of the fighters of Gwangju who fought against military dictatorship and for democracy, has motivated me to struggle for democracy and justice incessantly. It has imbibed in me a profound responsibility and resolve to act, keeping the dignity of the Prize. Every single day, this prize reminds me of the great martyrs of Gwangju and the valiant fighters who endured untold torture. It reminds me of the democratic struggle of the friendly people of the Republic of Korea. The Gwangju Prize for Human Rights inspires me every single day for a new fight that I should involve in for the creation of a just and peaceful society.