Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Whither NHRC?


The deadly Covid-19 has devastated the entire nation. People are gasping for breath. Hospitals are not equipped enough. The weak health system has not been able to mitigate the alarming death rate.

Last year, there was a demand for surgical masks, sanitizers, and PCR machines which was somehow managed. This year, the second wave of virus is so lethal that helpless taxpayers are running from pillar to post for oxygen and ventilators at the hospitals. More importantly, several virologists and doctors are saying that vaccinating people can only save further lives or can mitigate the death rate. People are begging the state to save their lives. But only people with good connections survive in the current situation.

The state has been ignoring people's concerns and leaving the entire nation reeling. The game of throne is at the peak. Leaders themselves are interpreting the articles of the constitution as per their convenience. However, this kind of politicking is not happening for the first time in Nepal. In such a deteriorating situation, role and performance of human rights organizations also must be interrogated.

After all, most of the organizations are also being operated through the taxpayers' money.  In Nepal, there are dozens of human rights organizations (HROs), most of which are funded by international donors. Donors have their agenda and they fund specific components of human rights. Torture, extrajudicial killings, inclusion, and development of peace, in general, are their agenda. There are very few HROs working on the issue of health sector.

However, we have the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), a constitutional watchdog body where human rights victims can pin their hopes in getting justice and protection of their human rights. The autonomous NHRC's performance and reliability, however, often comes with question marks.

After Nepal got federated into seven provinces, very late but genuinely, NHRC had transferred its regional offices into provincial offices with some expanded jurisdiction to those offices. All the offices are located in major towns of the province. Their presence is hardly seen in the field for monitoring quarantine centres and isolation facilities. In Province-2, where the scribe resides, few questions to the provincial office of NHRC needs to be raised. Does this office have a record of the total number of affected by this pandemic? Have they seriously visited any of the districts focusing on the pain people suffer from? In the last one month how many people have died because of Covid in Mahottari district? What is the situation of the poor families compelled to face starvation after the death of breadwinners? How people are getting deprived of managing their basics in urban and semi-urban areas of Province-2?

Hundreds of sufferers in Mahottari are begging for loans in high interest from the usurers. The government has not built alternative treatment facilities in hospitals for the patients suffering from diseases other than Covid.

Besides, unemployment and its probable consequences along with starvation would inspire criminal activities in the society. The scribe has had a bitter experience of witnessing such acts in his village last year. During lockdown, there were multiples incidents of burglary in the village. Only few of them have been recorded in the district police office so far.

Amidst the above-mentioned situation, NHRC thinks that its responsibility is limited to releasing a few press releases and 'grammatically correct reports.' In the current situation that emerged from the uncontrolled virus, has NHRC done any follow-up on the reports submitted to the government of Nepal? Does the NHRC Janakpur office have any idea about how the social, health, and economic rights of the residents have been impacted?

Articles 16 and 35 of the Constitution of Nepal, Sections (1), 3 (1), and 4 of the Public Health Service Act 2075 asks the state to provide health facilities to citizens. Similarly, Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights has been ratified by Nepal. In a similar vein, Article 12 of the covenant on the rights of the child, 1966, provides for the right of every person to receive health care, including during emergency. In every related report, NHRC staffs do not miss to quote these treaties and fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution of Nepal. But while there is a need of implementing the law seriously, NHRC seems to fail even in recommending the state for its fulfilment. Perhaps due to these reasons, people perceive NHRC as a ' toothless tiger'.

More than getting engaged in workshops, seminars and other fruitless activities, the presence of NHRC at ground zero is the need of the hour. NHRC must not limit itself to arm-chair monitoring of the situation where human rights abuses are at the peak. More importantly, the media which is also one of the prominent watchdogs of democracy should contribute to making NHRC accountable. From the level of ordinary people, questions are being asked to the state regarding their performance through social media and articles. And, if NHRC is doing the same thing via writing vacuous reports its relevancy needs to be questioned.

Twitter: @randhirJNK

Published on 25 May 2021