Last month, the Nepal government released its written commitments as part of the United States government-led Summit for Democracy—an effort to bolster and renew democratic action globally during a period of significant challenges for democracies around the world. While American influence in Nepal is certainly not uncontroversial—as we have seen with the renewed protests related to the Millennium Challenge Corporation agreement recently—in a broader sense the S4D, as it is known, and the “Year of Action” it has now precipitated are an extraordinary opportunity to galvanise attention and mobilise international action to support democratic norms.
Sadly, the Nepal government has shown little commitment either to the S4D process or the fundamental democratic principles that it relates to, and the written commitments it has provided are so vague as to be almost unusable by any citizen, activist or journalist that might attempt to hold the government to account. The statement offers a variety of platitudes related to the importance of a “multi-party democratic polity” along with “checks and balances” and the “rule of law”. It makes just one very clear commitment that the victims of acid attacks will be compensated, which is commendable, although it does not go nearly far enough. On climate change, the government hopes to achieve net-zero emissions by 2045, but there is no roadmap to get there. There are broader promises around gender equity and strengthening the capacity of the commissions related to transitional justice issues too, but specific, concrete goals are few and far between.
This is a missed opportunity to demonstrate both to Nepali citizens and the international community that the current government is willing to address democratic deficits in meaningful ways and which actually address the problems that Nepal faces today. The suspension of the chief justice recently has highlighted challenges to the independence of the judiciary; the response to the pandemic has shown glaring gaps in accountability processes, and last week the lack of integrity demonstrated by former national football team captain Hari Khadka has once again demonstrated the absence of integrity within the bureaucracy.
It is not too late for the Nepal government to recommit to the S4D process and articulate more clearly what it could achieve in this Year of Action. This would not be an external question of aligning politically with the US against China as much as it would be an essential internal effort to drive reforms that are well overdue and renew the social compact between the state and its citizens.
Here is what Nepal could meaningfully—and feasibly—do in the next 12 months to commit to democracy in the right ways. First, on human rights, the government should stop interfering with the Human Rights Commission, provide more support for independent and fair investigations into human rights abuses, and show meaningful efforts to prosecute those that commit crimes against the most vulnerable in Nepali society.
Speaking of justice issues, the Nepali government should make a firm commitment to completing the transitional justice process within a year. Parliament should also pass a Truth and Reconciliation Commission amendment bill immediately with provisions that ensure no amnesty from prosecution for violations of human rights. Following the recent Supreme Court verdict, it is also urgent and important to ensure that the voices of victims and survivors are incorporated into the new amendment processes.
Third, in terms of anti-corruption, the government already has a document—the 58th Auditor General’s Report—which includes ideas that could be implemented immediately. The government should, for example, ensure that all funds are spent under budget headings to ensure oversight and monitoring; strengthen audit systems and controls; and better oversee administrative costs. There are many examples globally of how these kinds of changes have been made quickly and effectively. The Public Procurement Management Office must also devolve powers to local procurement bodies that can effectively oversee procurement across the country. At the same time, national oversight bodies—the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority in particular—must be given political independence and prosecutorial powers to take on larger scale accountability issues.
Finally, on freedom of expression, Parliament must revise the Media Council and Information Technology Bills to ensure freedom of expression and protect individual privacy. The new amendment to the Special Service Act should also be re-evaluated as the current provisions related to the monitoring of cell phones could be misinterpreted and misused by the authorities. Spreading misinformation is punishable by law in Nepal, but the government needs to work with civil society to ensure a healthy information ecosystem in practice.
There are international mechanisms in place that Nepal could use to support all of this and which would “multilateralise” these efforts—the Open Government Partnership for example, for which Nepal is eligible but has not yet committed. Signing up to the Open Government Partnership in itself would be an important step to improve governance because it provides a way for civil society to co-create reforms with the government over time, even after the S4D Year of Action.
Nepal has a rich history of solving problems, overcoming adversity and meeting collective challenges, but Nepali democracy has never been as inclusive, fair or transparent as it should be. There are some fundamental problems that the current political elite has demonstrated clearly it is unable to address. The Summit for Democracy provides a mechanism to jump-start progress before it is too late.
Article originally published in Kathmandu Post