National Seminar on the Role of National Institutions on Indigenous Peoples
On 2-3 May 2007, Asian Indigenous Tribal People's Network (AITPN) in cooperation with Kirat Welfare Society (KWS) organised a “National Seminar on Transition in Nepal and the Role of National Institutions on Indigenous Peoples” in Kathmandu, Nepal. About 70 indigenous representatives participated in the National Seminar which, among others, addressed the present status of the indigenous peoples in Nepal, indigenous peoples' perspectives on the interim constitution and the issue of federalism, status of indigenous women in Nepal, the Role of National Institutions on Indigenous Peoples and ratification of the ILO Convention No. 169 and its relevance in Nepal.
In the post-conflict phase, each and every community is yearning for peace but at the same time also wants higher stakes in governance. This is a critical period for the indigenous peoples of Nepal who need legal mechanisms to end injustice, oppression and discrimination and for protection of their rights, including political, economic and social, or else be doomed to suffer till arrival of another wave of reforms in the country.
Those who graced the National Seminar were H.E. Ms Lena Sundh, Representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to Nepal; Dr. Jagadish Chandra Pokhrel, Vice Chairman of National Planning Commission of Nepal; Dr Chaitanya Subba, Member, National Planning Commission of Nepal; Mr Bijay Subba, Member of Parliament, Communist Party of Nepal-UML; Mr. Mitharam Biswakarma, Member of Parliament, Nepali Congress; Ms Sarina Gurung, Information Officer, National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN); Mr. Parshuram Tamang, Member, UNPFII, Mr Chandra Kulung, General Secretary, Kirat Welfare Society; Dr Sukendu Debbarma, President, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact; Mr. Dinesh Ghale, Vice Chairperson, Lawyers' Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples; Ms. Lucky Sherpa, President of Himalayan Indigenous Women Network; Dr Om Gurung, Advisor, Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN); Mr. Satish Budhamagar, Chairperson, Magarat Mukti Morcha, among others.
Speaking at the seminar, Ms Lena Sundh, Representative of the OHCHR in Nepal stated that the indigenous peoples “are among the poorest of this country's (Nepal) poor”. She urged the indigenous leaders to look beyond the upcoming electoral process and consider more broadly possible strategies to ensure that all the rights of the indigenous peoples are recognized and respected in future. Establishing a “national institution on indigenous peoples” should be one such goal, she said. She enlightened the participants about the Paris Principles but warned that “No single model of national institutions can, or should, be recommended as the appropriate mechanism for all countries.” National institutions must be developed taking into account “local cultural and legal traditions as well as existing institutions” while benefiting from the experiences of other nations' institutions, she suggested.
Dr. Jagadish Chandra Pokhrel, Vice Chairman of National Planning Commission of Nepal empathically stated that all the political parties must show “firm commitment” to protect the rights of the indigenous peoples in “their agenda as expressed in eight party minimum common agenda”. These commitments need to be operationalized and demonstrated with “some results in practice”. Dr Pokhrel stated that Nepal cherishes its diversity in “culture, language, and so many other aspects of human life” but expressed regret that “It took us lot of effort in this country to identify some of the almost extinct indigenous peoples and come up with immediate action” so that language, culture etc of the threatened indigenous peoples can be protected. “We must know clearly what we want to protect”, he said, adding that he was optimistic that “recommendations” of the seminar will be “really helpful for us to come up with national policies and programmes”.
Dr Om Gurung, Advisor to NEFIN, spoke on the “Perception of Indigenous Nationalities of Nepal Towards the Interim Constitution of Nepal-2063 and the Issue of Federal Democratic Republican State raised by the Nationalities”. According to him, there are several shortcomings in the interim constitution of Nepal. He stated that major issues like “right to self-determination, restructuring the state based on ethnic, territorial self-rule and proportionate representation based on ethnic population in the constituent assembly” have not been included in the interim constitution. The indigenous peoples are “highly marginalized” and have “very low and somewhere about to none” representation in services such as Executive, Judiciary, Education, Health, Civil Services and Army Services. The indigenous peoples have been “isolated from the national political life and mainstream of development” due to discriminatory policies of the government. Lack of decentralization of power “does not provide any opportunity and place” to the indigenous peoples to participate in state affairs. So, “restructuring of the state” is necessary, Dr Gurung asserted. He recommended “a federal state based on ethnicity, language and geographical area” instead of “a federal state based only on geographical areas”.
Mr. Dinesh Ghale, Vice Chairperson of Lawyers' Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples was of the opinion that the “conventional approach” was still practiced in the judiciary in Nepal and even the People's Movements (both first and second) have not tried to make the judiciary “inclusive”. According to figures provided by him, Brahmin/Chetry represented 85% in Supreme Court, 79% in Appellate Court and 86% in District Courts while Indigenous peoples (except Newar) represented only 1.1.% in Appellate Court, 1.3 in District Courts but none in the Supreme Court. Newar indigenous peoples represented 15% in the Supreme Court, 14% in Appellate Court and 9.7% in District Courts. He also stated that there were only 1,578 Advocates and 1,683 Pleaders belonging to indigenous peoples (including Newar) who have received license from Nepal Lawyers' Council.
Ms. Lucky Sherpa, President of Himalayan Indigenous Women Network, in her paper, “Indigenous Women of Nepal-Issues and Challenges” stated that the indigenous women of Nepal have not received attention either from the government of Nepal or from the civil society groups, including the women's movement in Nepal. She regretted that despite constituting 37.5 percent of the total female population of Nepal, overall participation of indigenous women in political parties, in decision making bodies including the National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) and even in indigenous peoples organisations is meager and negligible. The “NFDIN Constitution contains discriminatory clauses for indigenous women and the member organizations of NEFIN while proposing the names of indigenous representatives of NFDIN have nominated men.” She also highlighted the discrimination faced by the indigenous women, “The services and facilities granted to women are only within the access of women who belong to so called high caste, have close relationship with people in power and have party affiliation and monetary power. With a few exceptions most indigenous women are deprived of such facilities. Indigenous women's participation in local elections, professional and administrative jobs, cabinet, parliament, judiciary etc is very low. Most of the women, who have been able to get in, belong to Bahun-Chhetri groups (with some exceptions of Newar women, who are IPs). The result of such an imbalanced representation of the dominant caste Bahun-Chhetri in various decision making bodies have made adverse impact on their (IP women) identity, language, religion and culture.” She further lamented that “Innumerable programmes related to women development and gender equality are being implemented in the country. But they do not involve women from adivasi janajatis (indigenous nationalities). The women's movement is limited to the castes/communities who dominate the state affairs, so called high caste and the elite and to places where modern facilities are available Indigenous women do not have control and access on the local resources and means.”
Ms. Sarina Gurung, representative of National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN) of Nepal spoke about both the major achievements and shortfalls of the NFDIN. She identified several constraints including low budgetary allocation (only 3.3 crore), lack of proper infrastructure including absence of its own building, problem of implementation of the programmes which “are not matched” as per the Act and Regulations of NFDIN, failure to appoint Vice Chairperson and Member-Secretary since past 11 months, etc.
Analysing the performance of the NFDIN, Mr Chandra Kulung, General Secretary, Kirat Welfare Society stated that NFDIN was an absolute failure. He pointed out that NFDIN's failure was a result of lack of the essential components of good governance such as accountability, transparency, democratic practices, rule of law, decentralization of powers and prevalence of rampant corruption. He regretted that the indigenous representatives in the Governing Council of the NFDIN were excluded from having meaningful participation in the foundation. He rued, “The members of the governing council were not provided opportunities for serious discussion for over all development of the indigenous nationalities to bring them in mainstream development process.” Mr. Kulung also charged the NFDIN of functioning in a secretive and suspicious manner due to preponderance of influence of the Line Minister i.e. the Minister of Local Development. He says, “In almost all instances, only the Chairman and Member Secretary of the Executive Committee of NFDIN were involved in decision making process keeping aside the other members of Executive Committee nominated by NEFIN and the Governing Council. Annual Report of NFDIN is not made publicly available. After entering into some sort of mutual understanding with some clever members of the Governing Council, the Executive Officers of NFDIN impose their decision upon the other members who are usually the unsuspecting indigenous peoples' representatives.” He further charged that the NFDIN was being run in an undemocratic manner. At the behest of some of the larger indigenous groups, NFDIN has not yet given separate recognition to more than 20 comparatively smaller indigenous groups and they are continued to be recognized within the larger groups.
Dr Sukendu Debbarma, President, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, expressed the view that the indigenous peoples are what they are today “because we have not been able to make space for ourselves”. However, the States have now understood the very uniqueness of the indigenous peoples, he said. A democratic country cannot do away with discrimination against indigenous peoples because “Neglected indigenous peoples would mean that a section of the citizens of that particular country are being neglected”. Several countries in the region have established National Institutions on indigenous peoples such as Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes Commission of 1989 of India, Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) of Philippines, 1997, National Foundation for Indigenous Peoples of Nepal, 2002, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Commission of Australia. Establishing institutions for the indigenous peoples is not enough. Therefore, the indigenous civil society must take pro-active role to make these institutions “very very viable”.