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Volume 458: debated on Monday 12 March 2007

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what recent representations her Department has made to the Government of Nepal on human rights. (126269)

During my visit to Nepal in September last year, I stressed the need for the Government of Nepal to address the question of impunity which has done so much to undermine public confidence in the state security system. We also continue to work with the EU, other international partners and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to increase awareness of human rights violations in Nepal and urge the Government of Nepal and Maoists to meet their commitments to uphold human rights standards.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what assessment she has made of ethnic minority rights in Nepal. (126270)

The question of ethnic minority rights in Nepal has come to the fore recently in the form of disturbances and protests in the Terai region. We have called for all parties in the interim Parliament to acknowledge the rights of ethnic minority groups and have stressed the need for greater inclusion, not only in the political process, but in society as a whole. The comprehensive peace agreement has done much to raise the expectations of a number of disenfranchised groups in Nepal. It is important that the coming interim Government ensure that ethnic minority rights are addressed urgently. Failure to do so risks undermining the peace process as Nepal moves towards elections to a constituent assembly in June.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what assessment she has made of the level of women's rights in Nepal. (126273)

In April 2006, Nepal had its second ‘people's movement’ against the autocratic rule of the King. Women played a significant part, coming onto the streets in huge numbers to demand a more inclusive democratic system of government. Their protests did much to ensure that gender equality and justice were placed on the national agenda. This new emphasis on equal rights resulted in the passage of legislation which requires 33 per cent. of women's representation at all levels of the state structure and, for the first time, allowed for the right to citizenship to be passed on through the mother not just the father.

But the inclusion of women in society remains largely cosmetic. The current Government, due to be replaced by an interim Government in the coming weeks, have only one female Minister. Although the interim Parliament formed in January has an increased number of women, this is largely due to the Maoists who fielded women for 37 per cent. of their 83 seats. Moreover, although the interim constitution notes the inclusion of traditionally marginalised groups such as women, it remains to be seen whether the constituent assembly elections will include the 33 per cent. of women candidates required by legislation.

Discrimination in Nepal is rooted in culture and religion and while legislation can make it unlawful, it will take a long time to change attitudes and perceptions. A huge cultural shift is required if women in Nepal are to participate in the peace process and play a significant part in the constituent assembly. In addition, structural changes in society are necessary in which poverty and the education of women need to be addressed.

If Nepal is to continue to move towards a peaceful future, it is vital that the rights of women and other minority groups are addressed. We will continue to work with our international partners and women's groups in Nepal to uphold their rights.

Through our embassy in Kathmandu, and the office of the Department for International Development, we have pressed high level politicians to include women as an integral part of the peace process. We will continue to encourage and enable meaningful representation and participation of women in all aspects of the peace process. The UK-drafted Security Council on Nepal (UN Security Resolution 1740) contains a specific reference to the need to pay special attention to the rights of women in the development of a democratic new Nepal.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what assessment she has made of the political situation in Nepal. (126274)

The Nepalese Government and people are to be congratulated on the progress made so far in the peace process. In less than a year, Prime Minister Koirala and the alliance of seven democratic parties has signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement with Maoists, drafted and agreed an interim constitution, formed an interim Parliament including 83 nominated Maoist MPs and secured a UN Security Council Resolution providing for a UN Mission to monitor weapons and combatants and provide technical assistance to the election process.

However, the process remains fragile and will require commitment from all parties as well as the support of the international community to continue to make progress towards free and fair elections to a constituent assembly in June.

Peace in Nepal though has raised the expectations of ethnic and other minority groups who have long pressed for greater representation in Parliament. A failure to address these demands has led recently to violent disturbances, particularly in the Terai region where members of the Madhesi community are demanding proportional representation, a federal system of Government and a greater voice in the interim Parliament.

Elections will be key to sustaining the momentum and giving voice to the marginalised. But there is a fine balance between the political imperative of rushing them through quickly and the risk of their being flawed so that the results carry no legitimacy.

Another area of concern is the behaviour of the Maoists, who have yet to meet fully their obligations under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Intimidation and extortion remain commonplace. It will be vital for Maoists to take seriously their responsibilities as they come into the interim Government, end abuses, support the rule of law and work to deliver services through the state system rather than parallel systems of their own.

The UK has played a leading role in supporting the peace process. The long-standing relationship we enjoy with Nepal has allowed us to provide views and guidance which are welcomed. We will continue to work, with the EU and other international partners to help Nepal progress further towards a sustainable and peaceful future.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what assessment she has made of human rights in Nepal. (126275)

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in November last year includes extensive human rights provisions. All parties are bound by the CPA to co-operate with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Despite this unequivocal language, the Maoists, the Nepal army and the Government have failed to co-operate fully with the OHCHR.

With Maoist combatants in cantonment sites and Nepal Army soldiers largely confined to barracks, human rights violations have decreased since the ceasefire. However, there are still regular reports of incidents of Maoist intimidation and extortion and the Government of Nepal have yet to establish rule of law throughout all areas of the country.

We are concerned about the human rights situation in Nepal and in particular reports that a number of human rights defenders, members of civil society and the media regularly face threats and intimidation. We have urged all sides in the peace process to allow human rights organisations to carry out their work free from intimidation and interference.

We have also pressed the Government of Nepal and Maoists to take urgent steps to tackle impunity. The lack of a credible Government response to the question of impunity risks undermining the peace process and decreases public confidence in the state security system. In the run-up to elections to a constituent assembly, it is vital that the Government and Maoists work hard to create an environment that will enable all political parties to campaign and voters to cast their ballots in a free and fair atmosphere.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what assessment she has made of the proposals for the scheduled elections in Nepal; and what (a) discussions she has had with and (b) information she has received from the UN on the prospects for the elections. (126809)

Elections to the constituent assembly are scheduled for June 2007. Credible, free and fair elections will be key to sustaining the momentum of the current peace process as well as giving a voice to marginalised groups in Nepal. But it is vital that conditions are right for holding the elections. There needs to be proper preparation for the elections including voter education and there needs to be an environment that allows all democratic political parties to campaign freely and people to vote without fear. A flawed election will serve no-one’s interests.

The Election Commission, supported by the UN election team, has made good progress. The registration of voters is almost complete (the overall increase in the voters list is estimated at around 20 per cent.) and almost all the 25 UN Electoral Advisers are now in Nepal. Through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Global Conflict Prevention Pool, we have committed funds directly to the Election Commission to assist in their preparations.

However, the Election Commissioner has recently declared that he is unable to make progress on preparations for the elections until the necessary legislation has been passed. This requires decisions in the Parliament on the type of voting system necessary and appropriate. At a press conference in New York on 26 February, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Ian Martin, said that the Election Commission faced considerable challenges if an election is to take place in June (further information on the press conference can be found on the UN website at:

I discussed the prospects for elections with Ian Martin when we met on 5 March during his visit to London. I reassured him of the UK’s support for the peace process in Nepal and our wish to see free and fair elections which should lead to a fully inclusive and democratic constituent assembly.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what reports she has received on the living conditions of Maoist rebels in Nepalese rehabilitation cantonments; and what impact she expects the departure of rebels from camps to have on the 2006 ceasefire between rebels and the Nepalese Government. (126806)

Under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of November 2006, the Maoists agreed that their People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would be confined to seven main cantonment sites, spread across Nepal, while the Nepal army would be confined to barracks. Maoist weapons would be stored in sealed containers, to which they would keep the keys, but the UN would monitor the integrity of the containers and the confinement of combatants to the camps. Maoists moved the PLA and their weapons to the proposed cantonment sites almost immediately and the UN has moved quickly to complete the registration of combatants and storage of weapons.

The CPA required the Government of Nepal to provide the infrastructure of the camps and to ensure that combatants were given adequate shelter and provisions. However, this process has been slow and, in the early days, international donors provided some assistance (the Department for International Development provided practical support on the provision of water and sanitation for the camps and the Indian Government provided tents to house the PLA and containers to store the weapons).

Recently, we received reports that a number of former PLA combatants had temporarily left the Shaktikhor cantonment site in Chitwan complaining that the Government of Nepal were failing to provide sufficient food and water to the camps. However, their weapons remained under UN supervision. The question of Maoists leaving cantonment sites was reported to, and discussed by, the Joint Monitoring Co-ordinating Committee, chaired by the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) on 22 February. UNMIN had previously expressed its concern to the Government of Nepal about the living conditions at the cantonment sites and had called on the Government and Maoists to work together to make immediate arrangements to improve these conditions.

We were concerned at reports that former members of the PLA had left the cantonment site, in a clear breach of the Agreement on Monitoring of Arms and Armies of 8 December 2006. However, it is important to note that weapons storage and monitoring remained in place and that all sides to the agreement worked closely to ensure that combatants returned quickly to the cantonment site following the intervention of the Maoist leadership and a commitment from the Government of Nepal to meet their demands on funding, provisions and camp infrastructure.

We are confident that this incident will not affect the positive progress of the ongoing peace process in Nepal.