Irene Zubaida Khan, 50, is the first woman and the first Asian to be appointed as the Secretary General of Amnesty International (AI). Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Khan has worked in many countries for the rights of refugees and displaced persons. She studied law at the University of Manchester and Harvard Law School, speciallsing in public international law and human rights.
As head of Al (since 2001), Khan has traveled many countries, voicing an alternative vision to the new "war on terrorism". Khan recently visited Nepal, along with other Al members, to assess the human rights situation following the declaration of a state of emergency in the country. (Al maintains that since the breakdown of the ceasefire in August 2003, there has been an increase in cases of human rights abuses, including torture, detention, disappearances, displacement, abductions and unlawful killings in Nepal.)
During their visit between February 10 and 16, 2005, Al delegates met victims of human rights abuse - by the security forces as well as the Maoists - including rape survivors, child soldiers and torture victims in Nepalgunj', Biratnagar and Kathmandu. Following her visit to Nepal, Khan talked to the media in New Delhi.
Q. What are your impressions about the current situation in Nepal?
A. The longstanding conflict between the Maoists and the armed forces has destroyed human rights in the countryside. Now, with a state of emergency being declared, human rights are being destroyed even in the urban areas. The country is on the brink of disaster. People are being 'terribly squeezed' between King Gyanendra and the Maoists. Both King Gyanendra and the Maoists are trying to get the people to support them. In this "you are either with us or against us" strategy, the people are facing a very, very difficult situation.
Q. During your visit you met King Gyanendra. What did he have to say about the situation?
A. The King said in his proclamation (earlier) that one should not equate the Maoists and the State, and I agree with him. But in my own discussion with the King, I told him that we expect a much higher degree of responsibility from the State. People are forced to make a choice. But they can't make a choice because neither side is able to protect them totally.
The King had told the US Ambassador that he needs 100 days to put the country in order or to begin to show progress. But those 100 days have no relationship with the measures that he is taking (since February 1, 2005) in the form of muzzling the press, arresting students, locking up human rights activists and others who protest. What will happen in the 100 days is that Nepal will slip out of the agenda of the international media. Nepal will go back into oblivion, the human rights disaster will be forgotten as it has been forgotten for the past nine years.
The emergency is not the beginning of the human rights problems in Nepal. There were enormous amounts of human rights abuses taking place outside the state of emergency. What the emergency has done is to put a lid on an explosive situation by muzzling the civil society and the media and restricting the people by weakening the human rights protection system, which is the judiciary and the National Human Rights Commission (NHR).
Q. Al called for an immediate stop of all military aid to Nepal. (Some countries have already done so). What about development aid?
A. Stopping development aid, particularly to a country like Nepal, which is so poor, is a very complicated issue. Sixty per cent or so of the budget comes from international assistance. Some development assistance goes directly to NGOs; some goes through government ministries. The general sense among many of the donors is that blockage of aid will hurt the people more than the government. However, we have told the donors to strictly monitor the flow of funds so that it doesn't get diverted.
Q. What are the workable solutions to end human rights violations in Nepal?
A. There are certain things that the King can do if he wants to. It is a question of political will. First, strengthen the NHRC. We have seen in the case of India, the NHRC is a very important national institution. The NHRC in Nepal is young and right now very weak. But it can be a good start as it actually strengthens the indigenous system - local Nepalis are involved in it.
Unfortunately, the commission's mandate is running out in May (2005). The chief justice is expected to recommend (some) names but we don't think that the chief J ustice will have the independence to do so in the prevailing situation. Besides, the judiciary has been very weak. Something has to be done structurally to make it more independent and strong.
Q. The King's reasoning is that insurgency needs to be tackled and human rights do get violated in the process. What is your view on this? A. It is a difficult situation because the Maoists don't play by the rules. The King and the Nepal army chief told me that it is all about winning hearts and minds, but you don't win hearts and minds by abusing human rights.
There are a large number of "disappearances", illegal detentions and even torture of children in the Royal Nepal Army bar-racks. We were told about sexual violence by security forces against local women, including women living in camps for internally displaced people. One woman told us that she was gang raped by security forces during a search operation in her village in 2004. In another incident, two young girls were kept in military barracks for six weeks.
Then they (the armed forces) talk about the morale of the staff. They say that the troops are asked to do a difficult task. If they are punished (for human rights violations) then they are in an impossible situation.
But it is my firm belief that their behaviour, whether that of army soldiers or the Maoists, has a huge impact on the population. People are not blind in terms of one or the other system.
Q. Do you think women's status is any different in Maoist dominated underdeveloped Nepal?
A. It is perhaps my personal experience of the 1971 war in Bangladesh that any kind of major violent upheaval in society has a huge impact on gender roles. And wherever that upheaval is linked to an ideological battle, as in the case of Maoists, it is bound to have an impact on how women are treated and how women feel about it. There are instances of female cadres being abused but also cases where they are treated as comrades.
However, women's situation in Nepal is appalling. Women in Nepal don't have property rights and they are way behind in major issues. They are victims of the war as well as victims of social stigma.