Nepal Public Figures Challenge Human Rights Watch

On October 16, 2015, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published its report on human rights violations in August and September:

“Like We Are Not Nepali”: Protest and Police Crackdown in the Terai Region of Nepal

During protests leading up to the adoption of a new constitution, 9 police and 36 civilians were tragically killed. Most shocking are stories of brutality against children. The following is disturbing, but less graphic than others in the report:

Fourteen-year-old Nitu Yadav was among the protesters. He attempted to hide from the police in some bushes. Four separate eyewitnesses described what happened next. In front of onlookers he was dragged from his hiding place by police officers, thrown to the ground, and, while a officer stood on his legs, shot him dead in the face at point-blank range. Doctors who subsequently examined Yadav’s body confirmed that it bore injuries consistent with this account.

No police officers have been publicly charged for these crimes.

Faced with stories of unbelievable cruelty from both sides in the Terai, how do Nepal public figures respond? What follows is a look at challenges to Human Rights Watch, issued by four journalists and one human rights activist.

 

What About the Blockade

An early challenge for Human Rights Watch was not a criticism per se, but a question:

Columnist and former journalist Rubeena Mahato (11,300 Twitter followers) affirmed HRW’s report. At the same time, she questioned whether Human Rights Watch would “spare a word to condemn” the blockade.

This query was later addressed by Tejshree Thapa, a Human Rights Watch researcher and editor of the report:

As a policy, Human Rights Watch avoids detailing issues it considers political. But in fact, the HRW report did mention the blockade:

Protests along the Terai escalated throughout September, with protesters blockading border crossing routes from India to Nepal in a concerted attempt to halt the flow of petrol, gas, and other goods into Nepal. Over the course of the month, as a direct result of these protests, the country was hit by a severe petrol and gas shortage.

Perhaps this is not condemning the blockade strongly enough for some. Nevertheless, HRW called the blockade situation “severe” and did not ignore it.

We must remember that August 24 to September 11, 2015 is the specific focus of HRW’s field investigation. During this time, the blockade was not as severe as it became after September 20, when Nepal’s constitution was promulgated.

Which Violence is Worse

Rubeena Mahato also made a crucial point about comparing two types of violence in the report. Which is more serious: a murder committed by a police officer on duty, or one by a civilian? Mahato summed it up this way:

arbitrary state violence is worse than protest violence

The state entrusts police with the power and responsibility to protect civilians. Thus, abuse of state power is more disturbing than the actions of a common criminal. By the same token, journalists should be more vocal about human rights violations committed by police than by civilians, all other things being equal. Most of all, police must set the example for justice and harm-reduction, especially when attacked.

Invitation to Critics

Tejshree Thapa of Human Rights Watch recently made this appeal to critics:

Accusation of Bias

Here is one of the first accusations, which came the same day Human Rights Watch released its report:

Subhash Ghimire (5,000 Twitter followers) is Editor in Chief of Republica, “The Most Comprehensive No. 1 News Portal of Nepal”. Though lacking details on “#facts”, his claim of bias was swiftly echoed by some of his readers. Judgements of the 50-page report started arriving literally two minutes after Ghimire’s:

Update: @jjmahat820 deleted his tweet after this article was published, but it was saved on Archive.org. In Nepal time, the tweet was sent at 9:13 PM – 16 Oct 2015.

At the same time, other readers challenged Ghimire to justify his accusation of bias:

Despite these repeated requests, Ghimire did not respond in this public forum to present any evidence of bias. Nor did he provide a link to encourage followers to read the HRW report and evaluate for themselves. Although Twitter is a young medium where journalistic best practices are sometimes ambiguous, it is clear that an Editor in Chief can do better.

An accusation of extreme bias is not something to lob into public without evidence. “#Facts” should point to facts.

 

Hiding the Truth

An even higher-profile criticism came from a fellow human rights activist based in Nepal:

https://twitter.com/subodhfreenep/status/659350792248274945

Subodh Pyakurel (32,000 Twitter followers) is a widely-recognized public figure in Nepal. His organization has been investigating human rights for decades:

https://twitter.com/subodhfreenep/status/661094133562368000

 

Surprised at his accusation against Human Rights Watch, I first confirmed which police lynching Mr. Pyakurel was referring to:

https://twitter.com/subodhfreenep/status/659783384248397824

 

Pyakurel’s accusation, re-tweeted 19 times at present, was two-fold:

  1. Human Rights Watch did not report the lynching of policeman Thaman Bishwokarma from an ambulance.
  2. HRW wrongly reports that Nepal’s constitution creates second-class citizens.

He expanded on the first claim in a spirited exchange with his readers:

https://twitter.com/subodhfreenep/status/659787253745516544

https://twitter.com/subodhfreenep/status/659789294614089728

https://twitter.com/subodhfreenep/status/659789880264818689

To summarize, Pyakurel put forward five specific allegations regarding Bishwokarma’s lynching:

  1. HRW “didn’t report lynching”.
  2. HRW falsely reported there was no concussion.
  3. HRW did not consider an attendant’s interview saved by villagers.
  4. HRW “cleverly manipulated” the report to be biased.
  5. HRW “intentionally hides” a crime against humanity, i.e. dragging a patient from an ambulance and killing him.

Regarding claim 2, HRW reported:

Following this attack, Bishwokarma was brought to hospital. Despite two severe cuts in his scalp, consistent with a lathi beating, the hospital found no sign of a concussion…

From the context, Pyakurel seems to connect claims 2 and 3, though it is not entirely clear. That is to say, a concussion was reported in an attendant’s interview, apparently. Pyakurel did not provide a source for the interview, so his claim cannot be evaluated. HRW interviewed numerous eye witnesses in its field investigation and claims to report the hospital’s account. But really, what is the potential scandal here: “concussion cover-up”? How would a concussion affect the outcome of Bishwokarma’s tragic death?

 

Footnotegate

The most serious charge of Subodh Pyakurel against Human Rights Watch is that it “intentionally hides” a “crime against humanity”, because it “didn’t report” the lynching of Bishwokarma.

However, opening the report, this incident appears in the table of contents:

nepal1015_forupload.pdf#page=41

The account on page 33 runs 400 words. Several readers sent screenshots to Pyakurel:

At this point, I was at a loss to understand Pyakurel’s objection. After several rounds of comparing his comments to the report, I noticed that the words “dragged” and “killed” appear in a footnote but not in the rest of the account:

62 “Mahottari Protest: injured APF ASI dragged out of ambulance and Killed,” Kathmandu Post, September 11, 2015 http://kathmandupost.ekantipur.com/news/2015-09-11/protesters-kill-injured-apf-asi-in-mahottari.html (accessed September 30, 2015); Brij Kumar Yadav, “Protesters seize ambulance, kill injured APF official in Mahottari,” Himalayan Times, September 11, 2015, http://thehimalayantimes.com/nepal/armed-police-force-official-killed-by-protesters-in-mahottari/ (accessed September 29, 2015).

In case the footnote was overlooked, I called it to Mr. Pyakurel’s attention:

But he rejected the footnote’s sufficiency:

https://twitter.com/subodhfreenep/status/659790443882807296

The implication is that placing information in a footnote is tantamount to “ignoring”, even though the footnote links to two newspaper articles describing the dragging and killing.

I responded to his questioning of HRW’s motivation for using the footnote:

I countered Pyakurel’s theory that Human Rights Watch attempted to cover-up for leaders of violence:

To be clear, I do not fault HRW for detailing 16 of 36 civilian deaths, versus all 9 of the police deaths. HRW’s field investigation with eyewitnesses had a defined scope and timeframe.

The point is this: if a footnote is evidence of bias against police, it follows that omitting 20 of 36 civilian victims indicates bias against civilians. With two supposed biases running in opposite directions, which one is stronger? 

I tried to understand how the depiction could possibly suggest that Bishwokarma died of something other than protester attacks:

Pyakurel’s response did not address the question, but was intriguing nonetheless:

As of yet, Pyakurel has not contacted me further about sending these audio-visual materials.

What does Human Rights Watch have to say in its defense? Tejshree Thapa of HRW responded to the footnote controversy:

Despite this explanation from Human Rights Watch, Subodh Pyakurel has not retracted his charge of hiding a crime against humanity. Nor has he posted HRW’s response for his 32,000 Twitter followers on his own timeline. (If Pyakurel posts a retraction, it will be noted in an update to this article.)

 

Second-Class Quotes

The preceding lengthy discussion covered only the first of Subodh Pyakurel’s two main accusations. His other claim was that Human Rights Watch reported a falsehood about Nepal’s new constitution:

https://twitter.com/subodhfreenep/status/659350792248274945

I searched the HRW report and found four mentions of “second-class citizen”. I asked Pyakurel to explain why this phrase was always in quotes:

https://twitter.com/subodhfreenep/status/659794677458034688

However, there is a more straightforward reason for the quotes:

As with footnotes, quotation marks serve a valuable purpose. We can easily understand that when a journalist interviews and quotes people, their claims belong to them and not to the journalist. The journalist is not required to prove each allegation that is quoted as if it were his or her own. Similarly, Human Rights Watch reported that some Terai groups believe Nepal’s new constitution creates “second-class citizens”. Its report was not a constitutional analysis. It merely mentioned the “second-class citizen” allegation a handful of times as context for Madhesi discontent.

Here are the four uses of “second-class citizens” in the HRW report. Notice that each one either contains the word “claim”, or is told from a local’s perspective:

They objected to the new federal boundaries and to other aspects of the new constitution which they claim abrogate previous commitments made to their communities and create “second-class” citizens.

 

They also claim that under the new charter they will be underrepresented in the national legislature, that many members of their communities will be given “second-class” citizenship status…

 

We are being treated inhumanely, like second-class citizens.

 

We are being treated inhumanely, like second-class citizens.
[repeated elsewhere]

Mr. Pyakurel did not respond further on the “second-class citizen” issue. Nor did he correct this misunderstanding for the benefit of his readers.

(Though the HRW report does not analyze Nepal’s new constitution, I delve into the “second-class citizen” controversy in my article: Second-Class: The Nepal Embassy and Citizenship Inaccuracies)

 

Downplaying Atrocities

Subodh Pyakurel’s comment triggered another public figure’s accusation of HRW bias toward protesters:

Post Bahadur Basnet (2,300 Twitter followers) is a journalist who writes for Associated Press and various other news outlets around the world.

Responding to his concern about downplaying, I sent him the HRW report and called his attention to the killings of eight police in Kailali, spanning pages 13 through 23:

While responding to a comment containing the link to the HRW report, Basnet asked “Where are the details?”

I provided quotes to Basnet:

Basnet remained under the impression that relatively little coverage (akin to “a para[graph]”) was given to protester actions, even though the 3,000-word section on the police lynchings had already been mentioned.

Additional quotes of protester brutality against police from the report were brushed aside:

“No need to debate. Thanks!”

Thus ended this exchange.

 

Footnotegate II

Shiwani Neupane (6,700 Twitter followers) is a journalist who comments prolifically on justice and human rights. She strongly condemns violence on all sides:

 

Her reaction to the HRW report the day of its release was affirming, with some qualifications:

 

However, Neupane later accused Human Rights Watch of not properly covering the death of a policeman:

According to Neupane, HRW used “a footnote only” to document the lynching of a policeman in an ambulance. A proper report of his death was not “worth” enough to Human Rights Watch, in her estimation.

Apparently unaware that the footnote controversy had already been debunked, Neupane was informed by her readers:

[Update: Credit to Suvash Sedhain for acknowledging the correction immediately.]

Interestingly, Neupane did not recognize the HRW report from the screenshot provided:

I asked Neupane to clarify which “main report” she read, but she did not respond.

Then Neupane claimed that “most people” had read a different document.

Given that a summary would have omitted the footnote, the relevance of this point is not obvious.

Neupane was asked whether she had read the footnote and its context before criticizing it, but she would not say:

Neupane was adamant that her comment was accurate. However, her original complaint of “a footnote only” does not do justice to HRW’s 400-word account of Bishwokarma’s death.

The discussion ended there with no retraction. But a few days later, a hopeful sign emerged, albeit in a different context:

[Update: Neupane clarified she is not apologizing for her accusation against HRW.]

From the Press Council of Nepal’s Code of Conduct:

(9) Readiness to rectify errors: Upon receiving information of any error or mistake in a publication or broadcast, to rectify such error or mistake as soon as possible, and give proper place to any refutation or response that comes accompanied by evidence, publishing-broadcasting the same in clear language.

 

Final Thoughts

Journalists and human rights activists are the eyes and ears of society.  They have a specialized vocation to hold the powerful accountable, defend the vulnerable and educate the public. Each of the public figures mentioned here has done this for years. The difficulty and weight of their work is something a non-journalist and engineer such as myself can never fully understand. This critique is not a general statement on their work or character. It is not a personal attack; rather, it is quoting and questioning their public statements, just as they do to politicians. This critique’s scope is limited to specific discussions on the HRW report within a short period. I did not enter these discussions intending to write an article. But what I experienced first-hand compelled me to document the patterns that emerged. Ultimately, I hope that debunking this misinformation about the Human Rights Watch report will generate more discussion about the real issues. And ultimately, I hope that Nepali society will pressure the Nepal government to enact justice for all the victims, and change police attitudes and tactics to prevent these abuses of power from reoccurring.

 

The Human Rights Watch Report

Human Rights Watch describes itself this way:

Human Rights Watch is a nonprofit, nongovernmental human rights organization made up of roughly 400 staff members around the globe. Its staff consists of human rights professionals including country experts, lawyers, journalists, and academics of diverse backgrounds and nationalities. Established in 1978, Human Rights Watch is known for its accurate fact-finding, impartial reporting, effective use of media, and targeted advocacy, often in partnership with local human rights groups. Each year, Human Rights Watch publishes more than 100 reports and briefings on human rights conditions in some 90 countries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Penner

Robert Penner (B.A., Philosophy) has been working in Kathmandu since 2012 as a software engineer. https://twitter.com/robpenner

  • suvsh

    Just FYI

    • Robert Penner

      My apologies for the oversight, Suvash. I have updated the article with your response.

  • Arun Upreti

    Robert why so selective? I have seen plenty of sane arguments against it as well. You give footage of 3 people.
    Explain me this
    1. Why does the report reject findings of Social Inclusion Surveys, Census, NLSS,

    2. Why nothing how Indian blockade is killing people – please don’t say that has nothing to do with humanity. I can cite HRW’s other reports where embargo and political agenda has been deemed inhumane. That is no defense for not including it.

    3. The report indicates 50% of population is protesting – the fact is Madeshi Dalits, B/C and other Janajatis have little involvement is not there. Don’t believe me – I followed the instructions of Dip Jha who suggested people to look at names of people who have died to see who is supporting the protest- one of the supporters of blockade – looked into hospital records, death list – very few.

    4. Writes nothing about how Madeshi leaders have fixed price for martyrdom, asked people come out and protest with weapons. Also nothing on how local radios and FM have called for violence.

    5. Why not also state that Tejshree Thapa is sister of Manjushree Thapa who has openly supported the protest, burnt the constitution.

    6. Refrences Prashant Jha, Arun K. L. Das, Dip Jha – the radical voices of the protest. Why?

    The findings of HRW are propose fully crafted to show one side of the story. The NHRC report is more comprehensive.

    And there have been plenty of discussion about this on Twitter, facebook, print.

    • namah

      I agree with all you points.

      NOW: bring back alive those people who were killed by POLICE FIRED BULLETS.

      Then we are even …

      • namah

        when alternatives TO LIVE FIRE POWER IS AVAILABLE

        water cannons,
        tear gas
        pepper gas
        rubber bullets
        armored vehicles (move in, lathi charge, arrest)

        WHY KILL? WHY SO MUCH HATE?

        • Arun Upreti

          True. People have died. That should not have happened.

          What we are argueing here is Rob is being disingenuous by presenting his personal feud with a few people with selective tweets and presenting it in a twisted way.

          The HRW report is biased.. That is all I am saying.

          And seeing how the eyewitnesses described the Birgunj incident there is more than enough doubt that the interviews there are not lies as well.

          • namah

            …and that is what I am saying my dear friend…why argue about an argument? so much to do, so much reconcile, so much to build and rebuild…

            HRW is biased. ok. i agree. NOW WHAT? madhes issues remain, limbu protests bubble under surface, magar about same, tharus unhappy, everyone pointing fingers at KTM cabal…your solution?

      • Arun Upreti

        And its not about we being even. If you believe I support the death of people regarldess – Madeshi, non Madeshi, Police, Indian – No! I cannot. This cannot be about being even.

        I also do not support demonizing half of the nation and police force to fulfill certain agenda. We need all the deaths to be independently investigated. Biased interviewer, interviewing biased eyewitnesses. This is wrong.

        • Suman Tiwary

          Dude you need to read independent reports on Issues and Most importantly those remarks from politicians of CPN-UML , and their strategies in all of these incidents. you can’t even swallow the LIVE BULLETS to DUMMY BULLETS scenario and you are Blaming everybody becoz you don’t have information on the subject first hand.

    • Robert Penner

      If you want to have a reasonable discussion, I suggest you first drop the ad hominem comments about Tejshree Thapa’s sister and other people.

  • Arun Upreti

    This looks like a article to personally attack people who had debates with you and did not agree with you. I can get plenty of loop holes in your tweet too. This is pathetic man.

  • namah

    Check where Nepal is with MDG, HDI, Poverty Index, Slavery Index, HRI, etc…and we fight over a footnote…? seriously? as charlie brown would say…Good Grief!

  • Rajendra Senchurey

    Its really interesting to read blames and counter-blames. But I am wondering will there ever be prosections to these HR violations? Ask not for whom the bell tolls coz killing is killing, life is equally valuable to all no matter who s/he is. Human Rights Watch’s Report or NHRC’s report should not be viewed in isolation but rather should be taken as the complement of each other and of course even a single video taken by an individual or a report published by a small organization or a newspaper article or any evidence produced by whosoever are equally important to suffice the prob. But the prime concern now is to endeavour to punish the perpetrators otherwise the time and labour spent here and in fact-finding will not be redeemable. Lets involve, not just hit-and-run.Otherwise it will be just like futile reports produced after Peoples’ Movement I & II.

  • Suman Tiwary

    People should be more concerned with the “BIASED REPORTING” of kathmandu based Party owned, funded, directed media, Papers.. that keeps playing with words and incidents and rather than promoting free speech and total press freedom keeps siding with the new amendments on Media to make reporting more “DISCIPLINED” (in their words); which conclusively means keeping people in Dark about the incidents and News in the country, politics and security.

    • Suman Tiwary

      when civilian dies the Headline reads “Police ko goli laagi ek jana ko Mrityu” …when a police, A.P.F dies “Andolankari haru dwara Police ins. ko Nirmam Hatya”. and I am not justifying crimes here, it’s just the wording that keeps the propaganda with biased reporting going on.

  • Pingback: Not Everyone is Happy About Nepal’s Constitution - Fair Observer()