By Lobsang Wangyal
McLEOD GANJ, India, 13 December 2019
Gopal Krishna Siwakoti, PhD, is a front-line human rights defender based in Kathmandu, Nepal. He currently heads the International Institute for Human Rights, Environment and Development (INHURED International), an NGO primarily focused on issues of civil and political rights, as well as economic, social, and cultural rights.
The organisation courageously fought against the tyrannical panchayat (party-less) system, to protect and promote human rights and rule of law following the ceaseless campaign for the restoration of multi-party democracy system in Nepal.
Siwakoti has stood with Tibetans whenever they are troubled by Nepalese police, condemning the police actions as unconstitutional and anti-human rights. Arbitrary arrests by Nepalese police for organising Tibetan events is one of the common issues Tibetans face. Nepal has stopped issuing stay permits for Tibetans entering the country from Tibet, irrespective of their background. Siwakoti has often urged the Government of Nepal to stop arbitrary arrests, and to uphold the rights of refugees regardless of their political views.
Lobsang Wangyal interacted with Siwakoti during the 8th International Tibet Support Groups (TSG) Conference, held in McLeod Ganj, capital of the Tibetans-in-exile, early in November.
Q: How would you describe your role in human rights?
A: My position as a human rights defender and refugee rights activist is very simple: That working for the rights of refugees, any refugees in the world, including Tibetan refugees, is a legitimate concern for us. So when we’re talking about freedom, when we’re talking about human rights, when we’re talking about refugee rights, that doesn’t automatically mean becoming anti-Chinese, which is a complete misperception and misgiving on the part of the Chinese authorities. This misunderstanding and illusion must be eroded completely. We work for the refugee concerns, we work for their dignity and respect. It’s a humanitarian issue, human rights issue. Concerning Tibet’s status, the CTA has already given its clear position, so its not our cup of tea, but concerning the refugees’ rights, we will continue to fight for the cause.
Q: What do you think of the status of Tibetan refugees living in Nepal? How many of them are there, what is their status in Nepal, for example, in terms of getting a stay permit, all the opportunities they have, their livelihood?
A: The problem is, until 1990 the status of Tibetan refugees was not that bad, but after 1990 the government came up with a policy that the newcomers will not be granted a refugee card. so they are in a way completely stateless and they do not have any privilege, any rights to assert their dignity. So there are around 15,000 Tibetan refugees in Nepal, and out of them nearly 9,000 do not have a refugee card. That means they don’t have the right to start any business, they don’t have a right to a driver’s license, travel documents, and even education particularly. So now our fight is to secure their status, that they should be allowed to register themselves, to be recognised as refugees. So this is one of the major concerns in Nepalese context. That for those refugees who do not have a refugee card, the state must issue the refugee card so that the basic human dignity, basic living standard, basic livelihood should all be secured.
Q: What do you think about the Nepalese government banning Tibetan events, particularly political ones, as well as the celebration, for example of Dalai Lama’s birthday, or Nobel Peace Prize for him?
A: This is really sad, and we don’t subscribe to that. Because Nepal is a human rights-friendly country, it’s an open society, a free society, and Tibetans have been living here forever. And we are also part of the international community, so not only on civil and political rights, but also on economic, social, and cultural rights, every person, regardless of their nationality or any other status, should be granted their freedom of religion, and their cultural rights. So the way the government has taken the decision, or the practice, of even not allowing religious activities, is completely anti-human rights, is completely anti the international commitment that we have made so far with regards to respecting the rights of every single person, not only its citizens.
So the Nepalese human rights community is continuing its stance and position of advocacy towards securing at least their religious freedom. Because every single person has the right to enjoy their cultural rights as well as religious freedoms. So we will continue with that. It is a very bad situation, which is because of the high-handedness of its northern neighbour that we know. But that should not continue, the government must respect the rights of the Tibetan refugees, particularly on the religious and cultural front.
Q: What steps could be taken, so that Tibetans could enjoy these rights?
A: It’s very simple, first of all, the human rights communities should come up with a common position, and lobby with the government, that the government cannot mortgage its own international commitment and constitutional provisions as well, but at the same time, if nothing works, then the only way is a court challenge. We have done some court challenges in the past to secure refugee cards for refugees, and we’ve got some victories.
So then we have to knock on the door of the court, saying that it’s completely non-political issue, it’s a human rights issue. So on the ground of conferring the cultural rights, and religious freedom, it’s very simple. And court definitely will understand, the essence of the writ petition. So we’ll go for writ petition, if nothing is resolved on the part of the government.
Q: That is talking about the domestic level. What can the international community do, so that the Nepalese government can allow these rights?
A: Yes, because Nepal is a party to major international human rights instruments, and there is a reporting obligation. So on a periodic basis Nepal has to submit reports to the different UN committees. So the UN committees have already taken their stand, particularly on the civilian and political rights fronts. The cause of the Tibetan refugees’ status, their identification has already been taken up and the concluding remarks and recommendations have already been sent to the government of Nepal. And the government of Nepal must act in compliance with that. So we can work through the human rights platforms, from the part of international community, that the UN reporting obligation system is the major platform including the Human Rights Council. Because Nepal is now a member of the Human Rights Council. So it has its obligation to act in compliance with those provisions.
So there’s a lot of opportunities, and room for persuading the government that we’re not talking about free Tibet, or we’re not talking about two Chinas, we’re simply talking about respecting the rights of an individual, the basic rights. The basic freedoms, religious freedom, cultural freedom. Basic fundamental rights that everybody deserves as a human being. If the world community will stop or slow down pushing the government, then the government will raise its hand high. So we should continue with concerted and coordinated perseverance in order to influence and pressure the government of Nepal, that Nepal cannot afford compromising those fundamental freedoms of the Tibetan people. And Nepal has an obligation to do that. So it’s all our coordinated international effort through the human rights platform.
Q: There are reports saying that Nepal and China are going to sign an extradition treaty. What do you think about that kind of agreement?
A: That was a very bad concept. I also spoke to a couple of media outlets earlier, that Nepal cannot afford doing that. No. This is a very bad idea, and I think it was not Nepal’s choice, it was the choice of the Chinese government. And so finally it didn’t materialise, during the visit of the Chinese President. They were trying, but because of lot of pressure from human rights and international communities, that has not taken place. So we’ll continue our effort, that Nepal must avoid signing an extradition treaty, because it’s targeted to Tibetan people. It’s targeted to Tibetan activists, and even the Chinese nationalists who are in favour of freedom in Tibet, the rights of the Tibetan people, there are a lot of Chinese intellectuals who are supporting the cause of Tibetan freedom, the cause of the Tibetans. So that is targeted to the dissidents, basically.
As a human rights-friendly country, as an open society, as a democratic nation — we are a tiny nation, a very small nation, a very small player in the global community, but, we have our own position, we believe in freedom, we believe in human rights, we believe in democracy, we believe in rule of law. So that we cannot compromise, if we compromise that, we don’t exist.
Q: Then you become a banana republic.
A: Exactly, we become a banana republic. We are sandwiched between two giant nations, but we are not yam, as previously stated, very delicate, tiny yam, between two rocks. But we are not a yam, we are a solid small rock, between two giant rocks. If we break or move, then the two big rocks will also move. So we are in a very strategic position. So we should not consider ourself as being yam, but as a solid tiny rock that holds two giant rocks. So that should be our foreign policy. We should not compromise with any kind of influence, either from the north, or from the south, or anywhere. So that is exactly what our nationality and position, and we will continue to put pressure on the government, that we must not compromise our position.
Q: So this will come at a price, because Chinese investments, grants, and everything will be stopped.
A: No, no, forget it, because, it’s not like that. If Chinese will stop supporting Nepal, for example, simply on the basis of our own robust foreign policy, forget it. We’ll not die of hunger. No. We are not becoming anti-Chinese. We are simply taking our position, on strategic grounds, becoming part of the non-alignment movement. We are not supposed to be tilting either to the south or to the north. It’s a tiny nation, but we have to stand robust like Mount Everest. If we are able to strike the correct diplomatic balance, then both these neighbours will clearly understand that Nepal is not taking the side of anyone. We are friends, we are friends on both the sides. Becoming friends is not a bad idea, and to strike the right balance, diplomatically. That’s fine. And on the basis of that, if we do not become a puppet of a particular country, and the country does not support us, that’s perfectly fine, because that is the doctrine, that doctrine is more important than food. Nepal will not compromise on that. We will strike a correct balance, on the diplomatic front.