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UPDATE (BHUTAN/NEPAL/INDIA/UNHCR): Hunger strike is going on; Need your support

January 16, 2003


17 January 2003
UP-04-2003 (UA-65-2002: Delays to verifying status of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal)

UPDATE (BHUTAN/NEPAL/INDIA/UNHCR): Hunger strike is going on; Need your support

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) would like to inform you regarding the recent developments of the Bhutanese Refugees' indefinite Dharna (means hunger strike) that began on 7 January 2003.

For your attention and support, AHRC is sending you the following latest information from the organizers of this event and other reliable sources.

If you need more details, please see our previous appeal and update at http://www.ahrchk.net/ua/mainfile.php/2002/389/, http://www.ahrchk.net/ua/mainfile.php/2003/393/.

Thank you for your support.

Urgent Appeals Desk
Asian Human Rights Commission



"Dharna at Khudunabari is going on. Each day about one hundred participants take part during the day and about twenty-five at night. The nights and mornings are extremely cold. Still then the people are very enthusiastic and are in high moral. People from different camps are pouring in to take part in the Dharna. The biggest group being from Timai camp on twelfth. There were eighty-six females and fifteen males. We are likely to have more participants in the next few days. The number of youths is increasing. Some prominent Nepali political leaders like Bir mani Dhakal, former Minister NC and other ex-MPs from Nepali congress had visited at the Dharna to express their solidarity. Four Indian journalists from Siliguri also visited Dharna site on Jan. 13, 2003. Nepali media are giving daily coverage. We hope things will become even better in the days to come. Looking forward for your kind support and solidarity."

Referring to the Royal Government of Bhutan and His Majesty's Government, Gurung, the chief coordinator of the movement warned, "if we fail to receive any positive response from the concerned governments, then we are pretty determined to carry on a fast unto death movement."

Meanwhile, the Information Officer at the Country Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Melita Sunjic has once again repeated her office's stand that the problem should be sorted out bilaterally. Asked if UNHCR had made any effort to intervene, she maintained that it was their independent decision and the UNHCR has nothing to interfere about.

The refugees have made threefold demand: Immediate declaration of the verification process in Khudunabari camp, continuation of the process in the rest of the six camps in Jhapa and Morang districts and early repatriation and settlement of verified refugees in their homeland.

Kamala Khadka, the camp secretary of the Khudunabari camp submitted a letter to the Nepalese Prime Minister. The letter channeled through the camp supervisor requests the premier to make moves in order to fulfill the three demands of the refugees languishing since over a decade now. Till now, there already have been eleven rounds of talks between the two Himalayan kingdoms but without result. Bhutan refuses to accept them as its bona-fide citizens calling them economic migrants. The refugees on the other hand claim they possess valid official documents dating back even prior to 1950. The Joint verification Team (JVT) had verified 12,090 members of the Khudunabari refugee camp in 2001, the result of which has so far not been declared. There are no signs as to when the 12th round of talks, which is vital for continued verification process and repatriation of verified refugees, will take place between the two governments experts say.

A delegation of the Bhutanese Refugee Repatriation Support Group (BRRSG) in Nepal which recently visited New Delhi to lobby international support for the repatriation of the Bhutanese refugees said that Nepal would have to withdraw from the bilateral process if the long overdue 12th round of talks failed to make headway for the repatriation of the refugees. A BRRSG press statement said the Nepalese delegation represented by former Foreign Minister Shailendra Kumar Upadhyaya, former lawmaker and foreign policy expert Hiranyalal Shrestha and Pramod Kafle asked the European and North American diplomats and Indian intellectuals for their active involvement so that Nepal does not have to resort to extreme steps.

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Extended Introduction: Urgent Appeals, theory and practice

A need for dialogue

Many people across Asia are frustrated by the widespread lack of respect for human rights in their countries.  Some may be unhappy about the limitations on the freedom of expression or restrictions on privacy, while some are affected by police brutality and military killings.  Many others are frustrated with the absence of rights on labour issues, the environment, gender and the like. 

Yet the expression of this frustration tends to stay firmly in the private sphere.  People complain among friends and family and within their social circles, but often on a low profile basis. This kind of public discourse is not usually an effective measure of the situation in a country because it is so hard to monitor. 

Though the media may cover the issues in a broad manner they rarely broadcast the private fears and anxieties of the average person.  And along with censorship – a common blight in Asia – there is also often a conscious attempt in the media to reflect a positive or at least sober mood at home, where expressions of domestic malcontent are discouraged as unfashionably unpatriotic. Talking about issues like torture is rarely encouraged in the public realm.

There may also be unwritten, possibly unconscious social taboos that stop the public reflection of private grievances.  Where authoritarian control is tight, sophisticated strategies are put into play by equally sophisticated media practices to keep complaints out of the public space, sometimes very subtly.  In other places an inner consensus is influenced by the privileged section of a society, which can control social expression of those less fortunate.  Moral and ethical qualms can also be an obstacle.

In this way, causes for complaint go unaddressed, un-discussed and unresolved and oppression in its many forms, self perpetuates.  For any action to arise out of private frustration, people need ways to get these issues into the public sphere.

Changing society

In the past bridging this gap was a formidable task; it relied on channels of public expression that required money and were therefore controlled by investors.  Printing presses were expensive, which blocked the gate to expression to anyone without money.  Except in times of revolution the media in Asia has tended to serve the well-off and sideline or misrepresent the poor.

Still, thanks to the IT revolution it is now possible to communicate with large audiences at little cost.  In this situation there is a real avenue for taking issues from private to public, regardless of the class or caste of the individual.

Practical action

The AHRC Urgent Appeals system was created to give a voice to those affected by human rights violations, and by doing so, to create a network of support and open avenues for action.  If X’s freedom of expression is denied, if Y is tortured by someone in power or if Z finds his or her labour rights abused, the incident can be swiftly and effectively broadcast and dealt with. The resulting solidarity can lead to action, resolution and change. And as more people understand their rights and follow suit, as the human rights consciousness grows, change happens faster. The Internet has become one of the human rights community’s most powerful tools.   

At the core of the Urgent Appeals Program is the recording of human rights violations at a grass roots level with objectivity, sympathy and competence. Our information is firstly gathered on the ground, close to the victim of the violation, and is then broadcast by a team of advocates, who can apply decades of experience in the field and a working knowledge of the international human rights arena. The flow of information – due to domestic restrictions – often goes from the source and out to the international community via our program, which then builds a pressure for action that steadily makes its way back to the source through his or her own government.   However these cases in bulk create a narrative – and this is most important aspect of our program. As noted by Sri Lankan human rights lawyer and director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando:

"The urgent appeal introduces narrative as the driving force for social change. This idea was well expressed in the film Amistad, regarding the issue of slavery. The old man in the film, former president and lawyer, states that to resolve this historical problem it is very essential to know the narrative of the people. It was on this basis that a court case is conducted later. The AHRC establishes the narrative of human rights violations through the urgent appeals. If the narrative is right, the organisation will be doing all right."

Patterns start to emerge as violations are documented across the continent, allowing us to take a more authoritative, systemic response, and to pinpoint the systems within each country that are breaking down. This way we are able to discover and explain why and how violations take place, and how they can most effectively be addressed. On this path, larger audiences have opened up to us and become involved: international NGOs and think tanks, national human rights commissions and United Nations bodies.  The program and its coordinators have become a well-used tool for the international media and for human rights education programs. All this helps pave the way for radical reforms to improve, protect and to promote human rights in the region.