Mandira Sharma, winner of the Human Rights Watch prestigious Human Rights Defender Award, is a lawyer and human rights defender from Nepal.
PBI spoke to Mandira in December 2022 while on a speaking tour to gain international support for reforms to the Transitional Justice Bill.
Mandira co-founded Advocacy Forum in 2001, an organization made up of human rights lawyers who seek justice. Mandira and her colleagues represent victims in Nepali courts and campaign for legal reforms. As a result of their work on human rights and justice, they have experienced direct and indirect threats, assaults, defamation and incitements to violence in the media.
What motivated you to start working in human rights?
When I grew up I experienced and witnessed a lot of discrimination against girls, it was normal to treat boys and girls differently. When I was in school there was a democratic movement in Nepal and I witnessed teachers and relatives being arrested and severely tortured in detention.
I went to visit one of my relatives that had been imprisoned when I was still very young. He was subjected to torture and explained what it was like to be inside prison. I saw what it was like to be detained for the first time. That must have impacted me deeply, and after finishing school I came to Kathmandu to study and started to work with an organization that was focused on medical treatment for vistims of torture, which was set up by a group of lawyers.
By then, Nepal had established democracy successfully and many of the prisoners had been released, but through my work with this organization I realized how they had been destroyed. Their personality was destroyed and they were completely different people. This was when I realized what torture could do to human beings.
I worked for this organization for 10 years, documenting the stories of torture survivors and providing medical treatment. I had a lot of different experiences working with prisoners, victims of sexual violence, and children who had been traumatized. Once you’re in that field and know how human rights violations impact people, their families, and society as a whole, it's very hard to get out of it.
I continued to work in this area, and after 10 years my focus shifted to work on prevention. It’s very important to provide care for victims of torture, but sometimes it’s too late and you can’t repair the damage that has been caused. So I took a year off and received a scholarship to study my Master’s in the UK. I was exposed to international human rights mechanisms which were still very new to us. We hadn’t studied these in Nepal, because until 1990 we didn't have democracy and human rights education was not there. I started having interactions with UN special rapporteurs and felt like a lot could be done.
When I went back to Nepal I set up advocacy for prisoners. I started to focus on police detention centers as when interviewing victims of torture previously, I had heard that torture so often takes place in prisons. The advocacy grew in such a big way because that was also a time when we had emergency armed conflict. There were a lot of cases of human rights violations happening so we had offices in almost all regions of the country.
What have the key messages been in your meetings? What asks have you been making?
We suffer very violent conflict in Nepal that has caused serious human rights violations. Thousands of people have lost their lives, been killed, thousands have suffered torture and ill treatment, thousands of women have suffered sexual violence and rape. We still don't know the whereabouts of more than 3000 people. We established a comprehensive peace agreement that ended the violence but none of these victims have received justice or been able to know the truth, and they haven’t received reparations or justice.
None of these cases have been investigated and none of the perpetrators have been brought to justice. This really undermines our efforts to consolidate peace and democracy in the country and contributes to this violence. The international community largely thinks that Nepal is now relatively peaceful, but we have not been able to address legacies of the past. This could lead to another violent conflict and this is something we want to prevent. We have a lot of opportunities if Nepal receives international support - this is what I'm trying to tell the international community. There is a lot happening around the world at the moment but you cannot lose sight of issues in other countries like Nepal.
Can you tell us about any reprisals or backlash you've faced because of your human rights work? What it is like for human rights defenders in Nepal in general?
In the past we faced a lot of difficulties, threats, intimidation, and defamation. A magazine which is close to one of the political parties that had been involved in conflict put our picture on the front page as traitors and were seeking action against us (meaning physical attacks against us). That message was also on some radios close to certain political parties against whom we had brought the case.
There are also a number of allegations against us, and the government is using that as an excuse to carry out investigations and report in the news that we are misusing resources. Similarly, sometimes individual perpetrators who we have been litigating also threaten us saying they know how to use guns. Even today I think it's not direct threats or attacks or imprisoning us but defamation and not letting our projects get approved, as well as lots of administrative restrictions. We have policies that would require us to get prior approval from the government to get any foreign funding. The Nepali government doesn't provide any human rights funding anyway, and we don't take government funding to do our human rights work so we rely on international support. But they curtail this by not approving the project that you really want to implement.
What has PBI’s support meant for you?
In the past, when we were in a very critical situation monitoring and documenting cases and litigating on behalf of victims, PBI accompanied us. We were not sure whether we would return home safely from the field. In those periods, PBI accompanied us and some of the victims we were working with. They also helped amplify the issues that we were working on. Sometimes we didn't know who to contact when we were in a difficult situation or when we faced threats and intimidation or needed urgent support. PBI supported us and also helped us in terms of advocacy work, allowing us to go to different countries that are important for Nepal's development.
Do you have any key messages or asks for the international community or anyone reading this interview?
The international community should know that there are opportunities and challenges in Nepal, and if they make a concerted effort it would be possible to improve the situation. Human rights organizations continue to be limited, especially organizations focusing on accountability, impunity and transitional justice issues. The international community should understand the subtle way of limiting the work of those organizations and defenders working in those fields.
Organizations like PBI are having difficulties continuing their work in Nepal, and the international community should use its diplomatic channels to allow civil society, both national and international, to be able to operate in the country and extend the support needed for these organizations to work.
Despite the challenges they face, Mandira and her colleagues continue to seek justice for victims of human rights violations in Nepal. PBI continues to stand with Mandira as she campaigns for justice in Nepal.