(New York) – Months of protests over the new constitution in Nepal’s southern region caused more than 50 deaths and halted the flow of essential goods and medicines into the country, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2016. Rescue and relief efforts following devastating earthquakes in April and May were slow to get off the ground, and the blockade on supplies led to a further crisis in the delivery of aid to earthquake victims.

Protesters chanting slogans take part in a general strike organized by the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) criticizing the draft of the new constitution in Kathmandu, Nepal, on August 23, 2015. 

© 2015 Reuters

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

Two back-to-back earthquakes in Nepal killed or injured tens of thousands and left millions displaced and in need of humanitarian assistance. Vulnerable communities, including people with disabilities, women, and children, remained at particular risk. In spite of many promises, the government remained unable to establish a reconstruction authority to disburse funds and rehabilitation supplies.

“The Nepali government received more than US$4 billion for earthquake assistance, but the victims have yet to benefit from a single one of those dollars,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “It is unacceptable that the political leadership has left citizens without critical assistance and instead squabbled over petty politics.”

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes, Nepal’s political parties managed to agree on a long-stalled constitution. While the constitution has some important equal protection and affirmative action clauses and recognizes the right to third gender identity, many ethnic groups, particularly along Nepal’s southern and far-western belts, said they felt excluded. Members of these groups declared strikes, blocked roads, and, in many cases, shut down normal daily activities for weeks at a stretch. Some of these protests turned violent. In September, an estimated 45 people, including nine policemen, were killed. In some districts, the government responded by deploying the army, and in others by instituting curfews. Most of the protester deaths were attributed to excessive use of force by the security forces.

The ongoing protests led to an effective blockade of trade and transit from India, leading to shortages in the supply of goods including essential fuel and medicines. Instead of negotiating with the protesters, the Nepali government accused the Indian government of imposing an economic sanction on Nepal, which India denied.

Human Rights Watch noted that the new constitution does not fully address the statelessness problem faced by over 4 million people in the country and instead creates further burdens for children born to a Nepali mother and foreign father.

“Nepal has had years to discuss and prepare a constitution which would address the expectations of all its communities, including its sizeable stateless population,” said Adams. “Instead, the main political parties simply used the distraction of the humanitarian crisis to pass a constitution which has ended up deeply hurting many of its citizens and deepened the humanitarian crisis.”

Human Rights Watch noted that the country has yet to take steps towards accountability for crimes committed by all sides during the country’s 10-year civil war, which ended in 2006.