This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.
COUNTRY PROFILE: NEPAL GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Government Overview: Nepal’s constitution was promulgated on November 9, 1990, and is technically Nepal’s fundamental law. The constitution guarantees certain rights to all citizens, protects individual liberties, and establishes Nepal as a “multiethnic, multilingual, democratic, independent, indivisible, sovereign, Hindu and Constitutional Monarchical Kingdom” with a parliamentary government and an independent judiciary. However King Gyanendra (r. 2001– ) dissolved both houses of parliament in May 2002 as well as three subsequent interim governments composed of a prime minister and a Council of Ministers. The last interim government was suspended on February 1, 2005, and King Gyanendra has since ruled with full executive powers assisted by an appointed 10-person crisis cabinet. A state of emergency established by the king on February 1, 2005, was lifted on April 29, 2005, but civil rights and liberties remain restricted.
Since the restoration of democracy in 1990, the most prominent actors in Nepalese politics have been the king, the political parties, and the Maoist rebels. The single most powerful political entity is the king, who is the head of state, supreme commander of the Royal Nepal Army, and the constitutionally declared symbol of both the nation and national unity. The Raj Parishad, or King’s Council, determines accession to the throne and the heir apparent, and the king appoints its members. The rule of kings has been culturally legitimized by the belief that kings are an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu and are upholders of dharma on earth, although it is debated how widely such beliefs are held. Royal power has been based on strong ties with the military and economic elites.
Executive Branch: Executive power is held by the king and the Council of Ministers, which is headed by the prime minister and consists of ministers appointed by the king on the prime minister’s recommendation. Often referred to as His Majesty’s Government of Nepal, the Council of Ministers is responsible for the general administration of the country as well as authenticating all transactions made in the king’s name, except those in the king’s exclusive domain. The Council of Ministers has a central secretariat consisting of 22 ministries and the secretariat of the National Planning Commission.
Legislative Branch: Nepal’s legislature consists of the king and a bicameral parliament. The king’s legislative powers are technically ceremonial, but the king approves or returns for reconsideration all bills approved by the two houses of parliament, except finance bills. The lower house of parliament, the House of Representatives (Pratindidhi Sabha), has authority over the Council of Ministers and is regarded as the more powerful of the two houses. The lower house has 205 members directly elected for five-year terms. The prime minister is the leader of the majority party and the country’s chief executive. The upper house, the National Council (Rashtriya Sabha), has 60 members, who are appointed or indirectly elected to six-year terms: the king appoints 10 members, the House of Representatives elects 35, and an electoral college elects 15, three from each developmental region. Bills may be introduced in either house except finance bills, which are introduced only by the lower house. All bills must be passed by both houses and then receive royal assent. If the upper house rejects a bill, the lower house may override. If the king returns a bill for reconsideration, a joint session of parliament may pass the bill, which then automatically receives royal assent within 30 days. The king may promulgate ordinances, but only when both houses of parliament are not in session, and such ordinances are not effective until approved by both houses. The king may dissolve the House of Representatives for a period of six months, after which new elections must be held, but the National Assembly is a permanent body. Nevertheless, King Gyanendra dissolved both houses in May 2002.
Judicial Branch: The 1990 constitution is the fundamental law of the land and establishes a three-tier court system consisting of 75 district courts, 16 appellate courts, and the Supreme Court. Village and municipal bodies may exercise quasi-judicial functions for minor offenses. All courts have original jurisdiction, but district courts have original jurisdiction over most judicial matters. The Supreme Court also has appellate jurisdiction and jurisdiction over all courts, except military courts, and Supreme Court orders, decisions, and interpretations are binding on all, including the king. The Supreme Court has a chief justice appointed by the king on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council and 14 judges appointed by the king on the recommendation of the Judicial Council, which also appoints appellate and district court judges. The House of Representatives can impeach Supreme Court justices. The judiciary is widely regarded as becoming more autonomous, but it suffers from large case backlogs, insufficient finances and personnel, political intervention, poor demarcation of jurisdiction between courts, and biases based on caste and economic status. Thus, many Nepalese do not view the official court system as a viable option for legal matters. A survey conducted in 2000 revealed that the majority of legal-type issues were handled not by government officials but by local actors, such as village chiefs.
Judicial and Legal System: Nepal’s legal system is composed of the 1990 constitution, the legal code, legislation, and Supreme Court precedents. The constitution guarantees equality of all citizens and provides fundamental rights and liberties. The legal code, or Muluki Ain, was introduced in 1854 and revised in 1963. It combines Hindu laws and sanctions, British and Indian codes, and traditional rules of behavior among the Newars in the Kathmandu Valley. Issues not covered by this code, however, are dealt with according to customs of local communities. Nepal does not have separate criminal and civil courts. Judges decide all cases and have wide discretion in doing so. The constitution does not provide for trial by jury but does provide rights to counsel and public trial as well as protection from double indemnity and retroactive application of laws.
Administrative Divisions: Nepal’s largest administrative divisions are development regions, which are divided into zones. Zones are further divided into districts, which in turn are divided into nine to 17 ilakas that cover clusters of villages and municipalities. Municipalities and villages are divided into wards, the smallest administrative unit, with villages containing nine wards and municipalities nine to 35 wards depending on population. Nepal has a total of five development regions, 14 zones, 75 districts, 58 municipalities, 3,915 villages, and 36,032 wards. Municipalities and villages are legally distinguished by population. Municipalities must have a minimum population of 20,000, except in mountain and hill areas, where the minimum population is 10,000.
Provincial and Local Government: Government below the national level is complex, evolving, and a highly debated political topic. All administrative divisions have one or more governing bodies, and members are directly elected, indirectly elected, or appointed by the central government. The king appoints regional and zonal administrators, who are responsible for coordinating the functions of ministries and departments within their respective areas. Villages, municipalities, and districts each have two governing bodies that are composed of directly and indirectly elected members serving five-year terms, with some representatives serving simultaneously on two or more governing bodies. One governing body at each level meets once per month and is responsible for implementing central government policies but also has autonomous policy, revenues, and judicial authority. The other governing body at the same level meets once or twice per year to approve the corresponding body’s policies, budgets, and revenue methods. Wards have one governing body, a ward committee whose members also serve on municipal and village committees and councils.
The central government has expressed interest in enhancing the provision of public services by enabling local bodies to have fiscal and policy-making capabilities to provide such services. However, many ministries have been criticized for not delegating relevant functions to local bodies, and critics contend that central government appointees that serve on district, village, and municipality bodies have compromised the autonomy of those bodies. Furthermore, local bodies are believed to be particularly weak in their mobilization and management of financial resources, with many depending on the central government for long-term investment. In addition, the functioning of local governments has been severely undermined by the lack of officials to serve on those bodies. King Gyanendra suspended district, village, and municipal elections in 2002, and many officials subsequently appointed to those bodies have resigned. In July 2005, Nepal’s Election Commission announced that municipal elections would be held in April 2006, but political parties had previously announced that they would boycott elections called by the king.
Electoral System: Nepal has universal suffrage for citizens 18 years of age and older. The minimum age to run for office is 21 for local offices, 25 for the House of Representatives, and 35 for the National Assembly. Members of village development committees and municipalities are directly elected and constitute an electoral college that elects district development committee members. A district’s number of representatives for national office is proportional to the district’s population, and the number of representatives for district and local offices is based on area, population, and other factors.
The Electoral Commission oversees elections and political parties. Elections were held in 1991, 1994, and 1999, but elections scheduled for November 13, 2002, remain suspended. From 1991 to 1999, the number of voters increased from 11.2 million to 13.5 million, and turnout remained at nearly 65 percent. Although the number of voters in 1999 was evenly split between males and females, only 143 of the 2,238 candidates for the House of Representatives were women, and just 12 women were elected. In the same election, there were 205 election constituencies, 6,821 polling centers, and 100 political parties, 39 of which stood for election. Parties’ election expenditures are legally limited. To run for office, a party must have received 3 percent of votes in the previous parliamentary election, and 5 percent of its candidates must be women.
Politics and Political Parties: Since the restoration of democracy in 1990, political parties have been among the most influential actors in politics, but their popularity and effectiveness are generally seen as declining. In February 2005, the king suspended all parties, claiming they were not effectively addressing the civil conflict, yet the suspension’s constitutionality is debated. For many reasons, political parties have seldom been capable of challenging the king’s power and have rarely mobilized large portions of the population. The parties are frequently perceived as representing distinct social identities, often those of dominant caste/ethnic groups. Competition within and among parties is common and is often perceived as based on personal interests rather than on ideology or policy. Many actions of parties and their members appear to be oriented to acquiring and maintaining power. As measured by votes received in the 1999 election, the most popular parties were the Nepali Congress (36.1 percent), Nepali Communist Party (30.7 percent), and Rastriya Prajatantra Party (10.1 percent).
Mass Media: Historically, radio has been the most prevalent means of mass communication. Government-owned Radio Nepal has been the sole domestic radio provider since 1951, and by 1995 it was broadcasting in short-wave, medium-wave, and FM frequencies. Private operators can lease the FM channel, and there are plans to establish FM stations outside the capital. Television programming commenced in 1985, and broadcasters include government-owned Nepal Television, which has two channels, and private broadcasters Nepal One, Shangri-La, and Space Time Network. All private television broadcasters have experienced financial losses and content restrictions. Foreign programs can be accessed via satellite or cable. Statistics on viewership are not available, but it is estimated at less than 15 percent of the population. According to government figures, in 2003 Nepal had 3,741 registered newspapers, of which 251 were published daily. Government-owned Gorkhapatra (Gorkha Journal) had the highest daily circulation at around 75,000. Most registered newspapers were published either weekly (1,304) or monthly (1,122). Most vernacular news media are regarded as having little credibility as a result of affiliations with political parties.
Foreign Relations: Constitutionally, foreign policy is to be guided by “the principles of the United Nations Charter, nonalignment, Panchsheel [five principles of peaceful coexistence], international law and the value of world peace.” In practice, foreign policy has not been directed toward projecting influence internationally but toward preserving autonomy and addressing domestic economic and security issues. Nepal’s most substantive international relations are perhaps with international economic institutions, such as the Asian Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, a multilateral economic development association. Nepal also has strong bilateral relations with major providers of economic and military aid, such as France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, the United States, and particularly the United Kingdom, with whom military ties date to the nineteenth century. The country also maintains strong political relations with India and China, usually attempting to balance one against the other. However, relations with India are fraught with trade and border disputes and Indian suspicions that Nepalese and Pakistani rebels use Nepal as a haven to attack India. Relations with Bhutan have been strained since 1992 over the nationality and possible repatriation of refugees from Bhutan.
Membership in International Organizations: Nepal is a member of numerous international organizations including: the Asian Development Bank; Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Cooperation; Colombo Plan; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; Group of 77; International Bank for Reconstruction and Development; International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes; International Chamber of Commerce; International Civil Aviation Organization; International Criminal Police Organization; International Development Association; International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; International Finance Corporation; International Fund for Agricultural Development; International Labour Organization; International Maritime Organization; International Monetary Fund; International Olympic Committee; International Organization for Migration (observer); International Organization for Standardization; International Telecommunication Union; Mulitlateral Investment Guarantee Association; Nonaligned Movement; Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons; South Asia Cooperative Environment Program; South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation; United Nations (UN); UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; UN Industrial Development Organization; Universal Postal Union; World Bank; World Customs Organization; World Health Organization; World Intellectual Property Organization; World Meteorological Organization, World Tourism Organization, and World Trade Organization.
Major International Treaties: Nepal is a signatory to numerous international treaties including: the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal; Chemical Weapons Convention; Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (signed but not ratified as of September 2005); Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; Convention on Biological Diversity; Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas (signed but not ratified as of September 2005); Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; Convention on the Rights of the Child; Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat; Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Geneva Protocol; International Atomic Energy Association Safeguards Agreement; International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights; International Tropical Timber Agreement 1983; International Tropical Timber Agreement 1994; Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone layer; Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space, and Under Water; Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification; United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Armed Forces Overview: Nepal has only one military service, the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA). The army’s stated purpose is to protect Nepal from external threats, but because its capabilities are far smaller than those of neighboring China and India, the government historically has used diplomacy rather than force to maintain territorial integrity. The RNA has been mostly involved in ceremonial functions, international peacekeeping, and supporting the monarchy against domestic opposition. The army also is engaged in domestic noncombat activities, such as infrastructure development, nature conservation, and disaster relief. Since 2002, however, the army has been active in a civil war against Maoist rebels who have severely tested its reputation and capabilities. The RNA’s limited resources have constrained its ability to protect infrastructure from the Maoists, and the RNA has had to use commercially leased helicopters to improve its limited mobility. The government is attempting to improve the RNA’s capabilities, and the defense budget has increased substantially since 2000.
According to the 1990 constitution, the king is the supreme commander of the army and appoints the commander in chief (the chief of army staff, or COAS) on the prime minister’s recommendation. The king may control the army on the recommendation of the National Defense Council, which consists of the COAS, the minister of defense, and the prime minister, who serves as chairman. However, the king’s suspension of the government in February 2005 terminated the prime minister’s military powers, at least temporarily. The COAS delegates operational functions to various generals and principal staff officers but personally directs the army’s Research and Development Directorate, Defense Ordnance Productions Directorate, and Development Construction Directorate. The Military Intelligence Directorate and the National Defense Council are primarily responsible for intelligence activities. Directly responsible to the COAS are the chief of general staff (CGS) and the chief of staff (COS). The CGS is the head of “G” Branch and is primarily responsible for operations, intelligence, and training, each of which is organized in individual directorates. The COS is responsible for military operations other than war, which include United Nations peacekeeping operations, nature conservation and wildlife preservation, and the army’s welfare organizations. The COS has approximately 4,400 army troops under his direct control.
Foreign Military Relations: Nepalese serve in both the British and Indian armies, but Nepal has no formal military links with other countries or intergovernmental organizations other than the United Nations. Since 2001, India, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other governments have provided various forms of assistance to combat the Maoist rebels.
External Threat: Nepal faces no threats from another country’s regular military forces.
Defense Budget: Nepal’s defense budget and expenditures have grown substantially, although exact figures vary by source. According to the Ministry of Finance, from fiscal year (FY) 2001 to FY2005 Ministry of Defense expenditures grew from US$51.5 million to an estimated US$109.9 million. The Ministry of Defense has been budgeted approximately US$149.8 million for FY2006, but its expenditures often exceed its budget. In FY2004, for example, the defense budget was US$97.3 million but defense expenditures were US$110.5 million.
Major Military Units: Nepal has an army but no navy, coast guard, marines, or air force. Command and control of the military has undergone significant changes since 1990, and in 2001 the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) shifted from a brigade-based structure to one based on divisions. There are six combat divisions, each responsible for a particular area (Far-Western, Mid-Western, Western, Central, Eastern, and Valley), and each includes combat brigades, combat support, and combat service support units. One combat brigade is designated as the Royal Guards Brigade, and there are separate aviation, paratrooper, and special operations brigades. Each brigade contains two to three infantry battalions (logistics, rifles, and support) and several independent infantry companies, such as air defense, artillery, engineers, field ambulance, light artillery, ordnance, repair, and signals. Foreign observers estimate that in 2003 the army had between 63,000 and 85,000 active-duty personnel, including nearly 320 personnel in the Royal Nepal Army Air Wing (RNAAW). The army has no reserve component.
Major Military Equipment: In 2004 the army was believed to have 40 reconnaissance vehicles, 40 armored personnel carriers, six 75-millimeter artillery missiles, five 94-millimeter mountain artillery missiles, 14 105-millimeter artillery missiles, 70 120-millimeter mortars, a publicly unavailable number of 107-millimeter M30 mortars, 30 PRC Type 56 14.5-millimeter light antiaircraft guns, an unknown number of 37-millimeter light antiaircraft guns, and two 40-millimeter antiaircraft guns. The air wing had one BAe–748 aircraft and one Skyvan as well as 11 helicopters but no combat aircraft or armed helicopters.
Military Service: The minimum age for military service is 18. Women are eligible for military service, but most serve in noncombat positions.
Paramilitary Forces: The Armed Police Force (APF) was established in January 2001 as a subordinate unit of the Ministry of Home Affairs, which reportedly created some tensions between the ministry and the army. The APF has a force of approximately 15,000 personnel, and its primary function is internal security, particularly to contain the Maoist insurgency. Other duties include VIP security and assisting the Nepal Police in maintenance of law and order.
Foreign Military Forces: The British Gurkhas Nepal, a British Army organization, has 63 personnel engaged in recruitment, pension payment, and other administrative services for Nepalese that serve or have served in the British Army as part of the Brigade of Gurkhas.
Military Forces Abroad: The prestigious reputation of Nepalese soldiers is due in no small part to their foreign service. The Indian army has 40,000 Nepalese, and approximately 3,300 Nepalese serve in the British Army’s Brigade of Gurkhas. The number of Nepalese in the British Army has declined from the 8,000 that served in 1998 but remains one of Nepal’s most important sources of foreign exchange. Nepalese in the Brigade of Gurkhas may serve anywhere that British soldiers do, except Northern Ireland. Currently, all units of the Brigade of Gurkhas are stationed in the United Kingdom except the Gurkha battalion in Brunei, the British Gurkhas Nepal, and—through an arrangement with the British Army—the Gurkha Contingent of the Singapore Police Force.
Nepal is a member of the United Nations (UN) Disengagement Observer Force, and Nepalese troops also have been active in multilateral forces under UN auspices. As of January 2005, Nepal was the world’s fourth largest contributor of troops to peacekeeping missions, with 3,016 troops serving in various international peacekeeping operations. Since 1958, nearly 46,000 Nepalese troops have participated in 29 missions. As of 2005, Nepalese troops were serving in Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Haiti, Israel and Syria, Kosovo, Liberia, the Middle East, and Sudan. Nepalese troops also have served in numerous other UN peacekeeping operations.
Police: The Nepal Police are under the direction of the Ministry of Home Affairs. According to the Nepal Police, in 2004 there were 47,349 police personnel, including 27,912 constables. The Ministry of Home Affairs also administers the 15,000-strong Armed Police Force, which is involved primarily in domestic counterinsurgency other than law enforcement. In fiscal year 2005, the government allocated US$101.7 million to the police.
Internal Security and Terrorism: There are allegations that Nepalese territory is used as a haven by Islamic militants either from or supported by Pakistan and al Qaeda. Yet, it is unclear whether those militants pose a threat to Nepalese security or are primarily a threat to India. Unquestionably, the civil conflict is the gravest threat to Nepal’s internal security and possibly its existence. Estimates of the conflict’s economic impact vary, but the Ministry of Finance claims tourism, banking, social services, and physical infrastructure have suffered considerably. The rebels are members of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)—CPN(M)—and are led by Puspakamal Dahal, alias Prachanda, and Babu Ram Bhattarai. Their stated goals include establishment of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, land reform, establishment of Nepal as a secular nation, termination of several treaties with India, and abolition of untouchability. The Nepalese and many foreign governments categorize the CPN(M) as a terrorist organization that seeks to establish a communist dictatorship. It has an estimated 5,000 regular armed members and approximately 10,000 to 15,000 members in local militias. Observers contend that most members and supporters are indigenous groups, dalits (“broken people” or untouchables), and lower castes. There is evidence of CPN(M) collusion with Maoists and other rebels in India as well as allegations of arms purchases from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka.
The current conflict began on February 13, 1996, and by 2005 the CPN(M) had control over an estimated 40 to 60 percent of the country. Most fighting has occurred in rural areas and in western districts. Until early 2000, Nepalese police efforts against the CPN(M) were generally uncoordinated. The army became involved in February 2000 and began actively engaging the CPN(M) in November 2001. Security forces generally have been hobbled by their lack of funds, local support, and counterinsurgency experience, while the mountainous, forested, generally roadless terrain favors the Maoists’ guerrilla tactics. Human rights observers and foreign governments have suggested that some government efforts to address the conflict—including the suspension of civil liberties and elected government—have reduced the government’s popular legitimacy and thus have been counterproductive. The Maoists’ attacks on infrastructure reportedly have lowered their popular support, as have accusations of robbery, extortion, and forced recruiting. The CPN(M), however, claims such activities are either unauthorized actions committed by lower-level cadres or are justified to prevent the use of public resources to exploit Nepalese. Peace talks in 2001 and 2003 were unsuccessful.
Independent observers contend that a significant portion of the rural population is supportive of the insurgents’ goals but has grown exasperated with repressive activities of both the Maoists and the government. Indeed, unarmed civilians have been frequent victims. According to a Nepalese human rights organization, the Informal Service Sector Centre, from February 13, 1996, to September 16, 2005, 12,809 persons were killed in the conflict, with 64 percent attributed to security forces, 36 percent to the CPN(M), and 82 percent of all conflict-related deaths occurring since 2002. Of the killings attributed to security forces, most were of actual or suspected members of the CPN(M) or political parties (65 percent) or agricultural workers (15.6 percent). Of the killings attributed to the Maoists, most were of police personnel (28.2 percent), agricultural workers (16.2 percent), army personnel (14.4 percent), or civil servants (11.6 percent). Additionally, 50,356 persons had been displaced by the conflict through 2004. However, these figures include only verified events; actual numbers may be higher.
Human Rights: Historically, civil liberties have been limited, but Nepal’s government has not been regarded as among the world’s worst violators of human rights. Nevertheless, human rights violations have increased substantially since the escalation of civil conflict in 2000, and security forces engaged in substantial numbers of these human rights violations prior to the civil conflict. According to the United Nations (UN), Nepal leads the world in arbitrary abduction and detention by security forces in large part as a result of the civil conflict. The conflict between the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and government security forces has resulted in numerous allegations of human rights violations by both sides, with most victims being unarmed civilian noncombatants. The Maoists have been accused of unlawful killings, torture, and nearly 36,849 abductions. Security forces have been accused of disappearances, unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, and obstructing both courts and human rights investigations—all with impunity. However, about one-third of those abducted by security forces were released after months in secret detention, and in July 2004 the government created a committee to locate the disappeared.
Outside of the conflict, civil liberties are tenuous, and human rights abuses are common. Discrimination on the basis of caste, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality is ubiquitous, and domestic violence, forced labor, and forced prostitution are pervasive. However, various organizations have emerged to address the needs of persons suffering discrimination. Still, civil liberties such as freedom of speech, press, and lawful assembly have been severely curtailed with King Gyanendra’s suspension of the constitution in February 2005. The government also has been criticized for ratifying human rights treaties and conventions but not incorporating human rights laws into legislation. Indeed, there are no laws against domestic violence or police torture, and the police are accused of excessive force and corruption. Because of poor communication, police outside the capital often have tremendous autonomy and discretion in handling law and order matters and often do so in ways not consistent with the law.
Index for Nepal:
Overview | Government
Country profiles index | What's new | Rainforests | Madagascar