Every year on August 30th, NEFAD, along with thousands of families from across Nepal commemorates the International Day of the Disappeared to remember those disappeared during the conflict. Every year a postcard, composed in collaboration with the ICRC, is sent to all families in commemoration of their lost family members and members of the community gather in Kathmandu to hold a candle light vigil and discuss the state of transitional justice in Nepal.
By Ram Kumar Bhandari
For the first time since the end of the war, conflict victims have secured a victory against the state and the parties who, until now, have blocked, dodged and mocked our demands. A joint submission bringing together the voices of seven national conflict victim’s organisations was submitted to the Supreme Court
demanding that it intervene in the government’s effort to establish a truth commission that would stand in clear violation of international laws against impunity. This commission, if allowed to form, would serve to protect perpetrators of human rights violations rather than support victims’ needs for truth and justice.
On April 1, the Supreme Court responded positively to our writ demanding time to fully review the faulty ordinance before the proposed commission can be formed.
The writ petition is a historic step. Together, we have challenged the amnesty clause and the provisions for forced reconciliation in the CJ government’s ordinance. We do not demand a rejection of the truth commission process nor the ordinance in its entirety, but an amendment to clauses (3) (13), (23), (25) and (29): that the commission define disappearance as a crime against humanity and that the process uphold the pursuit of truth, justice and reparation as rights guaranteed to conflict victims. These demands are not extreme: we are merely asking that the government of Nepal meet already established standards of international law that all states are bound to.
To be quite clear, conflict victims and survivors in Nepal want—and need —a truth commission. But we want a commission that strengthens the search of truth and justice, not one that will serve to protect war criminals, as is the one set out in the ordinance. Moreover, as conflict victims, we cannot abandon the process. If we walk away, we are turning our backs on our husbands, fathers, children and wives who remain disappeared, dead or damaged while the men responsible are free to occupy powerful positions in the state and the military.
We must find a way to move forward. The ordinance bill needs a full reinvention in terms of its content, driving principles and procedural approach. First, consultation with victims is a fundamental responsibility, set out in international law, for the establishment and operations of any justice-seeking body. Second, there are clear international standards that require a truth commission to be independent of the government, be transparent in its operations, and be established and operated through a participatory process with civil society and victims. Third, to be successful, a truth commission requires a political environment that is willing and able to uncover the truth about past crimes. This environment does not exist in the elite circles that have guarded the process until now. That is why the process must open to a public deliberation for it to have any hope of being fair and legitimate.
As a joint victim’s alliance, we demand an amendment to the ordinance within three months to meet standards and form a truth commission in full trust and ownership of the victim’s community.
It is important for us to remember, and for the public to understand, that the ordinance is indicative of a larger political climate in which the voices of victims are silenced. We have stalled the establishment of a flawed and illegitimate truth commission, but this is a small victory in the face of our greater challenge of changing transitional justice in Nepal from closed-door horse trading amongst political elites into a political culture that is participatory and democratic.
In this regard, Nepal is representative of a global trend. Transitional justice, as an idea and a practice, first emerged in grassroots victim’s mobilisation against Latin American authoritarianism. In the years since, we’ve seen the project turned on its head. Transitional justice today is the terrain of human rights lawyers, international experts and NGOs. Although internationalisation of transitional justice has lead to the spread of robust standards, it has also pushed victims out of the conversation by creating a political arena easily navigated by state and local elites who are well versed in the legalese of human rights work.
This is the legalistic and highly politicised juggernaut Nepal’s conflict victims are struggling against. Since the beginning of peace process, the voices of conflict victims were sidelined and instrumentalised by the state, various interest groups and political parties. Their signatures promising community reconciliation in reality served as a pact between Maoist and the security forces to hide an agreed on mutual impunity under a pretext of reconciling and moving on. Even today, both perpetrator parties continue to demand the quick formation of amnesty commission to clean the slate.
But for a brief moment Nepal’s conflict victims can forget the challenges ahead and celebrate that the tides against us were reversed. We can celebrate that we achieved this by acting as a united front through the efforts of the Committee for Social Justice, the Conflict Victims Committee Bardiya, National Network of Families of Disappeared and Missing, Conflict Victims Orphan Society, Conflict Victims Society for Justice, Conflict Victims National Society and Reena-Arpan Dalit Uthan Munch Kavre. The existing victim’s organisations have a great deal of support and are seen as a legitimate voice, because they are not beholden to donor money and agenda as are so many organisations that operate in Nepal. Our commitment and emotional attachment to this issue, as well as our moral integrity, has been a touchstone for thousand of families over the past years.
Six years after Nepal’s peace agreement promised a robust transitional justice agenda, the prospects for independent, victim-centered truth and disappearances commissions are more distant than ever. The victim’s movement in Nepal maintains a clear demand for a transitional justice process built around strengthened victims’ access to justice, economic support for families, and the unqualified truth about the fate of loved ones.
Nepal’s ten-year war sits within a continuum of structural violence stretching long before and after the armed conflict. It follows that the communities most affected by the war remain marginalised and stigmatised in a political and judicial system dominated by Kathmandu elites and foreign assistance workers. Moreover, both the Maoist party and the NC-UML have consistently supported a transitional justice process conducive to mutually assured amnesty, which is also supported by security chiefs and bureaucrats. Their loyal agents also played with victims/survivors to favour amnesty and adopted a suitable lobbying tactic with donors to consume a flood of support in the name of victims’ justice. Many fear an independent truth commission and are conspicuous in their efforts to halt it in this political chaos that has only made worse the insecurity felt by victims.
In an ongoing effort to keep the movement for truth and justice alive for families that suffered enforced disappearances during Nepal’s People’s War a new campaign has been formed. The core group, forged of writers, photographers and social activists have come together to promote a campaign based upon participatory photography and memorialization efforts, designed to give those that suffered disappearances a chance to interact directly with the reconciliation process. For further information please visit their campaign site and fundraising portal.
While marginalized within mainstream political discussion, the search for truth and justice continues, please consider offering your support.
By Ram Kumar Bhandari – As published in issue #620 of the Nepali Times
The caretaker government on Tuesday approved an ordinance which includes a provision to pardon those involved in extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances during the conflict. This is against democratic norms, prevailing international practice, previous political agreements, and violates the Supreme Court directives.
Those who were expecting a full airing of war atrocities by both sides in the transitional justice process to help the healing and reconciliation process are deeply disappointed, but not surprised. News of the ordinance came as the nationwide network of families of about 1,400 people who were disappeared by both sides gathered this week to mark the International Day of the Disappeared.
Reconciliation is an important goal, but it cannot be built on a foundation of impunity for serious crimes under international law, and it cannot be achieved by coercing victims. The ordinance forces the victims and their families to artificially ‘reconcile’ and give up their rights to truth, justice and reparations.
The draft ordinance also tries to make it a two-in-one arrangement by merging the Disappearance Commission bill into the Truth and Reconciliation Commission bill, thus diluting the provisions further and sweeping the dirty secrets of the war under the carpet.
The families are justifiably outraged not just about their own personal tragedies and the remote possibility of finding out what really happened to their relatives, but also because it will prevent closure for them and for the nation as a whole.
The 10 year war brutalised society and caused incalculable damage to the country. It inflicted deep psychological trauma on victims and their families who still suffer the legacy of violence in their daily lives.
Aside from the tens of thousands who were killed, wounded, raped, tortured, and displaced, perhaps the most enduring legacy of the conflict is the missing and enforced disappeared. Families still wait for information about the fate of their loved ones and for the chance, if they are dead, to retrieve their remains and perform appropriate rites.
While the original ceasefire agreement and many subsequent agreements committed to address the issue of the disappeared, six years after the signing of the CPA, no progress has been made. Beyond merely ignoring the demands of victims, the government has added insult to injury by continuing to support direct perpetrators and even promoting known abusers.
The regular promotion of Kuber Singh Rana who was in charge of the infamous Dhanusha case where five students were disappeared, and other attempts to obstruct the path of justice by the state have encouraged impunity and given the Maoists an excuse to get away with their abuses. From the victims’ perspective, forming a Truth Commission through ordinance would simply confirm their worst fears that the state is out to protect and support perpetrators of war crimes while denying victims’ basic demands for justice and sustenance assistance.
This regime is more likely to destroy remaining evidence and manipulate the truth, thereby killing any hope for truth, justice, and reconciliation. A Truth Commission overseen by perpetrators is no Truth Commission, it doesn’t even meet the minimum international standard for a transitional justice mechanism.
Nepal’s post-conflict period has seen the politicisation and commodification of victimhood. The movement towards reconciliation is fragmented by vested political interest groups, holding hostage the grief of thousands of victim families. Various players have instrumentalised the victims’ agenda, exploiting their pain for political and economic benefit.
The politicians have intentionally ignored the victims, while civil society has selective attention. We in the victim community now find ourselves squeezed in the middle: with an inert government laden with perpetrators of atrocities on one side, and on the other a civil society concerned primarily with perpetuating its own existence.
The transitional justice debate in Kathmandu over the last six years has been between a government advocating impunity and a human rights community advancing the global discourse of ‘truth, justice, and reparation’. The families of victims and survivors have had little voice and agency in the proceedings.
Distracted by daily political wrangling, leaders in Kathmandu have forgotten the pain of our recent past. As a result, impunity is deeply rooted and the politics of revenge is polarising society. The interrupted peace process and the dissolution of the CA have left a dangerous void.
The transitional justice process must not just address crimes of the past, but also avoid a future conflict. If this wilful ignorance continues, Nepal may have to pay an even higher price than it did during the 1996-2006 war.
In recognition of International Day of the Disappeared this article was also published by the International Centre for Transitional Justice
August 30th marks the International Day of the Disappeared. This year, NEFAD together with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Nepal Red Cross Society will be hosting an event in the memory of the more than 1,400 people disappeared during the People’s War. Regional events will be held as well. The events are as follows:
Central Event in Kathmandu
1. Main event on August 30 ICRC, NRCS and NEFAD, interaction and press release program at NRCS Hall, Kalimati at 11:00 am (about 100 families are participating in this program)
2. Joint program with National Human Rights Commission in Lalitpur at 2:00 pm.
3. Joint event with TJ Advocacy Group in the evening – Lighting the Memory candles and musical program at Patan Durbarsquare. From 5:00 pm onwards
Midwestern Region in Gulariya, Bardiya District (400 families are participating in this program)
Eastern Region in Jhapa District (100 families are participating)
In the rest of districts, NEFAD is coordinating for commemoration program with Nepal Redcross Society across Nepal.
NEFAD has also prepared the following Solidarity Postcard that has been distributed to more than 1400 families across Nepal to commemorate the day.
NEFAD has announced that it will hold its first National Convention on June 14th in Kathmandu. Family members from all of NEFAD’s affiliated district Family Associations will attend. The national meeting will continue the process of the widest possible discussion among families as to future activities and ways forward with mobilisation.
There will be a half day public meeting around the convention on June 14th. This will be an opportunity to present the participatory action research project (‘From victims to actors’), supported by the Berghof Foundation, that seeks to understand how families can most effectively be mobilised to impact on Nepal’s ongoing transitional justice process: to date victims have been spectators with the authorities and elite human rights NGOs engaged in a discussion that largely excludes those most affected by the violations of the conflict.
At the public meeting NEFAD will also present its Plan of Action: a way forward with activities that engage and support families in their communities and mobilise them through regional and national structures to advocate at the national level. NEFAD seeks support to raise the profile of families of the disappeared and ensure that the it can work to address the whole range of needs that families have.
“Nobody simply disappears. Every individual has a basic right of knowing what happened to their relative or relatives. No one should be left in the dark by someone saying ‘well, your relative simply vanished.’” These words by a Peruvian forensic anthropologist Pablo Baraybar best encapsulate the struggle of families of persons missing or disappeared as a result of conflict or repression.
The impact of disappearances on family members is devastating and long lasting. It impedes traditional practices of mourning and honoring the dead and leaves relatives in a kind of psychological limbo, unable to achieve closure. And this state of not knowing affects entire societies, gripping them in fear about the future and imposing silence about the past.
In Lebanon today, 20 years after the end of its brutal civil war, the fates of more than 17,000 people remain unknown. In response to official silence, the families of the missing and forcibly disappeared have recently joined together with local and international civil society organizations to draft a law designed to help search for their loved ones.
The years of waiting for answers in Lebanon has been long, so long that some activists have died still not knowing what became of their loved ones. But this has only motivated those remaining to more strongly make their demand: “Dead or alive, it’s our right to know.”
This is taken from the ICTJ discussion of the international day for the right to truth, see more here.
A new analysis piece on Nepal’s stalled peace process has been published by Chandra Bhatta and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung . Whilst it discusses the broader process, it does make clear the implications for families of the Missing of the direction it is now taking:
The recent four-point agreement between the Maoists and the UDMF renders redundant some of the major commitments made in the CPA as it spells out to withdraw all cases involving human rights violations pending against Madhesi and Maoist cadres during insurgencies, creation of a separate Madhesi army of 10,000, foreign policy tilt to India, etc. This holds out little hope for the establishment of two commissions – Truth and Reconciliation and Disappeared Persons – aiming to provide transitional justice.
The document can be found at: http://www.swisspeace.ch/countries/nepal/resources.html#c3307