‘Truth-seeking should be the first priority of the transitional justice process’Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Govinda Bandi says there is a consensus among stakeholders that there can be no amnesty in cases of serious violations of human rights.
Sixteen years after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord, victims of the decade-long Maoist insurgency are still awaiting justice. Advocate Govinda Sharma Bandi on April 7 was included in the Sher Bahadur Deuba Cabinet as a minister for law, justice and parliamentary affairs with the prime responsibility to expedite the transitional justice process. Starting last week, his ministry has started consultations with the victims to amend the existing transitional justice Act. Against this backdrop, the Post’s Binod Ghimire sat down with Bandi to discuss how the transitional justice process will move ahead and what his plans are.
The interview has been condensed for clarity.
You have long been fighting to ensure justice for conflict victims. Why is there only so little progress in the transitional justice process?
There lacked a common understanding of the transitional justice process at the policy level. The Comprehensive Peace Accord said investigation would be done on cases of serious human rights abuses and on those involved in crimes against humanity. The investigation would also create an environment for reconciliation. The Interim Constitution 2007 had the same provision. However, there were different parties with different interpretations of the provisions at the time of preparing the law. While some said the atrocities committed during the insurgency were part of the political process and there can be no prosecution in such cases, others said everyone involved in such acts must be held accountable. That was the reason for the delay in preparing an Act to govern the transitional justice process.
Treading a middle path, an ordinance was issued in 2013 which envisioned that those involved in gross human rights violations will be held accountable while there will be amnesty and reconciliation in other cases. The Supreme Court scrapped it because it didn’t define what gross violations meant. The Commission on Investigation of Disappeared Persons, Truth and Reconciliation Act was promulgated in 2014 but the court later ordered the government to remove some of the amnesty provisions through amendment to the Act. Despite some attempts, it could not be amended because there was no consensus on defining gross human rights violations.
Similarly, conflict victims, the major stakeholders of the transitional justice process, refused the two transitional justice commissions expressing dissatisfaction over the appointment of the chairpersons and members. So did the civil society and international communities.
Now there is a common understanding among the political leadership that the law needs to be revised as directed by the Supreme Court in line with the spirit of the comprehensive peace deal and Nepal’s obligations as per the international treaties and conventions on human rights. I am confident that the transitional justice process will move ahead through a credible process now.
Are you saying that the differences among the parties have been resolved?
Now at least there is a consensus that there can be no amnesty in cases of serious violations of human rights. Also, there is a common understanding that such cases will be defined through an amendment to the Act after consultation with conflict victims and civil society while considering Nepal’s international obligations and the court’s ruling. However, we are yet to get down to the nitty-gritty of it all. It will be done after the consultations complete.
Do you also count the CPN-UML when you say all the parties?
Definitely. I met with KP Sharma Oli, the leader of the main opposition, and he has assured us support. In fact, it is he who actually floated this concept for creating a credible transitional justice process and concluding it through consultation with victims, and I am very thankful to him.
What about the security agencies?
Nepal’s security forces have always supported every initiative the state has taken. I am confident that they will do so in future too. I am in touch with them through different means and their response is positive.
Those who were involved in human rights violations in one way or another during the insurgency fear prosecution, therefore, they are not cooperating with the transitional justice process. What is their view on your renewed effort for concluding the process?
There’s a realisation among all the stakeholders that the past has to be dealt with properly. There is no other alternative to it.
There are still two types of dominant views on it. Some argue that the atrocities committed during a political movement should be pardoned while others say there must be prosecutions. What is being done to make a trade-off between these two dominant positions?
These are extremist views and both are wrong. Serious breaches of human rights must be investigated and there will be no amnesty in such cases. The Supreme Court has made it clear. All the major political parties have a common position that the heinous crimes must be investigated and the accountability of the perpetrators must be ensured based on findings.
In some cases, we have to adopt a reconciliatory approach allowed by international laws if the victims are ready for it. Victims fear there could be amnesty without any investigation even for heinous crimes. Whether there will be prosecutions in such cases will depend on the findings from the probe.
Currently, the common will of the political parties, conflict victims, civil society and the international community is to take the transitional justice process to a logical end.
The judiciary has concluded different cases through the regular justice process while some are sub judice now. Cases of similar nature are also being looked after by the transitional justice commissions. How can there be uniformity?
Truth-seeking should be the main focus of the transitional justice process. We designed our transitional justice process through a rule of law approach similar to that of the regular justice process, which was a mistake. I own up to my share of responsibility for the faulty process and so should the others who were involved. The two transitional justice commissions were designed as prosecutor’s offices instead of assigning them to find out the reasons for the conflict in the past, probe the root causes of human rights violations, develop strategies for non-repetition of such cases and give suggestions for institutional reforms.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has listed around 3,000 cases of serious human rights violations. However, we have over 63,000 cases in our transitional justice commissions. We jointly made the transitional justice process very complex. Against the very concept of transitional justice, we developed two commissions as complaint-handling agencies.
Now what we are looking forward to is designing the transitional justice process in a way that ensures accountability focusing more on truth-seeking. The entire process will be victim-centric.
You are taking part in the consultations with the victims yourself. What is their major concern?
After holding provincial-level consultations and meetings, I have found that all the stakeholders are on the same page now which wasn’t the case before. There is a common understanding that it has to be concluded now.
When will the amendment bill land in Parliament?
The tenure of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons will conclude on July 16. The bill will be registered before that. However, it might take some time for the parliamentary process to endorse it. The amendment will be done in line with the feedback from the victims, the Supreme Court’s verdict and international standards with due priority to truth-seeking. My plan is to set up a credible transitional justice process before I leave my office as a minister which is roughly four months.
Aside from transitional justice, you also take charge of parliamentary affairs. There are 61 bills including those related to ordinances awaiting ratification. Is there any possibility to ratify them all?
I cannot assure the ratification of all the bills. However, we will attempt to get a maximum of them through. Though this is a budget session, we are going to convert it into a bills session. The amendment to the Citizenship Act is our first priority after budget endorsement which will be followed by the bills related to the implementation of federalism like the Federal Civil Service, among others.
There is a demand to scrap the statute of limitations in rape cases from different quarters. What is your position on it?
We have asked the Nepal Law Commission to do a thorough study and make recommendations. The ministry is yet to get recommendations. I cannot assure you that the amendment in the laws regarding the statute of limitations will be tabled in the ongoing session. The issue needs to be discussed properly before making any changes to the existing provision. While there is no denying that the situation of getting deprived of justice because of the statute of limitations must end, we also must study its cons. Fully scrapping it for all cases is not a solution. Let us wait for the recommendations.
What is the progress in developing a directive to set up criteria for judges selection that you have long been advocating for?
The fault in the appointments of judges is a major problem in the judiciary. We in the Judicial Council agreed that political interference in judges appointment must end and only those competent and with high integrity must get a place in the judiciary. For that, we have already developed directives which are being studied at different levels. We got feedback from the Supreme Court, Supreme Court Bar and Office of the Attorney General while we are awaiting suggestions from the Nepal Bar Association. It will come into implementation within a few weeks. Moving forward, only deserving candidates will become judges.