Justice for conflict victimsIf the government continues to dillydally, we should go to the international courts
Life has multiple languages, but death has one: It is tragic and painful. When it is an untimely and perpetrated act, it is doubly so. Death leaves a big void in the lives of those who remain. When the breadwinner dies, the whole family faces the risk of starvation and penury. But there are issues beyond food, clothing and shelter for the surviving family members. A modern state is supposed to penalise anyone who violates the life of another human being.
During Nepal’s decade-long armed insurgency, the rival sides fought fiercely on the battleground. Instead of a total victory for either side, a comprehensive peace deal was reached in 2006 ending the war. Some of the ‘qualified’ combatants from the rebel side were eventually integrated into the state’s armed forces while most others were reintegrated into society with compensation. The relevance of the insurgency, it is claimed, lies in catapulting Nepal from a unitary kingdom into a federal democratic republic.
This, nothing more, is the linear version of Nepal’s recent history that our leaders would like us to believe. But as the conflict led to devastating violence, the real battlefield deaths were only part of the tragic loss of lives. Both sides found it much easier to corner the alleged enemies or their suspected collaborators—a huge majority of them unarmed civilians—and kill them in cold blood accusing them of espionage if not anything else. Many were kidnapped, tortured and often murdered. Afraid of being held accountable for the crimes in the future, the perpetrators from both sides secretly disposed of the bodies of many of the victims without ever directly acknowledging the crimes. These victims are listed as disappeared with their whereabouts unknown to the family members to this day. Others were executed publicly.
After the war, the party of the former rebels went on to win the elections and run the country. The party leaders and cadres were duly rewarded for their role in the rebellion. But the rest of the population, which bore the brunt of the conflict, was left in the lurch. The whereabouts of the thousands of disappeared people remain still unknown after 12 years since the end of the conflict. The alleged perpetrators of heinous crimes from either side of the conflict are yet to be held accountable while the surviving victims and their families are fighting a never-ending battler for justice and closure.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed between the then government and the Maoist party had an entirely different vision. The victims of the conflict were to get speedy justice, reparation and closure through transitional justice mechanisms. The attitude of the governing political parties, both past and present, has been anything but conducive to the fulfilment of that vision. They made a travesty of transitional justice while forming and then paralysing the two transitional justice bodies. The victims had feared from the beginning that this was going to be a cruel joke on their aspirations for justice. As legislative delays and other obstacles rendered the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons mere spectators over the past many years, these fears proved entirely justifiable.
The former rebels, in particular, are still bent on wishing away the culpability of their leaders and cadres in war-era human rights violations. The use of child soldiers in the war is an even bigger crime in which their involvement can be verified easily. All along, their aim has been to attain and abuse political power to ensure impunity for themselves. Those on the state side of the conflict who were accused of war crimes have also enjoyed total impunity. The alleged perpetrators on either side have been actively trying to undermine and silence any voice demanding justice for the conflict victims. The simple truth is that while they have been able to postpone justice thus far, they cannot do so for ever. The day of reckoning will come for every one of them. If not the political parties, the country’s conscientious citizens now have the duty to ensure that.
As citizens, we have always been vocal and consistent about this stance. This is the essence of human character and civilisation that sets us apart from animals who only fight to save their own lives. Now that the government and parties seem determined to evade or dissipate the issue of justice for conflict victims, our task is cut out. As of now, one last opportunity to ensure justice remains: Appointing experts who enjoy the confidence of the conflict victims, not those loyal to political parties as in the past, to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons. By sincerely helping and facilitating such a revamped mechanism and then sincerely implementing the recommendations, the government can still make up, to some extent, for its past inaction and dereliction of duty.
In case this does not happen and the transitional justice mechanisms end up being abused by the political parties once again, it is worth remembering that we humans do not live in isolated tribes like other primates. The human world has developed a common set of humanitarian values and the mechanisms to enforce them. And remarkably, Nepal is party to a number of international conventions with binding clauses designed to ensure human rights. If the Nepali state continues its brazenly insensitive attitude towards the conflict victims, the next rung in the ladder of the justice process should be the doors of the international courts. Even if it consumes all of our remaining lifetime, this cause is worth struggling for because much of what kind of society our children will inherit from us depends on this.
Dr KC is an orthopaedic surgeon