Handling the truthThe state must apologise, acknowledge and provide justice to victims and survivors of the conflict
Eight years after the end of the ‘People’s War’ in 2006, thousands of families are still waiting for the truth about their missing relatives, demanding answers from the government and appealing for solidarity with their cause.
Why is the truth important for families who lost their beloved ones? In Nepali society, the disappearance of a person has an important social and political meaning. Those responsible for the disappearances and other human rights violations are in power and lead the so-called transition. This has lead to political unwillingness to address the problem of endemic impunity. The greater challenge is in addressing the question of accountability, both political and criminal. For without the truth, and a fair process of justice, the cycle of conflict and abuse is bound to continue and repeat in the future.
Surviving families often ask, “How much longer do we have to wait? Why do the authorities not disclose the truth? Why do our political leaders not support the agenda of truth? Why has the investigation process not taken place even after so many years? Who are the actors who played a role in hiding the truth and protecting criminals?” Yet, this should not be seen as the victims’ agenda alone. Society also deserves to know the truth about the country’s shared and painful past. Therefore, everyone should collectively raised the truth agenda and promote this as a common programme for the future. To quote UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “The right to the truth is both an individual and a collective right. Each victim has the right to know the truth about violations against them, but the truth also has to be told more widely as a safeguard to prevent violations from happening again.”
Search for truth
The campaign for the right to the truth about enforced disappearances began in Latin America in the 1980s. The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights asserted a right to the truth concerning the disappeared based on Article 32 of the 1977 Additional Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which identified “the right of families to know the fate of their relatives” in the context of armed conflict. Victims, the relatives of the disappeared, have a non-derogable right to know the truth about the circumstances in which violations took place and, in the event of death or disappearance, the victim’s fate. There is an obligation in international law for the state to remember the past and avoid denial or revisionism. This includes the duty of the state to clarify the truth about past events and the history of violations, not least in order to avoid recurrence.
The Nepali state has never listened to the victims’ demands for truth. It hasn’t even officially acknowledged the fact that enforced disappearances occurred.
The campaign for truth and justice in Nepal has been led by activist family members and now comprises of a network of dozens of family associations that have mobilised their members to demand truth. On February 7, the National Victims’ Alliance organised a family walk to the Bhairabnath army barracks in Kathmandu where 49 individuals were detained, tortured and disappeared during the conflict. It was a symbolic challenge to the state to stop hiding the truth. The Alliance will continue its ‘Invisible no more’ campaign and expand the campaign across Nepal from east to west to create pressure on the government. It remains crucial to shame the perpetrators and to challenge state impunity.
Get to work
“Let’s not be afraid to be left alone if it’s for the sake of the truth…” said Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, who was killed on March 24, 1980 in his struggle to find the truth. As a mark of respect to his struggle as well that of many other victims and their dignity, the UN adopted this day as the International Day of Right to Truth. However, the authorities in Nepal have undermined the victims’ right to know the truth. Furthermore, various interest groups in the transitional justice enterprise have tactically instrumentalised the agenda of justice. This is against the norms of the victims’ agency and the struggle for justice. Therefore, to truly honour this day, the government should disclose the truth and establish both the Disappearance Commission and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission immediately, as directed by the recent Supreme Court verdict.
In a transitional society such as Nepal, the value of truth has an impact not only on an individual or families, but also for broader accountability. Processes that address the political, legal and moral responsibility of individuals and institutions for past crimes, driven by the pursuit of truth and justice for victims, are necessary for good governance. The right to know the truth is essential to confront impunity in the long term and restore the trust of ordinary citizens in and to rebuild state institutions—including political parties, the Nepal Army and the police. As of now, political leaders, state officials and army and police chiefs who were directly involved in human rights abuses during the conflict are actively leading the transition process. So it is both unfair and unreasonable to expect that they will assist the transitional justice process and ensure that truth prevails.
Acknowledge and apologise
Truth-finding bodies could support the process but that seems like a far-fetched dream now. A perpetrator-led transition and a politically controlled truth-finding process has ensured that evidence can be destroyed. How can one find human remains of disappeared bodies and possible gravesites in the current environment? There has been no historical clarification and no apology, not even a public debate or memorials to acknowledge what happened. Nepal has not adopted any legitimate mechanism nor has the country owned the transitional justice agenda. It has also yet to comply with international laws. There is a complete absence of an environment for truth and justice, little trust to establish any sort of process and no security or support programme for victims and witnesses.
A shared truth and justice agenda for the past can overcome a sense of victimisation and create a base for individual and societal peace and reconciliation. Yet, no initiatives have been taken towards this. The struggle of the victims to find the truth continues. So we appeal to the government to apologise, acknowledge and provide justice and reparations to the victims and survivors of past violence.
Bhandari is chair of the Committee for Social Justice and coordinator of the National Victims’ Alliance (firstname.lastname@example.org)