Too scared to complainThe shadow of the perpetrators has fallen on the transitional justice commissions
The transitional justice process has been driven by politics and controlled by the alleged perpetrators from the political parties and the security forces, and this has been visibly reflected in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP) and local peace committees (LPCs). Since there is no protection programme for witnesses and victims, they are increasingly subject to threats from politically connected perpetrators. Moreover, victims in rural areas don’t know how to deal with the commissions. The commissions have been tasked with identifying the victims and perpetrators and telling the truth about acts of violence, and so they cannot address issues of exclusion and rural poverty of the conflict victims. Even in the limited area of judicial process, they seem highly likely to be unable to ensure prosecution of the perpetrators. The recent deal made by the CPN-UML and the Maoists to withdraw cases against war-time atrocities has further threatened justice for the victims.
Before the commissions were formed, there were high expectations that they would address all the elements of conflict-era violations. However, when they started performing poorly, the illusion that they would address the needs and suffering of the victims became apparent. There is no plan to go beyond the commissions to support the victims’ livelihoods by addressing poverty and exclusion. Without addressing the root causes of the conflict, there can be no sustained peace.
Victims’ complaints and risks
The commissions were not well prepared, and many people in rural areas are still not even aware of their mandates and procedures. Since the registration process began, few complaints have been registered through the LPCs which are filled with political appointees linked to the alleged perpetrators. This has created a trust and security gap between the victims and the process. Active victims have complained about receiving threats and being stalked. Both the commissions and the LPCs are unable to elicit trust or offer security to the victims. Priority should be given to the protection and confidentiality of the victims and their families as many have received threats from the police and the army, which have been accused in a majority of cases, besides political activists who were involved in crime during the conflict.
Officials of the Nepal Army have asked the LPCs of Jumla and Rukum districts to hand over the complaints lodged against them. The Nepal Police have made a similar demand to the LPCs in Morang and Ramechhap. In Kathmandu and other districts, the security forces are closely watching the activities to find strategies to avoid possible future investigations. Specifically, the Nepal Army and the Nepal Police are keen to destroy evidence and discredit allegations linking conflict-era offences to their officers.
There is no help desk or handling of such threats at the local level, and those being threatened are understandably reluctant to approach the security forces. Chief of Police of Kathmandu Bikram Singh Thapa has been reported to be directly involved in the killing of writer and journalist Krishna Sen and the disappearance of Bipin Bhandari, DB Rai and many other student activists. Chief of Police of Lalitpur Pitambar Adhikari has been reported to be involved in the disappearance of Tej Bahadur Bhandari and many others. He has been repeatedly named by the National Human Rights Commission and the UN Human Rights Committee. I personally feel threatened by them and insecure. There is no protection mechanism to ensure the physical security of activists or the protection of evidence. In this context, how can we believe in the commissions’ work when the politically divided commissioners have been lobbying through politicians and violating their code of conduct? There are high risks for family activists and members including myself. We do not want to risk losing another member of our family.
Insensitivity of the media
The role of the media is very important to facilitate and monitor the process and amplify the voices of the victims. However, the media has been insensitive and failed to consider media ethics. Civil society groups seem to be ineffective and passive in mobilising support for the victims to register complaints. The National Human Rights Commission has been mandated to monitor the commissions’ process. However, it is very slow and over-centralised, and is not actively supporting the victims or monitoring the process closely enough to raise questions about the weak mechanism.
There is a serious coordination problem at the top which has been reflected in the districts. The LPCs are considered as transitional justice commissions in the districts, but they remain highly politicised and unclear on the commissions’ mandates. There is no coordination with other line agencies such as village development committees, women’s offices and district development committees or with victims’ groups and civil society organisations. The poor handling of the cases by the LPCs has shown that they lack capacity and training to deal with the difficult cases of the conflict, which are already politicised and subject to threats from the security forces. The secretaries of the LPCs too feel insecure.
The current situation shows that such mechanisms have failed to address issues of security and trust. They also lack a plan of action to address the root causes of the conflict. To make matters worse, despite years of debate about prosecution and the politics of victimhood, state mechanisms have failed to reflect the victims’ realities. The commissions’ new guidelines have used the term ‘concession, facilities and services’ which entirely leaves out the rights-based approach of transitional justice and the victims’ right to reparation. The inadequate process and the commissions’ political motive show that if they do not correct themselves, they may not only fail to resolve issues of the conflict but instead lay the foundation for renewed violence by failing to address the issues of structural violence, exclusion and poverty that continue to be exploited by those seeking to stoke new conflicts.
The failure to address historic rights violations could encourage revenge and a culture of militancy when there is no other option. Nepal is condemned to restart the cycle of conflict unless it addresses the issue of structural violence and poverty by acknowledging the victims’ participation, representation and ownership in the commission process. Currently, those who became victims during the conflict are excluded from the transitional justice process as they have long been excluded from national institutions. In an environment of such growing distrust, exclusion and insecurity, the transitional justice mechanisms may not address the serious issues of human rights violations and choose to ignore their mandate through political manipulation and security interventions against the victims’ right to truth and justice.
The victims as the primary rights holders and an active watch group over the process have been engaging in the commission process and monitoring the registration of complaints. The commissions should provide security to the victims and witnesses, instil trust in the victims with regard to their safety and the protection of evidence, and maintain their independence despite political pressure and strong interest of the security forces.
Bhandari is the general secretary of Conflict Victims Common Platform