Life on holdRelief payments alone are not enough for the families of disappeared persons—they need to know what happened
One night in 2003, armed men appeared at the door of Ditya (pseudonym) in Bardiya, looking for her husband. They found him in his bed and pulled him away. He was never heard of again. Fifteen years on, Diyta lives without knowing what happened to her husband and has been left to raise their three children alone. Diyta’s experience is shared by families of individuals who were disappeared during Nepal’s civil war, with the remains of over 1,000 victims still unaccounted for. While the Nepali government has established the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP), there needs to be a number of reforms including a well-funded programme to better respond to victims’ needs.
Mental and social impact
Forced disappearances cause intense and long-term suffering for the families of those who are disappeared. Families are left without knowing what happened to their loved ones, denying them the ability to carry out funeral rites and to publicly grieve. It also leaves families living in limbo, with one victim saying that her family is left like a ‘pendulum’, not knowing whether their father is alive or dead. Another victim said that she didn’t know ‘whether to be happy or to cry’. One woman whose husband was disappeared over 15 years ago, expressed concern at leaving her home, that he may return knocking on the door without her there to answer. She said that conflict victims left living in the unknown can ‘neither live or die’. One former child soldier said that at the age of 11 her father was disappeared, and that pushed her to join the Maoists.
There are also legal and social challenges for families of those disappeared, in particular for widows. Without the disappearances being confirmed as death or murder, it creates challenges in inheriting land and property. One victim told us that she had to leave her disappeared husband’s home as her in-laws abused her and forced her to accept a lower amount on their family home which she inherited from her husband. Another victim spoke that she lived happily with her in-laws, but that ownership of their land, on the disappearance of her husband, was transferred to the husband’s brother.
The government has provided relief payments to nearly thousands of widows of the conflict, including those who were disappeared. However, this payment of money has caused tension within families. There are strong gender dimensions in which disappearances are felt amongst women. While the new constitution and laws promise non-discrimination and women empowerment, there remain practical and social challenges. A woman whose husband is disappeared becomes the beneficiary to an Rs1 million relief payment. Tension and conflict arises when the woman’s in-laws and children feel entitled to a share of the payment.
A number of women who are the beneficiaries to this relief payment also emphasised that the payment structure created challenges. The payment was divided into one Rs100,000, two Rs200,000 and a final Rs500,000 amounts over years, which meant that each block was spent quickly, with many women spending it on their children’s education or medical bills. This structure prevented them from investing the money into long-term, self-sustaining economic activities.
Meeting the immediate needs of the families of the disappeared is important. But over ten years since the signing of the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, this must be supplemented by a robust commitment to reparations, including further compensation—but not limited to it. Interviewees indicated the need for reparations with a transformative effect: access to information about loved ones, access to health and psycho-social services to address their suffering and access to jobs and employment to address their economic hardship caused by the impact of the disappearance on them and their family.
Relief payments are not reparation as they fail to acknowledge the harm caused to the victims and the wrongfulness of the disappearances. In addition, the payments leave unfulfilled the demand of the families of disappeared victims to know the fate and whereabouts of the remains of their loved ones.
Recovery of the remains of those disappeared requires carefully crafted laws and technical expertise to preserve and identify victims using DNA forensics. In Northern Ireland, a Disappeared Commission was established at the same time as the Good Friday Peace Agreement (Signed in 1998), which enabled those responsible for disappearances to come forward to give information to the Commission, which has seen the remains of over 80 percent of those disappeared recovered. The information that those responsible gave to the Commission is confidential and cannot be used against an individual in criminal or civil proceedings. Such an approach, while not an amnesty, does allow some legal space for victims to find out the truth and encourages those responsible for such harm to remedy the suffering they have caused.
In the case of Nepal, if the CIEDP was to carry out reparations in the form of recovery of remains, it would need the technical expertise, funding and legal provisions to incentivise those responsible for disappearances to assist in its work. The humanitarian identification, exhumation and analysis of graves and human remains is a critical minimum step in adding greater meaning and significance to any existing or future reparations or compensation package proposed by the CIEDP or any other transitional justice commission or initiative. Reparations for disappeared victims need to be designed in consultation with victims to respond to their needs and rights, alongside broader efforts of acknowledgement, memorialisation and guarantees of non-repetition.
Moffett and Gallen are part of the AHRC ‘Reparations, Responsibility and Victimhood in Transitional Societies’ project