Impunity must endJudicial punishment is the only remedy and hope for breaking the chain of impunity
Visitors to Nepal or international donors who only have Kathmandu’s English-language newspapers as their source of information will be able to see that something is not right in our law enforcement set-up. On September 19, The Kathmandu Post published an editorial under the title ‘Police gone wild: Cops are brutalising the people they have sworn to serve’. The title alone should be a wake-up call for all citizens and organisations concerned with human rights, rule of law and good governance. The alarmist title is not an exaggeration. The editorial goes on to list cases of police violence and the failure to properly deal with the murder and rape of Nirmala Pant.
Our media is constantly calling attention to cases of violence against women where the police refuse to file a first information report or take the case as seriously as they should. Non-governmental organisations report the continuing dependence of the police on confessions extracted under torture to get convictions instead of proper use of investigations and forensics. Our media often report instances of death in custody or the failure of the police to confront violent criminals along the border with India.
We should look at our recent history and learn something about our refusal to address and deal with governance problems in a calm and peaceful manner. Instead, we see that our democratic deficit, lack of justice and shortcomings of governance in general are tolerated until things explode. So, to end the autocracy of the Panchayat system, we had to wait for the 1990 People’s Movement when a critical mass of Nepali citizens were prepared to take to the streets at great personal risk to get fundamental and basic reforms. The same with the April 2006 People’s Movement.
Impunity is a common underpinning of these two historical movements which essentially were uprisings against the arbitrary abuse of power. Neither would have been necessary, and the violence and suffering could have been avoided, if we had enjoyed simple rule of law, accountability and a police force free from political influence which often involves political protection for known criminals.
We are about to mark the 12th anniversary of the historic Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) ending the Maoist insurgency. Most of us felt at the time that this was the door to a new Nepal, and we were right to think that the CPA could rectify historic injustices that sprang from lack of judicial independence and a police force which was never designed, trained or equipped to fight the 10-year war. This is as good a moment as any to look at what needs to be done so we have systems and institutions which will self-rectify, bring necessary reforms and end the historic reliance on spasms of violence as the only way to improve our democracy in general, and our justice system in particular.
This cannot be done with a simple case-by-case approach. We must learn from the 10 years of war and cases such as Nirmala Pant’s, and use them to analyse what is structurally and institutionally amiss. Why is there no official condemnation? Why is the victim blamed time and again? Why is there no independent police commission to which those unsatisfied by the performance of the police can appeal? Why do the police put pressure on the victims and survivors to accept mediation? Why is there so little forensic expertise still? It is time to establish a strong oversight mechanism to make the police more professional and accountable, and allow them work freely without any political interference.
The peace process will only be complete after we have a police force and judiciary that are trusted by a majority of the people. Last April, the National Human Rights Commission held a high-level regional conference in Kathmandu on impunity in South Asia. The session not only looked at the general principles but also explored Nepal’s peace process and transitional justice in depth which remains mired in problems over capacity. It was reassuring to hear Attorney General Agni Kharel’s promise to amend the transitional justice commissions’ flawed mandate and work with victims’ groups and civil society. But it was clear that there are still big differences in approach and vision. Getting the mandate of the commissions to comply with the 2015 Supreme Court ruling and basic standards is only the beginning.
Six months later, things have only gone backwards, if anything; and we still await the much needed changes to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP). This remains an urgent priority. We have to look at the problems that were highlighted in the beginning. Together, they make a compelling case that means we need some major improvements in the Nepal Police to make it a professional outfit that provides remedy to citizens, not build up resentment against the state and the government.
In particular, we have to look at the way the police deals with gender-based violence, domestic violence, rape, murder and other issues. For too long, the police have preferred to promote negotiated solutions. But when the victims are Dalits or other marginal groups and the violators are not, we can predict who will get satisfaction from the negotiations, and it is very rarely the victim. Instead, the police must see these violations for what they are—crimes for which judicial punishment is the only remedy and the only hope for breaking the chain of impunity.
Ansari is the spokesperson of the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal.