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RIGHTS-NEPAL: No Reconciliation Without Truth

Mallika Aryal

DHADING, May 20 2008 (IPS) - Five years ago Ruku Acharya’s family was woken up in the middle of the night by Nepal army soldiers. They wrapped her husband Ram Prasad Acharya in a blanket and dragged him out of the house in Naubise, some 40 km from Kathmandu. He has not been seen since.

Acharya's wife, parents and children await his return five years after he was abducted by soldiers.  Credit: Sam Kang Li/IPS

Acharya's wife, parents and children await his return five years after he was abducted by soldiers. Credit: Sam Kang Li/IPS

Some months later Ruku traced him down to the army barracks in the heart of the capital Kathmandu. Fellow detainees said they had seen him there. But the soldiers there denied that he was ever at the barracks, and did not let her speak with other officers.

Their son Rajiv was only 14 years old when his father was taken away, "He may have been attracted by the Maoist ideology," remembers Rajiv, "but he wasn’t an informer like they accused him of being." Ruku thinks that her husband is still alive. "Not knowing whether he is dead or alive makes it much harder for all of us to go on," she says.

When the government and the Maoists declared ceasefire after the ‘April Uprising’ in 2006, the 10-year long ‘People’s War’ ended. However, since both the players were now in the government they did their best to sweep war atrocities under the rug. Today the families and relatives of the disappeared, killed and wounded in the war expect justice from the newly-elected constituent assembly.

According to the interim constitution a truth and reconciliation commission has to be set up to ‘investigate the truth on persons involved in gross violation of human rights and crimes against humanity.’ When the constituent assembly sits it is obligated to set up the commission.

In July 2007, the Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction made public draft legislation for the commission. However, this draft bill has come under sharp criticism. Rights activists have said that the bill is inconsistent with international humanitarian laws ratified by Nepal. It had no provisions for reparations, methods of appointing commissioners, and the provisions for amnesty were worrisome.

After the draft bill was released Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for the Washington-based Human Rights Watch said, "Thousands of Nepalis were killed or forcibly disappeared in the civil war, and their families have rights to truth, justice and reparation. But instead of delivering truth and justice, this draft bill could be used to let perpetrators off the hook."

Human rights activists sent their comments to the ministry right after the draft bill was published. Nine months have passed and there have been exchanges between the human rights organisations and the government regarding the bill. However, very little has changed in the overall bill. "They have changed a word here, added another there, all these changes are only for lip-service," says Jitendra Bohara of the human rights group, Advocacy Forum.

After much lobbying, a clause to hold consultations with the victims was added and two of the five proposed consultations were held in the towns of Palpa and Dhankuta last year.

But the Nepal office of the International Center of Transitional Justice (ICTJ) says that these consultations were not thought through, and not well-conducted. "Poor and illiterate farmers were not included in the consultations, confidentiality and security of the victims were not guaranteed, and the attendance was only via invitation," says ICTJ.

A recent study by the ICTJ shows that a majority of victims wanted investigations into human rights abuses and to establish an accurate historical record of the conflict, to ensure that similar events do not occur again.

"Some people think that this is not the time to talk about war atrocities, they say that it will jeopardise the peace process, but we say that if we can only start investigating high-profile cases, that would be a step towards healing and would help build confidence," says advocate Mandira Sharma.

After their victory in the recent election the Maoist leaders have come out and said that they are committed to fulfilling the political promises they made in the comprehensive peace agreement of November 2006 and what is mandated by the interim constitution – which includes setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In Dhading’s Thakre village Shrisha Subedi is worried that those who killed her father will never be brought to justice. Her father was the village chief of Communist Party of Nepal (UML), when he was taken away from his house six years ago by the Maoists and shot in the fields nearby. "With the perpetrators in power, would we ever know the truth about why our father was so brutally murdered?" asks Shrisha.

A few weeks ago the Nepali government decided to give over 1,500 US dollars in compensation to the families of those who were killed during the war, irrespective of whether they were killed by the state or by the Maoists. "Reparations are a good thing, but the government cannot think that by giving out money they have dealt with their responsibility of reconciliation," says Bohara.

Experts say that the government has to be clear about who can be called victims of war and has to have a good mechanism to identify them and ensure that actual victims receive the money. There are preconditions to a truth and reconciliation commission: it can’t be rushed, the conflict must be completely over, there must be a strong political commitment to reconciliation and an environment in which victims can testify without fear, they say.

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