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WASHINGTON, Aug 31 2012 (IPS) - The Nepali government is receiving significant national and international blowback for a draft ordinance that rights groups, including ones in the United States, say would allow for a widespread amnesty for some accused of human rights and other abuses perpetrated during Nepal’s decade-long civil war.
On Wednesday, Bishal Khanal, head of Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission, publicly complained that the body had not been consulted on the executive ordinance, endorsed by the Maoist-led cabinet and which would finally create a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC). Nepali activists said that government officials had acted unilaterally and failed to engage in public consultations on the issue.
Such a commission has been a longstanding demand following the end in 2005 of the civil war that led to roughly 13,000 deaths and more than a thousand disappearances. But observers are outraged because the proposal would empower the TRC to grant individual or collective amnesties during investigations into wartime atrocities. Those powers would not be contingent upon public input.
On Friday, four international rights and legal groups called on President Ram Baran Yadav to reject the ordinance on the basis that the plan would allow “political expediency to prevent accountability, entrench impunity and deny the right of the Nepali people to justice”. Their letter warns that the plan would violate both national legal decisions and Nepal’s international agreements.
Similar warnings came in a joint statement from the United Kingdom, United States, European Union, and nine other foreign missions in Nepal, pushing the Kathmandu government to listen to both the NHRC and victims groups in crafting the TRC and related decrees. For his part, President Yadav has expressed reluctance to accept the ordinance.
The proposal would set up a single Commission of Inquiry on Disappeared Persons, Truth and Reconciliation, despite the call for two separate bodies. Observers warn a single commission would result in a weakened process.
Furthermore, all of the proposed commission’s members, including the attorney-general, would be “political appointees”, the watchdog letter notes, “and are thus very much vulnerable to the kind of political pressure that international standards explicitly seek to avoid”.
Follow the self-interest
“This is a crucial point on the long and contentious road toward reconciliation with regards to Nepal’s civil war – there is almost a body that can investigate and bring light to a very dark chapter in the country’s history,” says Phelim Kine, a South Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch, along with Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists and TRIAL, the Swiss Association against Impunity, sent the letter to President Yadav.
“This ordinance is completely against the spirit of the move towards reconciliation,” Kine told IPS, and an amnesty “would undo much of the credibility that the Nepali government has in moving towards creating a body to examine this dark period”.
Impunity and shaky due process have long been grinding problems for Nepal, but they are being highlighted as the country negotiates a post-conflict transition while simultaneously attempting to write a new constitution. The body vested with overseeing the latter, which doubled as the national parliament, was disbanded in May.
New elections are slated for November, but the presence of the former Maoist rebels at the head of government has created widespread mistrust throughout Kathmandu politics and broader society.
The Maoist leadership has never hid its distaste for a truth and reconciliation process that didn’t include some amnesty component – particularly over worries that the top leaders could end up in the International Criminal Court, an option that international observers have repeatedly said would not happen.
Further, any reconciliation process in Nepal would almost certainly implicate prominent members of nearly all of Nepal’s political parties and security forces. Even the Nepal Army has long sided with the Maoists in pushing for a blanket amnesty for war-era wrongdoings.
For this reason, coupled with the infighting and power jockeying that has increasingly characterised Nepali politics during the transition period, those at the centre of power in Kathmandu are some of the least interested in ensuring a robust truth and reconciliation process.
“At this particular juncture in Nepali politics, the opposition will seek to use all issues it can find to build opinion against the government,” Prashant Jha, a political analyst, told IPS from Kathmandu.
“But in fact, even sections of the democratic parties are not averse to amnesty for war-time crimes. The greater opposition, then, will come from the international community, civil society, lawyers and sections of the media.”
Others have gone so far as to suggest that a truth and reconciliation process is being foisted on the country from outside.
“There is generally consensus on the need for a blanket amnesty, while many see the international community as ‘creating problems’ by demanding a powerful TRC, which would be a headache for the parties and the army,” one Kathmandu journalist told IPS on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.
“Most politicians see the TRC as an alien concept that is being imposed on Nepal by foreigners. It is not and has never been a major issue in Nepali politics.”
While each post-conflict situation is different, Human Rights Watch’s Kine says that the evidence from similar experiences around the world is unusually compelling.
“If you look at the record of post-conflict countries that have been wracked by internal conflict, what is unanimous is that there must be some type of reconciliation mechanism,” he says.
“We recognise that internationally there have been other mechanisms that have been put forward to address the issue. But the Nepali government has already embarked on the road of setting up a TRC, and any mechanism that allows for amnesty would only widen divisions rather than heal them.”
Most importantly, the push for such a process has become part of Nepal’s society-wide investment in a post-conflict transition. Throughout this week, public events took place across Nepal, bringing together victims of war, lawyers, activists and politicians to express anger at the ordinance and to try to decide on a future course of civic action.
At an event on Wednesday in Kathmandu, according to a report by a leading human rights group, former Maoist leader Ekraj Bhandari accused political leaders of failing to engage on the issue because they were “focused on gaining power”, adding that the proposed commission “cannot address the problems of conflict victims”.
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