17 October, 2004

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

SUSHMA JOSHI Sunday October 17, 2004
Source : NATION WEEKLY MAGAZINE, Archived at South Asian Media Net
Devi Sunwar, 36, cries as she tells her story. Her daughter Maina was 15. “She would have gone to class 9,” she sobs. After witnessing an extra-judicial execution of a relative Reena Rasaili on February 17, 2004, Devi, who had also been sexually harassed by the police, went back to her village. The police arrived at her home at 6 a.m. the next day to search for her. They could not find her, so they took her daughter with them. After the disappearance of the girl, the parents launched a search, going to the army and police barracks and putting in an application with the National Human Rights Commission. The body was found yesterday. Devi worries about going to the police barracks by herself to get the body. “Can somebody come with me?” she asks the lawyers from Advocacy Forum who are present and who are providing legal aid to her.

The paradox of a woman who has been sexually harassed, whose daughter has been killed by the police and who is forced to go back to the same institution to get justice reflects the extraordinary state of the human rights situation in Nepal today. “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” Human Rights Watch report on Nepal, looks at the way civilians inside Nepal are caught in-between the conflict and are equally at risk from both the security forces and the Maoists. The 102-page public report, which was released in the Radisson Hotel on Thursday, documents cases of extra-judicial executions, disappearances, illegal detentions and arbitrary arrests. It also makes recommendations to the three conflicting parties—the government of Nepal, the leadership of the CPN-Maoist and the King.

The civilians of Nepal are not the only ones caught in-between the conflict. Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch admits the international community finds itself in the same difficult place. While the international community does not want to isolate Nepal and leave it to deal with a Maoist rebellion, it is also increasingly reluctant to support a militarized government that acts with impunity. “The international community cannot walk away from Nepal,” Bouckaert says. “But increasingly governments around the world are finding it difficult to support it politically and economically.”

Bouchaert pointed out that the new U.S. ambassador could do a lot to ameliorate the Nepali people’s suspicions that the U.S. blindly supports the current regime by raising issues of human rights. The U.S. has, for the first time, signed the human rights memorandum. Unfortunately, the recent interview the ambassador gave in the Kathmandu Post made no reference of human rights abuses from the Army side.

Bouckaert says his organization will follow up with governments in Europe and America and pressure them to carefully consider their government’s allocation of military funds to Nepal. In the U.S., the Leahy Amendment requires the U.S. government to review the performance of the military before they can receive funding. For the first time, one unit of the Royal Nepal Army has apparently been refused funding through this amendment, although details about which unit are still to be released.

Bouckaert, who is a researcher in the conflict section in Human Right Watch, has worked in conflict areas all over the world, including Rwanda and Bosnia. “Nepal,” he says, “remains one of the most difficult countries to work in human rights today.” A mountain village in Nepal can be as far as a four days walk off the main road, cutting off effective communication and accessibility and making it difficult for organizations to track down violations. Both Maoists and the Army take advantage of this inaccessibility and continue to perpetuate abuses with impunity. In most parts of the world, e.g. in Chechnya, a village is no farther than a three hours drive away. “Chechens dream of launching a rebellion in a country like this,” he says.

No country in the world that has undergone a civil conflict has escaped prosecutions for war crimes after the conflict is over, observes Bouckaert. The impunity in Nepal, the HRWatch team found, operated on an open level. “We execute them,” soldiers in checkpoints responded when asked what they did when they came in contact with Maoists. “There are a lot of abusive armies in the world. Not all of them are being funded by Western countries,” says Bouckaert. “The Security forces have to realize they have a price to pay. Nepali Army and security forces can be sure there will be prosecutions. We are looking for names of people who should be prosecuted tomorrow.”

The government of Nepal has signed a commitment paper allowing the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to visit detention centers and to allow habeas corpus cases. But so far the government has not followed up on its commitments. Organizations like Human Rights Watch are now building increased pressure and are working to build capacity that would make the government more sensitive to norms of human rights. Nepal’s army, which transformed from a largely ceremonial guard to a fighting force, needs to strengthen its investigative capacity and its accountability.

“In Nepal, if you’re a civilian and you kill somebody, you will go to jail for a long time. If you’re a soldier and you kill fifty, you will get a promotion,” Bouchaert remarks. Bouchaert, who met with an Army official in the morning, observed that the general he met seemed to find the conduct of the troops indefensible. Heavy international pressure is needed to make sure officers at all levels act with accountability and are aware their actions will have consequences, he says. International pressure was one of the reasons for the court martial of the security officer involved in the Rammechap massacre.

Although organizations like Human Rights Watch monitor and document human rights in Nepal, their work seems to have made little impact on the current government’s policies. The conflict continues unabated, and human rights violations are on the rise. Families of detained people sit in Shanti Park near Ratna Park, telling their stories about their family members who vanished without a trace, taken by soldiers in plain-clothes.

As these atrocities become more visible and part of the mainstream, it becomes increasingly difficult for people working in conflict resolution and negotiations to bring their cases forward. Peace, says Bouchaert, is not the only issue to be raised. If peace issues are raised and human rights shoved to the background, the warring parties will often take the opportunity to brutalize the civilian population.

Devi Sunwar and her husband, tears streaming down their faces, tell their stories to whoever will listen. As busy professionals attending the meeting stream out, Devi Sunwar says, “At least they have said they will give compensation.” The few hundred rupees that the Army gives to the families of victims is small solace to parents whose child has been murdered; yet it is an admission of guilt from an institution that should be serving, not killing, the people.

“I saw people being murdered. I will not keep silent, whatever happens,” Devi says. It is that kind of personal commitment to justice from civil society, perhaps, that will finally end this conflict.

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