This April, Nepal’s transitional justice bodies, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP), began recording testimonies on serious human rights violations narrated by victims of the decade-long civil war. CIEDP has extended the June 16 deadline by one month, as complaints related to conflict-era cases have continued to pour in.
The transitional justice bodies were formed in February 2015, and have a two-year mandate, with the possibility of one-year extension, to take up criminal cases from the Maoist insurgency period.
However, the eight months of time that remains for the commissions seems insufficient to investigate more than 14,000 extrajudicial killings, 1,400 incidents of enforced disappearance, and thousands of cases of torture, internal displacement, and disability. The number of related war-era violations varies depending on the institution involved in documenting cases. A taskforce formed to verify the deaths has put the number of extrajudicial killings at 17,800, while the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has mentioned 13,246 deaths from the decade.
Before the commissions were formed, there were high expectations that they would address all elements of conflict-era violations. However, when they started performing poorly, it became apparent that addressing victims’ needs and sufferings would remain an illusion. The recent deal made by the CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre) to withdraw cases involving war-time atrocities and grant amnesty to perpetrators has only increased victim mistrust in the process and further threatened justice. It has created confusion among victims. However, despite this, the CIEDP deadline extension shows that the victims are not deterred from registering complaints.
And, how did the institutions respond to this overwhelming need of victims and families? The TRC and the CIEDP called for testimonies through local peace committees (LPCs) without due preparation. Both the commissions and the LPCs are unable to attract trust, and offer security to the victims; conflict victims face a number challenges and receive threats when giving testimony.
The current situation shows that the mechanisms have failed to meet basic requirements of security and trust. If this process also fails to address historic rights, the nature of the violations could encourage revenge and a culture of militancy if victims and families feel there is no other option. In an environment of such growing distrust and insecurity, it would be tragic if the transitional justice mechanism fails to address issues related to the serious human rights violations and choose to ignore their mandate, by bowing to political manipulation and security interventions against victims’ right to truth and justice.
Though it is a breach of confidentiality, and is punishable as per the Transitional Justice Act, as well as other regulations, and despite officials involved in sharing information about complaints being liable to a fine of NPR 15,000, or three-months of jail or both, the Nepal Army have asked the LPCs of Jumla and Rukum districts to hand over the complaints registered against them. The Nepal Police have also demanded LPCs in Morang and Ramechhap districts to hand over complaints. And, security forces are closely watching activities in Kathmandu and other districts.
The transitional justice process has been driven by politics and controlled by alleged perpetrators from political parties and security forces, and this has been visibly reflected in the work of the TRC, CIEDP, and LPCs. Since there is no protection programme for witnesses and victims, they are increasingly subject to threats from politically connected perpetrators.
The LPCs are not only politically dominated but many members were alleged perpetrators during the conflict. Thus, even though there are so many testimonials coming through, there are many victims who feel insecure and are scared to give testimony. Instead of providing a secure environment, local political leaders in some districts have allegedly discouraged victims from giving testimony. Many victims feel uncomfortable and insecure and cannot express themselves openly, as there is no privacy, and people around them are often listening in.
The government is working to enact a law allowing the Cabinet to recommend amnesty for those accused of war-era crimes without determining the truth surrounding the crimes. In a proposed draft of the law, the government seems to be pushing for general amnesty even before facts are established and due process is met. This is certain to deprive victims and the families of victims, and make the truth and reconciliation process meaningless.
The Enforced Disappearances Enquiry, Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act, 2014, has specified that the act of disappearance is serious human rights violation, which cannot be forgiven. However, there is no law under which action can be recommended, and the act of disappearance is also not criminalised yet.
The transitional justice process is a vital component of the peace process, which is supposed to deal with the approximately 18,000 cases of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, rape, and torture. Political interference in the functioning of transitional justice bodies has made everyone suspicious about the process. There are indications of little confidence in the process among conflict victims and their families.
The transitional justice process is not merely a process of registering complaints; it is about delivering justice to conflict victims and their families.
The TRC must join the CIEDP in also extending the deadline for giving testimony, but even more importantly, implement the lessons learnt to resolve problems, and adopt measures to build trust among the conflict victims, to ultimately ensure truth, justice, and reparation to conflict victims and their families. The two commissions should also provide security to victims and witnesses, increase trust in victims regarding their safety and for protection of evidence. The TRC and CIEDP must maintain their independence regardless of political pressure and the sustained interest of security forces.