NEPAL: Inescapable truths

March 24 marks the fifth annual International Day for the Right to Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims. The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed this day in 2010 to honor the memory of victims and recognize the work of countless human rights activists around the world who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of truth in the face of grave injustice. In the transitional justice context of Nepal, truth for victims has been systematically ignored and repressed for the better part of nine years since the end of the armed conflict, particularly for the families of the disappeared. The post-conflict political settlement that allowed the Maoist party to become part of the government produced an unholy alliance of political actors incentivized to hide the truth at all costs, leading to the entrenchment of a culture of impunity that would seek to absolve perpetrators of responsibility in the name of national progress were it not for various supreme court rulings.

One step forward

A crucial corner has finally been turned with the formation of two commissions—a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and a Commission for the Investigation of Enforced Disappearance (CIED)—formal mechanisms that will conduct investigations into human rights violations of the conflict and prepare reports that should, in principle, reveal truths about both victims and perpetrators of conflict-era violence, as well as provide a platform for justice. Although promised in the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), these commissions have been stymied for years by the attempts of all major political parties to secure the capacity to grant amnesty to perpetrators. Their formation is a huge step forward for Nepal’s transitional justice process, even though there is an absence of legislation on disappearance. The government’s ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance could help create an environment conducive to winning the confidence of victims’ families, but this has yet to happen.

Despite their formation and the appointment of commissioners, the mandates and working methodologies of the commissions—the Disappearance Commission in particular—remain unclear. The CIED is in the earliest stages of creating its Terms of Reference and conceptualizing its working methodology. However, establishing a precedent for open engagement with victims—namely families of the disappeared—from the start is critical, given the wide range of experiences, indeed truths, that exist across Nepal. More than 1,400 families of the disappeared in 69 districts are waiting for the commission’s procedures; everyone has a right to participate and the commission should design its approach to engage all surviving families to establish the truth. Ensuring a mechanism and platform that allows families of the disappeared to participate and share their narratives freely and safely will create a more inclusive process that can access the myriad truths of Nepal’s victims.

The newly formed Conflict Victims Common Platform (CVCP), along with networks like the National Network of Families of the Disappeared and Missing (Nefad), are in an excellent position to facilitate such engagement with families of the disappeared and other victims’ groups across Nepal. Establishing a sustainable foundation now will not only create legitimacy for the commission within victims’ circles but will also show a true commitment to working for change and conflict transformation in Nepal.

Types of truth

The post-apartheid truth commission in South Africa defined different types of truth that are relevant for the Nepali context.

Factual or forensic truth tells us who did what to whom, when and how; it is the legal truth that permits victims and perpetrators to be identified, and that has been the focus of transitional justice advocacy in Nepal. Most importantly, as Michael Ignatieff has said, it narrows the space to tell lies about the conflict: factual truth will prevent military and political leaders from denying violations and the scale on which they occurred. 

Personal and narrative truth emerges when victims and perpetrators tell their own stories. The South African Commission saw a healing role for truth-telling, healing victims who could finally say publicly what they had lived with for many years and constructing a history of the conflict that is made from the most diverse set of experiences.

Social truth is established through interaction, discussion, and debate, emphasizing that participation is at the heart of the process of recovering the truth by permitting a range of discourses of the past to engage in a dialogue. Participation ensures that truth emerges from the affirmation of the dignity of the people who were damaged by the conflict: it is not just the outcome of the commissions that is important but the process, which promotes equality and values the contribution of those who have traditionally not been valued.

Healing and restorative truth seeks to move beyond the idea that there are only facts and subjective opinions. Placing facts in the context of human relationships, both between citizens and between the state and citizens, allows the affirmation of truth to deliver acknowledgement to victims. Such truth moves from a private statement to a matter of public record through the work of the commission. Victims know what they suffered, the commission has a role in acknowledging these facts and affirming that a victims’ pain is real and worthy of attention.

Renegotiating social contract

The CIED must account for all these truths. The forensic truth can end families’ ambiguity about what happened to the disappeared, and in the case of those that are dead, return the bodies to the families. Truth finding is also a social process that must address social challenges that victims face. Women without husbands are stigmatised in their families and communities, because their identity is defined through men: if they are neither wives nor widows, many Nepali cultures see them as lacking any value. Truth about the disappeared constructs identity and meaning for such families and can potentially address such social issues.

Truth also changes the relationship a victim has with the state, explicitly moving the family from that of a ‘terrorist’ (or ‘enemy of the people’) with no value, to a citizen with rights. Denial of truth to families of the disappeared has long been a demonstration of the contempt of the state for victims. Reconciliation does not mean forgiving the man who ordered the death of your husband as much as rebuilding a relationship with a state that has betrayed you. The justice of transitional justice is far broader than a comprehensive judicial process—essential as that is—but also demands a wholesale renegotiation of governance and the social contract between citizen and state.

For the families of the disappeared, truth also demands honesty about why so many of the disappeared came from certain communities. In Bardiya, for example (where more than 200 remain missing), the conflict became a war of the state against the Tharu people, constituting a continuation and escalation of the discrimination they had long suffered. People were disappeared because of who and what they were, just as they had lost land, been enslaved, and gone hungry for decades for the same reasons. The truth of transition must also seek to recover the reasons for the conflict, the social, factual, and ultimately, restorative truth that the Nepali state was based on extreme exclusion. This must be acknowledged and addressed to ensure peace in the long term.

Ram Kumar Bhandari is General Secretary of the Conflict Victims Common Platform and Erik B Wilson is a development professional actively working on transitional justice issues in Nepal.