12 years later, justice is a mirage
Twelve years after the end of the conflict in 2006, victims and relatives suffered another setback this week with a nasty split in the movement seeking truth and justice for wartime atrocities.
The Conflict Victims’ Common Platform (CVCP), an umbrella body made up of activist groups seeking reparations, marked the 12th anniversary of the Comprehensive Peace Accord this year with a charter demanding a new high-level mechanism to address war crimes that would include victims, the government, and political parties.
This prompted a component of the CVCP to split from the group on Wednesday, saying the government had ‘infiltrated’ the movement to let perpetrators off the hook. The 2006 peace accord between the rebels and the government had agreed to ‘probe serious violations of human rights and crimes against humanity’ to help in reconciliation.
In 2014, the government had finally formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and Commission for the Investigation of Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP) to investigate wartime abuses. Activists and victims groups initially welcomed this, but it was soon clear that the Transitional Justice Act was too lenient, allowing pardons, amnesty and proposing ‘open-air jail’ and community service as punishment to perpetrators.
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The CVCP proposed a new high-level mechanism as a way out of the lack of progress by the two commissions, unsatisfactory laws, and expecting greater involvement of all stakeholders.
“Other components of the peace process like the constitution and army integration succeeded because political parties took ownership of these initiatives, but that is lacking in the two commissions, which is why they have stalled. We want a space where they too can be accountable,” said Suman Adhikari, a former president of CVCP and a supporter of the mechanism. Adhikari's father, Muktinath Adhikari, a teacher and human rights activist, was executed by the Maoists in January 2002 in Lamjung.
However, a faction led by Ram Bhandari, Devi Sunar, Sabitri Shrestha, Gita Rasaili and others said the participation of party cadre in the new mechanism would invite political interference in the transitional justice process, and this week they united under the banner of a new National Alliance of Conflict Victims.
“What the CVCP is proposing will make it lenient towards perpetrators, and we are concerned that this will lead to a general amnesty,” said Devi Sunar, mother of 14-year-old Maina, who was tortured, raped and killed in Army custody in 2004. Despite the names of the perpetrators being known, they have never faced justice.
The group is concerned that the proposed mechanism will nullify the complaints registered at the two commissions, and even scrap them. Ram Bhandari, whose father was disappeared by the Army in Lamjung in December 2001, says the proposal to form a new mechanism would “hijack” the transitional justice process and would invite political interference in the victims’ movement.
“The Conflict Victims’ Common Platform has in fact become perpetrators’ common platform. Being in the same forum with perpetrators will not give us justice,” said Bhandari.
An emotional Sabitri Shrestha agreed: “This move to go for cursory reconciliation is not acceptable to us.”
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However, CVCP President Bhagiram Chaudhary says its charter does not seek to dismiss the two commissions but to strengthen them by interacting with all concerned through a new mechanism.
“The Commissions were foisted on us by the government, and never had meaningful participation of victims. The independent body that we propose will take the needs of victims into account. It will focus not just on truth, but also on reparation,” Chaudhary explained.
Independent experts agree that the two existing Commissions have lacked teeth, and an alternative was needed to address the diverse needs of victims: displaced persons have not been rehabilitated, many struggle with financial needs for food and education, families of the disappeared, especially widows, struggle with legal difficulties in transferring property.
The government’s compensation for victims has been ad hoc and isolated, and two categories (the tortured and those who suffered sexual abuse) have not received any compensation at all.
“Victims should not wait for truth and justice before their other concerns are addressed, they should go side by side,” says activist Tika Dhakal. “The two commissions only address one part of transitional justice: truth finding.”
Dhakal adds that reparation and institutional reform are equally important as are research, archiving, and memorialising.
"If internal mechanisms for justice fail, victims will have no option but to take their cases to the international court," Dhakal said.
Nepal’s movement for post-conflict justice used to be seen as robust compared to countries where victims’ voices are not as strong or united. But the proposal for a high-level entity has been divisive, and has now fragmented victims’ demands for truth and justice.
Even though the ‘high-level mechanism’ is just a proposal so far, it has already generated much heat. The Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs who was present at the unveiling of the CVCP charter has made no further commitment to set it up.
Complicating matters is that the ruling NCP is made up of the UML whose cadre were usually victims of war crimes, and the Maoists together with the security forces were responsible for perpetrating them. The tenures of the two commissions end on 9 February 2019, and the government has not yet decided to extend its mandate, or address the CVCP demand.
Read also: The tale of two commissions, Binita Dahal
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Dipak Gyawali in Rupendehi
Posters of gods and goddesses adorn the dark interior of the tin hut in Sainamaina village in Rupendehi district. Below them, Tulsa Pandey has hung a photograph of herself with her husband Jhabindra and two sons Durga and Yubaraj (pictured below). Only Tulsa is still alive.
During the war, the posters used to be of Marx, Engels, Mao and Nepal’s communist leaders. Having lost the men in her life, Tulsa has now devoted herself to god, and helping others.
Her husband Jhabindra died of a heart attack a year before the family moved from Gulmi to the Tarai 30 years ago. Yubaraj joined the Maoists and was wounded during a battle in Bamitaskar in Gulmi in 1998. He was taken by his comrades to Delhi for treatment, and on return became involved with the party’s underground propaganda activities. Security forces captured him in 2000, and he was disappeared.
His older brother Durga joined the Maoist out of a sense of vengeance, and while on his way to a Maoist gathering in Rupendehi was killed by the security forces. “First they shot him, and then they beat him to death, they wouldn’t give us his body,” Tulsa recalls.
It has been nearly 20 years since Tulsa lost her two sons, and says: “Even today at meal time, I expect them to walk in through the door and call out to me.”
Tulsa’s daughter Kamala’s brother-in-law was killed by the Maoists towards the beginning of the conflict. Her other daughter, Bishnu, used to be married to a soldier in the erstwhile Royal Nepal Army but left him after he brought a second wife.
Tulsa Pandey received Rs2 million from the government as compensation for the loss of her sons. Adding money from her savings, she has set up a fund to upgrade roads in her village. She has also built a memorial for her sons, and a scholarship for students who cannot afford school fees.
For her part, Tulsa is living hand-to-mouth. She has diabetes and other ailments, but cannot afford medical treatment. She has no other income besides the Rs 1,000 single women's allowance.
“After my sons were disappeared and killed, their commanders haven’t bothered to visit. The leaders live in big villas in Kathmandu,” she says.
At a recent family wedding, she saw young men who were as old as her sons would be if they were still alive. She came home, and looked at the photographs of her sons for a long time. She could not sleep that night.