In-depth: Between Two Stones - Nepal’s decade of conflict
NEPAL: Confronting human rights violations
There is evidence that both the Maoists and the security forces have committed human rights abuses, including extra-judicial killings, torture and disappearances
KATHMANDU, 2 February 2006 (IRIN) - The breadth and nature of abuses recorded by international human rights organisations in Nepal in recent years is sobering. They include extra-judicial killing, assassination, disappearances, illegal detention and torture, as well as the bombing of civilian vehicles and other civilian targets.
Of particular concern is the extent to which children are caught up in the violence. One human rights organisation, Amnesty International, reported in March 2005 that children were being both deliberately targeted and indiscriminately killed in attacks, as well as being illegally detained, tortured, raped, abducted and recruited for military activity.
On the other side of the conflict, Maoists have targeted teachers and political workers in their attempt to uproot government influence from rural areas. They have harassed and coerced civilians, curbing their freedom of movement, extorting money and taxes.
Equally poor is the record of Nepal’s Armed Police Force and the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), with evidence of their participation in arbitrary arrest, detention, disappearance, torture and summary executions. The visit in September 2005 of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak, concluded that the RNA carried out systematic torture of detainees, something confirmed by army officers he had interviewed.
Nepal has also had the highest recorded number of the disappearances of people reported to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in the last two years. The majority of these have been of people held in army custody.
Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission documented no less than 662 cases of disappearances involving Nepali security forces between November 2000 and November 2003, and local human rights groups estimate that the number of people who have disappeared from the custody of the security forces has actually increased since.
Another particularly worrying development is the emergence in 2005 of village defence forces, or pro-government vigilantes. In its August 2005 “Fractured Country, Shattered Lives” Amnesty said it was alarmed at the increasing number of armed civilian groups. "These groups, which clearly enjoy considerable support from the government of Nepal, are responsible for a growing number of human rights abuses," the report stated.
In south-central Nepal, village defence forces have attacked neighbouring villages accused by government authorities of being pro-Maoist. Local human rights groups reported in one incident in February, 31 people were killed and 700 houses burnt.
Investigations by Nepali human rights groups found that these clashes heightened ethnic tensions between hill communities. Despite evidence to the contrary, the Nepalese army has denied all involvement with these village defence forces.
Impact of Ceasefire
Photo: Naresh Newar/IRIN
|The military strength of both the security forces and the Maoists has increased significantly. If the ceasefire ends, civilians risk be subjected to more armed violence and more human rights abuses
Kundan Aryal, representative of a Nepali human rights monitoring organisation, says the Maoists’ unilateral ceasefire has resulted in the rebels recently killing fewer civilians. “While the Maoists have shown restraint, the king has instructed the RNA to continue military activities,” he said. One analyst also said the Maoist leadership wanted to rein in local commanders.
Rights Violations in Rukum
The impact of the human rights crisis is most apparent in contested hill towns.
Musikot is the district headquarters of the mountainous Rukum district. It is a town controlled by the Nepalese army, heavily defended with lookout posts and barbed wire. A night time curfew and blackout are enforced while searchlights comb the hillsides for intruders. Local officials expect rebel attacks to resume if the ceasefire ends.
The legacy of recent human rights abuses is obvious.
Twelve-year-old Bapita is one of 15 children who attend group meetings instigated by local women to provide support for those orphaned by the conflict. All those attending have lost parents in targeted killings or in crossfire.
In 2002, Bapita witnessed her father being dragged out of her home and stoned to death by local Maoists as retribution for allowing his eldest son to join the army. Since then, her brother has been sent away. She says she lives in fear with her mother.
At school she is unable to concentrate on her studies. “When I’m in class, I’m constantly watching for strangers coming to school. The Maoists came once when my brother was at school, but he managed to run away. If I see them coming, I will run away too.”
Photo: Naresh Newar/IRIN
|Many young women have been widowed after their husbands were either killed by the Maoists, or by Nepal’s security forces. These two young women in Bardiya have been waiting for over five years for their husbands to return home. Security forces deny ever having arrested their husbands
Sita Oli, a widow whose husband, a village district official, was killed by Maoists at the start of the conflict ten years ago, said that it was children who had suffered most in the conflict. “Many children, including my own, have lived with a lot of psychological trauma. I have seen many manifestations of this. Anyone with resources sends their children away.”
But even relatively wealthy individuals can suffer as a result of the conflict. During a Maoist blockade in July 2005, one local businessman, Prem Malla, was asked to negotiate access with local Maoists by the chief district officer. The insurgents he met made him sign a pledge that he would give them the equivalent of US$900.
The pledge was later found on a dead Maoist rebel by members of the government’s security forces, and Malla was arrested on suspicion of collusion. He was eventually released, having been subjected to what he described as “traumatic interrogation”.
Apart from their fears of abduction, of death and of arbitrary arrest, all civilians cited their lack of freedom of movement as a major source of frustration. One elderly farmer said he was too scared of armed men to risk checking his fields and irrigation canals by day, but would sneak out at night to take a look.
Anyone travelling to and from the district headquarters was subject to scrutiny by both sides. Children were closely watched. Bapita was concerned that she would be stopped and interrogated by Maoists if they knew she had visited army-controlled Musikot.
Local Human Rights Defenders
With a weak National Human Rights Commission, and a Nepalese judiciary described by the International Crisis Group as “constrained by royal prerogative”, monitoring violations is mostly done by local human rights groups.
Exposure to rules aimed at limiting loss of life and property in conflict, known as international humanitarian law, has been limited. In Rukum District, a local human rights monitor, Jiwan Khadka, said it has taken years for Maoists and security forces – especially the police – to accept responsibility for human rights violations.
This culture of denial by both sides has slowly receded. Khadka said there was now space for local human rights workers to investigate allegations of violations. He could actually now take pictures of incidents. “There is some semblance of giving access on a particular human rights case,” he said.
Compensation for relatives of the victims of the security forces was also forthcoming in some situations. In one incident when a woman was killed by four plainclothes policemen in her bedroom, an army colonel went on record saying she had been a Maoist. Two years later, when a local organisation provided evidence to the contrary, the army admitted it had made a mistake, and some compensation was paid.
However, there appears to be little appetite in the army to take any disciplinary action against troops for abuses. In response to allegations of torture committed by members of the RNA, army spokesman Brig-Gen Deepak Gurung told IRIN that if abuses of authority were uncovered, then the soldiers in question would be court-martialled. But human rights activists are wary of such statements, given the lack of action against soldiers known to have committed serious offences against civilians.
Photo: Naresh Newar/IRIN
|Village defence forces, such as this one in Ganeshpur, are reported to be committing serious human rights violations against ordinary civilians in the name of flushing out the Maoist rebels
In a press release in September 2005, Human Rights Watch reported that three Nepalese army officers found guilty of torturing and murdering a 15-year-old girl, would “most likely not serve a single day in jail.”
“This tells soldiers in the Nepalese army that they won’t risk punishment if they continue to abuse civilians,” Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director said.
Local human rights groups have little faith that much will change in the near future. Kundan Aryal labelled reports of disciplinary action by the army, “total lip service”.
When it comes to the Maoists, there is a huge gap between the leadership and their local cadres, say observers. Public statements and commitments by the leaders of the insurgency to observing human rights, are often not respected locally.
Investigating Maoist abuse is said to be particularly difficult. “Firstly, we don’t have enough meetings [with them] as we don’t know where they are. Second, we’ve seen them, especially the grassroots workers, almost drunk with the sense of power they have. There’s a sense of impunity because they think they are untouchable, can do anything with reckless abandon and get away scot-free,” says one human rights activist.
Local human rights groups have struggled to document incidents of abuse. They have also been at risk, often harassed by both sides in the conflict.
In 2004, the UN said there was a human rights crisis in Nepal. Events that followed the 1 February 2005 takeover by the king – namely the arrest of politicians, human rights defenders and journalists, as well as restrictions imposed on the press and the National Human Rights Commission - served to compound the situation.
Nepal has since seen a string of high-level visits, notably by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, and by UN rapporteurs. Following the king’s agreement to allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to set-up office in Nepal, an advanced team of human rights monitors, headed by Ian Martin, arrived in Kathmandu in May.
A full compliment of UN staff, with 35 human rights monitors and 20 support staff, should be in place in early 2006. The office’s mandate embraces all aspects of human rights, but refers specifically to conflict-related violations, such as abductions, detentions, disappearances and extra-judicial killings.
Martin said a priority had been the treatment of detainees, given the rise in the number of people arrested and whisked-off to army barracks or detention centres since 2003.
“There were a lot of disappearances and denial by the army that people were being held with no notification and no access,” he said. The army was not even bringing in their provisions under controversial anti-terrorist legislation that gives the security forces greater authority to make preventive arrests and detain people.
Photo: Naresh Newar/IRIN
|Despite international calls to both the government and Maoists to respect international humanitarian and human rights laws, abuses have continued. The European Union Troika, pictured, visited Nepal this year and urged both parties to respect human rights
The UN says there has been some progress. Martin has been pressing the RNA to hold people in legal places of detention, and not in barracks. The RNA claims detainees are kept in barracks because of a lack of detention facilities, a response that prompted the UN Office for Human Rights to contact Nepal’s Home Ministry to establish places of secure detention so that people can be transferred to legal custody.
The army had also set up a human rights cell, and has agreed to set up a registry of who is being detained where.
Disregard for the rule of law by the army had invoked “the strongest criticism” from the UN office, said Martin, with a recommendation that the human rights record of the conduct of individuals serving with the RNA at home, be taken into account for Nepalese involvement in future UN peacekeeping missions.
“At scrutiny here is the performance of the RNA. And they take pride in their UN peacekeeping role – so I think we have considerable influence,” he said.
While the army is not always happy with the mission, it has been cooperating on access to barracks and other centres used for detention.
Extra-judicial killings was another priority, but much harder to investigate. Despite the ceasefire, Martin said that reports of the security forces killing alleged Maoist members or supporters had been received. “There are a limited number of cases, which give grounds for concern about the rules of engagement, but I don’t think we can say there is a trend to this yet.”
Andrew Macgregor, head of a UN sub-office, said that senior army officers had clearly issued instructions for unfettered UN access to barracks and places of detention, in marked contrast to the lack of cooperation extended to national NGOs or the International Committee of the Red Cross, which suspended its detainee visits earlier in 2005.
Engaging the Maoists was harder. “There have been contacts, they have expressed their desire to cooperate. But our ability to engage with them is somewhat more limited. They don’t have an office where you can drop in,” he said.
The UN human rights office has also joined international condemnation of the king’s media decree, which aims to curb press freedom.
But there is a limit to what human rights groups, local or international, can do in such a conflict-ridden environment. Matthew Kahane, UN Resident Coordinator in Nepal, said influencing the security forces and the Maoists on human rights issues “were not fields in which we could expect behaviour to change overnight”.
Meanwhile in Rukum district, civilians continue to live with violence, extortion, abduction, curfews and other daily restrictions. There is little faith in a political solution and most inhabitants expect fighting to resume soon. For children like Bapita, the damage has already been done. “If it was not for this conflict, I would have a father just like any other child my age,” she whispered.