Mismanagement of Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission’s (NHRC) and its lack of independence, as well as frequent changes of government and an ongoing constitutional stalemate, have weakened the group’s ability to pursue war-era crimes, say officials and activists.
Almost 18,000 civilians died during a civil conflict between Maoist separatists and the government from 1996-2006, but so far no one has been prosecuted for war crimes.
Established in 2000, one of the NHRC’s mandates is to make recommendations about war-time reparations to the government. Its status was upgraded in 2007 from a statutory body to a constitutional body under the 2007 interim constitution, which is the country’s only constitution since parliament recently failed to agree on a new, permanent one.
Commissioners are appointed by a government council that includes the prime minister, the courts’ chief justice, the speaker of parliament and a main opposition leader.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed by the government and Maoist rebels in 2006, which officially ended armed conflict, pledged to form a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) - seen by successive governments as a precursor to pursuing war crime prosecutions - within 60 days. Officials and activists are still waiting.
“We have worked with five prime ministers over the last six years but none of them did anything to enforce legal action against perpetrators or showed interest to form TRC,” said senior NHRC official and commissioner Gauri Pradhan.
Lack of independence
According to the NHRC’s website, it is autonomous from the executive branch and has adequate powers of investigation, but activists and donors have decried the National Human Rights Commission Act, which was quietly passed in March 2012 without public consultation.
The US-based Asia Foundation, until recently an NHRC donor, calls the act a “blow” to human rights which puts the commission’s financial control in the hands of the government.
All expenses must be approved by the government, all checks will be issued by the government and the NHRC cannot alter the budget without government approval.
“[NHRC] cannot function as an autonomous body by depending on government… financial support and annual grants,” said Rameshwar Nepal, the director of Amnesty International’s office in Nepal.
Asia Foundation provided NHRC nearly US$100,000 in 2012 but NHRC recently returned $70,000. NHRC sources told IRIN internal feuding, including exchanges of corruption allegations, prevented commissioners from implementing programmes. Most of the unspent funds were designated for rapid response to ongoing conflict surrounding the constitution-making process.
Inter-communal violence, for example, erupted in May during negotiations over the new constitution: Dozens were injured in the country's Far West region when supporters and opponents of proposed federal states created along ethnic lines clashed, according to local media.
“NHRC is an important institution that deserves and requires as much support as possible. That being said, certain conditions within NHRC need to improve,” said Asia Foundation’s programme officer in Nepal, Diane Fernandez.
NHRC commissioner Pradhan said things are improving, albeit slowly. “When our new team of commissioners arrived here in 2007, there were 10,000 backlog cases and we have now [conducted] 6,000 investigations.”
The response rate by the government to NHRC’s recommendations - mostly those regarding reparations - has increased from 40 to almost 80 percent over the past five years, he said. What remains unheeded are proposals to prosecute Maoist and state security forces accused of gross human rights violations.
Based on NHRC’s recommendations, the government has distributed more than $12 million in reparations to more than 1,000 victims (and/or their families) of torture - the exact number is still being calculated - enforced disappearances and execution. It took on average of at least two years per file claimed due to “complications” said Pradhan.
The compensation awarded was some $4,000 for executions, $1,500 for enforced disappearances and $350 for torture, depending on circumstances, the commissioner added.
But the process did not go far or fast enough, said Devi Sunuwar, whose daughter, Maina, was allegedly tortured and killed by army personnel in 2004 on suspicion of being a Maoist supporter. It took Sunuwar six years, after filing her claim, to receive $1,500.
“There is no rule of law in this country… Criminals are protected and victims are shunned.”