The country’s decade-long civil war claimed the lives of thousands of civilians, but political instability — Nepal still does not have a permanent constitution — has resulted in a lapse of justice that seems liable to become permanent.
Take the case of Mukti Nath Adhikari, a science teacher who was abducted by Maoists in 2002. His dead body was found hanging from a tree after school let out, and his killers have never been found. For years, his son Suman Adhikari has been fighting for justice.
“The government pays lip service and occasionally throws in some money,” he said to the BBC. “But the state has never been serious about finding out the truth about these war crimes.”
The elder Adhikari is only one of a great many whose deaths have so far been ignored by Nepal’s transitional government.
In Nepal, the fight for citizens’ rights is nothing new.
Nepal first began experimenting with democracy in 1991, after centuries of absolute monarchy. The transition was blighted by constant power struggles between elected officials and the palace.
The civil war began in 1996 when the Communist Party of Nepal, a militant Maoist organization, began attacking security forces. They agitated for a more democratic system that would be more accountable to the populace, especially in poverty-stricken rural areas. The struggle that ensued was bloody, involving massive casualties and human rights violations on both sides. Over 10 years, more than 12,000 people died and more than 100,000 were displaced. More than 1,000 are still missing.
Nepal’s last monarch, King Gyanendra, came to power in 2001 following the Nepalese Royal Massacre, a bizarre overnight episode of dynastic infighting and bloodshed during which 10 royal family members — including the king, the queen and the crown prince who drunkenly instigated the violence — lost their lives. After suddenly inheriting the throne, Gyanendra struggled to assert executive power amid political turmoil. He presided over five years of a brutal civil war before relinquishing control in 2006 and officially stepping down in 2008.
It was the 2006 agreement that established the Maoists as a political party and set up a transitional government. In 2008 parliamentary elections, the Maoists won a surprise victory — but they lost power when a new coalition was formed in 2009.
The back-and-forth has continued over the last few years, creating political gridlock that has precluded the formation of a new constitution. This has left one major governmental obligation on the back burner: the prosecution of war criminals.
Back at the 2006 meeting in Kathmandu where Maoist leaders and government figures gathered to sign a peace document, the mood was optimistic.
“The war is over,” said government negotiator Krishna Situala to reporters. From that point on, he added, anyone who committed violent crimes would be justly prosecuted.
But today, many Nepalese are wondering: What about those who committed atrocities before the peace treaty was signed?
As it turns out, justice is an ambiguous concept. There are two very different paths the Nepalese government could take to deal with war crimes: conditional amnesty or swift punishment.
The debate calls to mind two historical precedents for the treatment of war criminals: South Africa in 1995 and Germany in 1945.
Following the end of apartheid in South Africa — which occurred de jure in 1990 and de facto in 1994 – there were debates as to how the deeply divided nation could pursue lasting peace. It was decided in 1995 that a judicial body called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would convene, where victims of human rights violations could testify to their suffering and, more controversially, those who committed violations could confess to their crimes and secure amnesty in exchange for their contrition.
Though criticized by many, the commission was generally heralded as a success. South Africa is still riven by longstanding divisions along racial lines, but the amnesty program opened up dialogue and helped shape the country’s gradual transition into functional democracy.
The Nuremberg Trials in Germany offer a counterpoint to South Africa’s method. In these military tribunals, which began in November 1945, members of the Nazi Party and perpetrators of the Holocaust were indicted for their roles in Germany’s war crimes, including the systematic murder of about 6 million Jews and other minorities. This was no time for reconciliation. The years-long process began with 24 high-ranking Nazi officials who were charged with war crimes or crimes against humanity. Half of these initial 24 were sentenced to death, and most of the others served lengthy prison sentences.
Now Nepal is engaged in a very serious debate over which model to follow: Nuremberg, or Truth and Reconciliation?
Proponents of the Nuremberg model can be found all over Nepal. These are the people who lost friends and family members to the ruthless violence of the civil war, and they can attest to horrible acts of violence committed by both Maoists and national security forces: secret abductions, prolonged detentions and summary executions.
For these civilians, and for many international bodies including the United Nations and the International Commission of Jurists, amnesty is simply not an option.
But most Nepalese politicians — many of whom rose to power following the civil war and may have been complicit in acts of violence — are resisting such action. They recommend an amnesty commission like the one in South Africa, but even that has taken a back seat to forming a permanent government.
Those negotiations continue. The latest appointed constitutional assembly has failed to produce a governing document, and new turmoil has erupted over who should remain in power during this unforeseen interim period within an interim period.
While politicians work haltingly to lay the foundations of Nepal’s future, many citizens who experienced war crimes firsthand have little to do but wait for justice that may never come.
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