Army Bill : It will perpetuate culture of impunity

After the King’s October 4, 2002, takeover, most of the leaders were convinced of the necessity of waging a struggle against impunity as regards human rights and peace. They promised to address the issue of impunity with conviction and honesty. But their promises have been rendered futile in the present context when the culture of impunity runs rampant.

There must be some covert reasons for the government’s unwillingness to address the issue. The government formed after the People’s Movement in 1990 made the same mistake by ignoring the Mallik Commission’s recommendations; if the history of ignoring impunity is repeated, sustainable peace will remain elusive.

Although the government formed an investigation committee to look into the atrocities committed during the royal regime, it ignored the commission’s recommendation to suspend the heads of all the security forces. It has been reluctant to bring the Chief of Army Staff to book, even while knowing that all the security-related institutions were under the Military Command. This decision remains mysterious and the family members of those who lost their loved ones are getting no answers. It sends a clear message that the government’s agents can kill, torture or cause anyone to disappear without fear of being punished.

The government’s latest step towards institutionalising the culture of impunity is the tabling of a military Bill, which lacks provisions for safeguarding human rights, peace and development. It has been drafted with the concept of fighting traditional war. The Bill contains provisions that could perpetuate impunity within Nepal Army for serious violations of human rights and humanitarian laws. It fails to meet state obligation under international human rights standards. No one involved in the rape and killing of Maina Sunwar has been punished till today. The Bill has the same provision as its predecessor: one that ensures that investigations into rights violations by security forces will become a matter for military, not civilian courts. The new law, if passed by the House of Representatives (HoR) without substantive amendments, will encourage brutal military operations against civilians. The Bill allows the army to operate in civilian areas. This raises the use of army against community leaders, rights defenders and anyone the army deems to be their opponents. Such a Bill will provide legal space for perpetrators to go unpunished.

Despite the OHCHR’s criticism, Nepali human rights defenders, International Commission of Jurists and other rights communities, the country’s political leadership seems to be silent on the issue as the Bill is under discussion in Parliament. There is less hope of being assured of amending the Bill. Meanwhile, a new acting Chief of the Army has been appointed against whom there are allegations of massive rights violations, specially while he was the head of Mid-Western divisional headquarters of Nepal Army. The probe panel is still probing his role in suppressing the people’s movement. Moreover, there are allegations that his articles were published in English newspapers in which he strongly supported the King’s move and criticised the parties.

His records published by Human Rights NGOs are far from satisfactory. For example, the Army helicopter under his command, on April 12, 2004, indiscriminately fired on a cultural programme at Vidya Mandir Higher Secondary School, in Achham district, where seven civilians were shot dead. According to NHRC, there were 79 extra judicial killings and a large number of disappearances, arrests and deaths in army detention during his tenure from December 29, 2003 to September 10, 2004 in Mid-Western divisional headquarters. None of these violations have been investigated and the government’s negligence in ending impunity is against the spirit of the people’s movement.

Even after the clipping of the King’s wings, the Nepal Army is still enjoying impunity. The command structure of security forces still relies on feudal past. It is yet to be fully professionalised; neither has it been democratised in structure and procedures. Ending impunity in the context of centuries-long grip of the royal family is challenging. The government has failed to investigate rights abuses through civilian or judicial procedures to punish the perpetrators. It tries to exempt military personnel from the coverage of its investigation by thinking that the procedure would demoralise the forces and weaken the law enforcement agencies by pushing the country into lawlessness. There has been no trustworthy response on the disappearance of 49 persons from Bhairvanath barracks.

It is high time for lawmakers to make transparent investigations of rights abuses, prosecutions and punishment to the perpetrators to end impunity, where the guilty should not be rewarded or upgraded. Similarly, justice to victims has to be assured by incorporating their voices and identifying mechanisms to address their agonies.

Pyakurel is former member, NHRC