Only an independent mechanism can investigate and prosecute all acts of torture and ensure justice to the victims

Torture is one of the most heinous human rights violations, and international law and treaty-based international human rights instruments prohibit acts of torture in any form and in all circumstances.

Nevertheless, torture continues to be practised in Nepal although it might not be as widespread as during the Maoist insurgency. During the decade-long Maoist insurgency, thousands of people suffered torture and other injustices at the hands of both the Maoist insurgents and the state. Investigation was conducted into these cases by the national human rights bodies and recommendations were also made to the government, but the perpetrators have yet to be brought to book, although some form of compensation has been made to the victims. It is a pity that even during peaceful times, when the right to be free from torture is guaranteed by the new constitution, extra-judicial killings, torture and inhuman treatment of the people continue to be committed.

Apart from the constitution and the National Criminal Code that guarantee the right against torture, Nepal is also a party to the international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. As such Nepal is obliged to investigate, prosecute, punish and provide effective remedies and reparations to victims of torture and other acts of ill-treatment. However, Nepal has largely failed to comply with these obligations.

It is, thus, against this backdrop that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) the other day called on the government to hand down lawful punishment to the perpetrators of inhuman crimes and ensure justice for the victims.

The constitutional body, on the occasion of International Day for the Assistance of Torture Victims on Saturday, wanted a clarification from the state on the cases of extra-judicial killings and torture being reported from Jumla, Chitwan and Rautahat.

Torture and inhuman treatment can come in many forms, and the most likely place where they are likely to happen are the prisons. During its monitoring, the NHRC found prisoners in many jails to be deprived of their fundamental rights. It is no secret that Nepal's prisons are overcrowded, squeezing the living space of the jail birds, while the sanitation and drinking water facilities are far from adequate. While it is easy to make recommendations to improve these facilities in the prisons, this can only happen if the government has the resources to do so. Even during the pandemic when the mandatory health protocol has been emphasised, physical distancing cannot be practised in the overcrowded jails. The country has seen many governments of different parties and hues since the NHRC was established two decades ago, but none have shown much zeal in initiating action against the perpetrators of heinous crimes. In such a situation, the only way to ensure the elusive justice to the victims of such crimes is to set up an independent mechanism to effectively investigate and prosecute all acts of torture and other heinous crimes, as demanded by various victims' groups and human rights organisations.

Clean-up drive

It was a novel but Herculean task to launch the Bagmati Clean-up campaign some eight years ago when some high-profile government officials and civil society members launched this drive. After some weeks of voluntarism from them, security personnel from the Nepali Army, Armed Police Force and Nepal Police and cadres and leaders of the major political parties also joined hands with the campaign that has now reached its 424th week. And it is now being expanded in the other rivers in the capital.

After eight years of rigorous campaigning, the holy Bagmati River seems to be a bit cleaner even during the dry season as the general public have stopped throwing garbage into the river. With financial and technical support from the municipalities of the Valley, the local people have also converted the riverbanks, which were once dumping sites, into lush green gardens with trees, while some of them have even been developed into walking trails. The Bagmati Clean-up campaign has taught us that a task once considered impossible can be accomplished if we encourage the general people to take part in the mission.

People from outside the Valley could also replicate it to clean the water bodies around them.

A version of this article appears in the print on June 28 2021, of The Himalayan Times.