"Forgotten and Forsaken"
KATHMANDU, AUGUST 30
How does it feel to live with a wound – one that is kept alive with the constant rubbing of salt by precisely the ones who should have actually treated it? The answer obviously is that it feels painful, very painful indeed. Having a loved one in the family suddenly snatched away, and not getting an answer about the whereabouts for years after years from those who committed this is certainly very painful.
The pain of not knowing the truth of what happened to one's loved one is psychologically devastating. With lack of a definite answer from the state authorities whose duty it is to investigate and reveal the fate of the victims of enforced disappearance, the families remain in a state of limbo not knowing what happened while hoping that their loved one is still alive and will return some day.
Enforced disappearance is one of the worst forms of human rights violations which is often used during times of conflict by the parties to the conflict as a means to terrorize people. It is devastating not only to the victims and their families but also to the community and society at large as it instills fear, insecurity and trauma on those who are directly or indirectly affected. According to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from the Enforced Disappearance 'enforced disappearance' is an act of 'arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.'
Enforced disappearance was widespread in Nepal's ten year conflict. According to a 2004 report by the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, the phenomenon of disappearance was used arbitrarily by both 'the Maoist insurgents and the Nepalese security forces'. The report also notes that 'a culture of silence' had sprung up across the country, with 'villagers too fearful to report disappearances for fear of reprisal from the security forces or the Maoists insurgents'.
The conflict ended in Nepal in 2006 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which promised to make the fate of the 'disappeared' public within 60 days. Since the end of the conflict, about a dozen different governments came to power, but none prioritized serving truth and justice to the victims. Consequently. the families of over 1,300 persons forcibly disappeared during the conflict continue to wait with no answer about the fate of their loved ones. For a family whose relative was disappeared in the early days of the conflict, say in 1997, it has been an excruciating wait of over 23 years.
This lack of answer for far too long is unbearable to the families. They want to know the truth of what happened, why and by whom. They also want a decent closure of the situation so as to move on with a satisfactory note. This is possible only if they know the truth and are able to perform the final rites of their loved ones if they are no longer alive. As they say, they want either laas or saas of their loved ones (alive or dead). As long as they are not provided one of this, they will continue to have aash (hope) of their loved ones being alive. This state of uncertainty is not only tiring but also burdensome in practical terms as the unresolved legal status of the disappeared person in the family makes it difficult for them to inherit the property and other legal entitlements. If the disappeared one is the breadwinner in the family, the material loss, deprivation and stress is incalculable.
In 2015, the government established the Commission for the Investigation of Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP) under a faulty law that the Supreme Court ruled to amend arguing that the law had provisions that could grant amnesty even to perpetrators involved in grave human rights violations such as the enforced disappearance, torture, rape and murder. The politically appointed members of the CIEDP failed to deliver squandering four precious years and hundreds of millions of rupees before ending their term in February 2019. Unfortunately, the government and the political leadership do not appear to have learnt a lesson as the much needed amendment of the transitional justice law is still pending, and the CIEDP currently stands as a toothless body that is yet again manned by political appointees brushing aside the long standing demands of the stakeholders including victims and civil society that the whole transitional justice process be redesigned with necessary amendment on law and a genuinely meaningful consultation with all the stakeholders concerned.
Now people may ask why bother about those who have gone missing either in the hands of the state security forces 'doing their duty to the state' or in the hands of those who were fighting for a so-called 'just, egalitarian and pro-people federal republican Nepal' ? After all, the two fighting parties have now for long settled their scores and are part of the same ruling establishment. So, why bother at all? Why talk about those whose absence does not make any difference in your life? And why particularly in times like these when we are faced with bigger issues in life such as the COVID crisis?
My answer to these questions is a big 'No'. Now, more than ever before, is when we should raise the issues of state accountability because it affects us all. No context or situaiton should serve as a pretext for the government to deflect from its accountability and obligations. While the government and the political leadership has pathetically failed to deliver on Nepal's transitional justice, we as citizens also owe our bit in this collective failure. The sense of disregard to the past wrongs and a culture of silence and forgetfulness on our part is also a reason why we as a society in Nepal are drifting far apart from the principles and values of rule of law, accountability and justice. As long as we fail to acknowledge and empathize with those in our society who have been wronged, harmed, victimized, disenfranchised, marginalized, exploited, and subjected to injustice, and unless we stand up and speak up, we are fundamentally reinforcing the same culture of silence thereby promoting impunity, and hence potentially throwing ourselves into the same web of anarchy. To quote Martin Luther King Jr. “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
This International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances let's pledge to rally behind our fellow brothers and sisters who are waiting for an answer concerning the fate of their loved ones. With COVID and everything, times are certainly difficult for all of us, but let's also know that it's much worse for those of them who are waiting day in, day out just to know what happened to their loved ones. The compounded economic, social, psychological and material stress and hardship they endure in the face the current COVID crisis is even more daunting. Therefore, let's be with them. Let's stand together with them to demand truth, justice and accountability from our leaders because solidarity matters now more than ever before.
Let's also demand that the transitional justice law be amended as per the Supreme Court ruling and international standards. In these particularly difficult times of COVID, let's also demand with the government that the social safety measures accommodate the victims of conflict as one of the beneficiaries. Let's also remain constantly vigilant and active to hold the governments to account for their wrongful acts of commissions and omissions.
Nirajan Thapaliya is the Director of Amnesty International Nepal.