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No Truth, No Justice in Nepal

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Nepal's Civil War

In the seven years since Nepal's civil war ended, there has been no accountability for the disappeared - 900 or so by the police and army, about 100 by the Maoist rebels.

Estimates vary: The Red Cross figures are somewhat higher. See Nepal Fears a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (NewsBlaze Sept 9, 2011).

The modern international order proffers two forms of transitional justice after an internal conflict: War crimes trials (as for Rwanda and Bosnia) or a Truth and Reconciliation Commission like South Africa's. Nepal has so far opted for neither, mostly because neither the security forces nor the Maoists - disarmed and leading a coalition government - have wanted to air their dirty laundry.

Arrests In Two Old Cases

They may be forced to do so now by two developments. On January 3 British police arrested an active-duty colonel in the Nepal Army, Kumar Lama, on a crimes against humanity charge, invoking their Universal Jurisdiction statute. Lama has been implicated in two counts of torture in 2005 when was in charge of an Army barracks in southwest Nepal.

Universal Jurisdiction

[Under this principle] certain crimes pose so serious a threat to the international community as a whole, that states have a logical and moral duty to prosecute an individual responsible for them; no place should be a safe haven for those who have committed genocide, crimes against humanity, extrajudicial executions, war crimes, torture and forced disappearances.
- Wikipedia

About the same time Nepali police arrested four suspects in the 2003 murder of journalist Dekendra Thapa by Maoists. The persistence of Thapa's widow in pursuing the matter and a dedicated police officer's investigation led to the exhumation of Thapa's body and the arrest and confession of the suspects. Further arrests are possible.

Both events are the result of inaction on justice for the disappeared and their families. A weak bill to create a TRC was filed in Nepal's Assembly in 2007, but it drew no support from any party and widespread condemnation from diplomats and civil society organizations for offering amnesty.

Police, Army and Maoists In Cahoots

Instead, during the past seven years there has been a tacit agreement between the Police, Army and Maoists that neither side will instigate proceedings against the other. Top Maoist leaders and senior politicians who were in office during the war fear the consequences, and the security forces do not want to explain the deaths of hundreds of suspected Maoists while in custody.

That agreement can be seen in the reaction to the Lama and Thapa incidents. The Army, Maoist-controlled government, and all major political parties decried Lama's arrest in the UK as insulting to the nation and demanded his repatriation to face a (non-existent) TRC in Nepal. Most others in Nepal applauded the British action.

High Level Indignation and Coverup Attempt

The Maoist prime minister and attorney general reacted immediately to the arrests in the Thapa case by ordering police to release the suspects. Ongoing protests and a Supreme Court ruling against the PM and AG have kept the cases alive thus far. Other parties and the security forces have remained mum or suggested that the accused be brought before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission sometime in the future.

The current government has, in the absence of a sitting legislature, offered an ordinance to create a TRC that effectively offers blanket amnesty for everyone. Nepal's president has refused to endorse the ordinance. The proposal is a wholesale version of what the Maoist Attorney General has done piecemeal since taking office: More than 1,700 cases registered during or after the war have been dismissed in the past year.

More Universal Jurisdiction To Come?

But without any progress towards transitional justice in Nepal, other countries may follow the UK's lead in exercising Universal Jurisdiction. The attorney general abruptly cancelled an imminent trip to the US following the Lama arrest, apparently worried about just that. And the Army will be very concerned about their prized postings to UN peacekeeping forces around the world: Col. Lama was on leave from a UN post in South Sudan at the time of his arrest in the UK.

Blackmail To Hide Truth, Stop Justice

The Thapa arrests also threaten the agreement between the security forces and the Maoists. Already the hardline Maoist party has announced that they are preparing to file charges against Army and political figures.

Free for all prosecutions at home and the prospect of arrest overseas may eventually look worse to Nepal's leaders than some form of watered-down transitional justice system. But no action can be expected soon. The political stalemate in Kathmandu over who is to lead the government and, hopefully, conduct new elections is all-consuming, and the pain of inaction isn't yet severe enough.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors. Read more stories by John Child in Kathmandu.

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