Nepal: A Democracy Without Human Rights?

In Nepal, a decade-long communist insurgency started in 1996 by Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist caused around 15000 deaths, including civilians. The insurgency ended as the state security forces significantly weakened the Maoists, although they could not subdue them. Consequently, the Maoists reached out to political parties by expressing their commitment to multi-party democracy, human rights, and rule of law, and signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), 2006 with the Nepalese government. However, in practice, the Maoists, as well as the political parties and state security bodies, continued to flout human rights and democracy. The CPA had envisaged a transitional justice mechanism– Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and Commission on Disappearances – to probe serious human rights violations and crimes during the war, but the Maoists and state security elites showed a blatant disregard for it.

When the government introduced the TRC bill in the parliament in 2008, human rights activists confirmed their suspicion that political parties intended to circumvent what was agreed in the CPA. The proposed bill failed to meet international standards in several ways. First, the drafters did not conduct wide consultations with the victims of conflict, ignoring a widespread call for a victim-centric mechanism. Second, political parties themselves assumed the power to appoint commission members to ensure that the commission would not be independent. Third, the bill gave the commission discretionary powers to grant amnesty and used vague terms so that even those charged with serious human rights violations and crimes such as rape and murder could easily get away. Furthermore, different governments sought to pass the TRC bill through ordinance, going against the spirit of victim-centric mechanism. Rights activists had to resort to Supreme Court in several instances to block such documents.

In a brazen display of impunity, the Maoists and the state security actively protected, even promoted, those who were accused or convicted of crimes and rights violations. For instance, the Nepal Army promoted Colonel Raju Basnet who was accused of serious crimes. Armed Police Force promoted Durj Kumar Rai despite his involvement in killing protestors in 2006. Maoist leader Agni Sapkota became a minister while he was under investigation for murder; Maoist lawmaker Bal Krishna Dhungel, who was convicted by the Supreme Court on murder charges, walked freely.

When the case of journalist Dekendra Thapa,  who was tortured and buried alive by the Maoists in 2004, came to the fore in 2013, then PM Baburam Bhattarai, the Maoists’ ideologue, had his handpicked Attorney General Mukti Pradhan block all legal proceedings.  The Maoist supremos Prachanda and Bhattarai even threatened “stern action” against those who demanded prosecution of perpetrators.  Strong criticism by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on different occasions, and the arrest of Col. Kumar Lama in the UK by the UK police under “universal jurisdiction” on torture charges made the elites in Kathmandu jittery and helped human rights issue take center stage. But, in essence, full compliance with international standards is continuously denied. Nepalese elites failed to internalize the fact that transitional justice is about consolidating war-torn societies by promoting social and psychological healing, pre-empting and deterring future crimes and imparting citizenry a sense of dignity.

Nevertheless, after a long-standing logjam, the TRC and the Commission on Investigation of Enforced Disappearances (CIED) were finally formed in 2015, thereby enabling thousands of victim families to register their complaints. Over fifty thousand complaints have been filed with the TRC. The UN’s Transitional Justice Reference Archive records “up to 9000 serious violations” during the conflict. Nevertheless, the government has not acted upon TRC’s request for law amendments and clarification of terms. Similarly, victims doubt that political and security elites will let the TRC expose all that happened during the war. The biggest party - Nepali Congress - is said to be conniving with the Maoists. Communist parties like to believe that human rights is a Western agenda. Fringe parties hardly bother to speak since they neither understand nor value human rights; apparently, their sole objective pursued by changing alliances is to hold ministerial portfolios and enjoy official perks.

Geopolitical interests of influential neighboring countries have helped Maoist leaders remain unaccountable.  International community and human rights networks seem to have mainly targeted state security bodies while tacitly sympathizing with rebels despite the fact that the Maoists were responsible for terrorizing, kidnapping, dismembering, beheading, extra-judicial killings, and arson. Consequently, although Nepal is an electoral democracy, impunity and lack of accountability is rampant. There is no change of behavior on any side; this fact was apparent recently in the south and the west where security personnel were gruesomely killed in mob attacks, just as the state showed minimum restraint in handling demonstrations resulting in dozens of protesters being killed. Nepal is on its way to become a democracy without human rights.

Dr. Anil Sigdel is the Director of International Studies Program at the Advanced Research and Training Institute, Kathmandu, Nepal. He earned his PhD in Political Science from the University of Vienna, Austria. He is based in Washington DC and can be reached at sigdela@artist.edu.np.