At the eighth annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions concluded in Kathmandu on 18 February 2004, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Nepal stood tall amongst many of its peers from the region because of its interventions for promotion and protection of human rights in the ongoing-armed conflicts between the Maoists and the government of Nepal. Over 8,000 people have been killed, about a thousand have disappeared, thousands have been orphaned and widowed, and hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced since the Maoists began their ‘people’s war’ in 1996.
As the conflict continues to intensify by the day since the collapse of the peace talks between the Maoists and the government on 27 August 2003, human rights institutional mechanisms notably the Supreme Court of Nepal (SC) and the NHRC have been facing contempt from the government and its security forces. The workload in 19 hilly district courts dropped drastically with less than 50 cases recorded in a year according to a recent report of the government’s Judicial Council. Maoists have their own form of crude justice and threaten government judges.The Supreme Court has also failed to inspect the Appellate and District Courts in the country during 2002 and 2003 “owing to bad law and order situation” though it is required to inspect the subordinate courts every year as per the Judicial Administration Act of 1991 and SC regulations. The police and army often refuse to accept court orders to produce detainees, and re-arrest detainees immediately after the courts order their release.There would seem to be little difference between the security forces and the Maoists when it comes to observance of the law.
The NHRC, established by the government and with the mandate to promote and protect human rights, has faced a similar fate. The government of Nepal even refuses to acknowledge the reports of the NHRC or take appropriate action against those who are found guilty after proper investigation by the NHRC. Further, even as the NHRCcalled for investigations of abuse by the United Nations human rights institutional mechanisms in late 2003, the government responded by establishing the National Centre for the Promotion of Human Rights under the prime minister’s office to the detriment of a body already crippled by the lack of adequate financial resources.
All of this comes despite the fact that the NHRC has consistently maintained impartiality while dealing with abuses by the security forces and the Maoists. At the height of the conflict prior to the ceasefire, in January 2003 the NHRC investigated human rights violations in 35 districts of Nepal. On 22 October 2002 it apprised then Prime Minister Lokendra Bahadur Chand of human rights violations in the country including illegal detention, extrajudicial killings and use of excessive force in arrest and search operations. On 23 October 2002, the NHRC condemned the Maoists for attacking unarmed citizens, development infrastructure, cultural heritages, health posts, recruitment of child soldiers and indulging in extortion, appropriation of people´s houses and looting foodstuff and medicines. The Maoists were also found to be indulging in extortion and murder of teachers in order to disrupt education.
However, the troubles for the NHRC started when the government apparently took offence to its investigation into the massacre of 17 Maoist cadres and two civilians in cold blood in the district of Ramechap on 17 August 2003 while the third rounds of talks between the Maoists and the government was underway. An investigation committee of the NHRC, consisting of credible Nepali citizens included exhumation of the bodies, leading to the conclusion that the unarmed victims had been killed at close range, with hands tied behind the back. The investigating committee termed the killings as a violation of international humanitarian law, in particular Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal, the Army Act, the Police Act and the Armed Police Act.
The NHRC’s subsequent investigation into the killing of students at Sarada Higher Secondary School at Mudbhara Village under Doti District on 13 October 2003 found that students and teachers who were forced to take part in a cultural programme by Maoists were indiscriminately shot at by the security forces. Altogether, the NHRC has written to the government about 20 cases when there has been evidence of excessive and unlawful use of force by the security forces, which under the concept of ‘unified command’ function under the direction of the Royal Nepal Army.
With only the Supreme Court (in Kathmandu) willing to accept habeas corpus petitions against disappearances, and filing a case before the courts being beyond the ability and logistical capability of most Nepalis outside of Kathmandu, the NHRC remains the only other hope in terms of the institution capable of at least receiving complaints of human rights violations. Since 2000, the NHRC has received a total of 808 complaints of disappearances involving 739 males and 69 females. An estimated 662 persons have disappeared at the hands of the security forces while 114 cases of disappearances have been attributed to the Maoists. The army claims that they “cannot divulge the details of some of the abducted persons for security reasons”.
Amidst the ruin of all institutions associated with a modern state, the NHRC of Nepal is one that has to be kept strong for the sake of the people’s protection. In order to ensure that this institution is not reduced to another government mouth-piece, any National Human Rights Action Plan for Nepal, which is in the final stage of preparation, must include strengthening of the NHRC with human and financial resources. That’s the least that a government could do to preserve some semblance of seriousness in addressing human rights violations.