Nepal Army Colonel Kumar Lama’s arrest in the UK on torture charges has united the entire political class against this ‘blatant attempt to undermine the country’s sovereignty’. Apparently, this is one more example of international actors fishing in the muddy waters of transitional Nepal.
But at their heart, these statements are no more than knee-jerk reactions of those who are afraid their own necks might be on the line if there is thorough investigation of conflict-era rights violation cases. The most spooked is the Army top brass, alongside the top leaderships of UCPN (Maoist) and the breakaway CPN-Maoist. If an NA colonel can be arrested on rights violation charges under a little heard of international justice mechanism, halfway across the world, they fear it might only be a matter of time before they too are hauled in during one of their beloved junkets abroad.
They should be fearful. During the decade-long war, over 13,000 people were killed, many under dubious circumstances; and around 1,300 are still ‘missing.’ But more than six years after the war’s end, not a single high-ranking government official or former rebel leader has been brought to book. Instead, formation of transitional justice mechanisms to unearth the truth behind suspected rights violations is being pushed farther and farther down the road. No wonder conflict victims are getting restless. Since they see no immediate prospect of justice being delivered at home, they are starting to knock on the doors of the international community.
Those who claim ‘arbitrary’ arrests like Col Lama’s could unravel the whole peace process, are ignoring the obvious: sitting on serious rights violation cases for years on end represents an even bigger threat to the successful completion of the peace process, and delays the beginning of the much-needed process of reconciliation.
For obvious reasons, the knee-jerk reactions of the two Maoist parties to Col Lama’s arrest is understandable, and one does not have to dig too deep behind why other major parties have spoken with one voice against the arrest either. The cozy relationship that Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and CoAS Gaurab SJB Rana share has put Nepali Congress and CPN-UML, who, since the start of the peace process, have looked to play up the divisions between the once arch-enemies at various times, on the defensive. In Col Lama’s case, they have calculated that they cannot push the Army even closer to the Maoists by speaking out against a high-ranking Army officer.
Nepali Congress, in particular, is worried some of its top leaders, most notably Sher Bahadur Deuba, who was the prime minister at the start of the Maoist insurgency in 1996 and tried (unsuccessfully) to crush the nascent rebel movement with brute force, might be in the dock if conflict cases are resurrected. This is the reason Nepali Congress and UCPN (Maoist) agreed on blanket amnesty for rights violators in the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Disappearance Commission bills at the end of 2011.
The same fear was behind the Bhattarai government’s relentless pressure on OHCHR last year not to unveil its Nepal Conflict Report, with its 9,000 documented cases of “serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law” from the civil war. There were many conspiracy theories about why the report was eventually made public last October. But as clearly articulated in Nepal Conflict Report, OHCHR believed that any more delay would have posed great risk: “At the time of writing this report, the legislation to enact the transitional justice mechanisms had been significantly delayed and remained in draft format. In addition, the Government has moved to empower the TRC to grant amnesties for international crimes and gross violations of international law committed during the conflict.”
The recent controversy over the arrests of journalist Dekendra Thapa’s killers also points to grave consequences of delaying transitional justice mechanisms. But instead of admitting the political parties’ collective failure on this crucial matter, the prime minster has turned the tables by blaming rights activists for the arrests of Thapa’s murderers, one of whom has even confessed to burying the Dailekh-based journalist alive! PM Bhattarai has also made the inexplicable claim that the arrest of Thapa’s murderers has hindered the passage of ordinance on TRC (the same one with the provision of blanket amnesty) and Disappearance Commission.
The latest turn of events indicate the paucity of political will to provide justice to conflict victims. Instead, to cover up their mistakes, our politicians have resorted an ill-defined (and irrelevant in Col Lama’s case) concept of ‘national sovereignty.’ “In the absence of justice, what is sovereignty but organized robbery?” Roman philosopher and theologian Saint Augustine, one of the first proponents of just war theory, was questioning as far back as the fifth century BC.
What really compromises Nepal’s standing as a sovereign country is its repeated failure to uphold universal human rights principles. And our political class should be ashamed not because someone accused of torture has been apprehended, but because a Nepali national was forced to seek the international community’s help after giving up any hope of justice in his native country.
Since the concept of universal jurisdiction is invoked only in the case of the perceived incapacity or unwillingness of a state actor to take action against those deemed to have committed international crimes (genocide, torture, war crimes, crime against humanity and disappearances), Col Lama’s arrest hints that the international community has serious doubts on Nepal’s commitment to credible transitional justice mechanisms. Let us not forget, it is not just the UK which adheres to the principle of universal jurisdiction; 145 countries around the world do. If credible steps are not taken to remove these doubts, Col Lama’s arrest could come to represent the kind of welcome many of our top politicians and security officials could expect during their foreign trips.
The conflict victims (and the international community) want to see sincere effort to right the past wrongs. For this, it is important that transitional justice mechanisms along internationally acceptable standards be set up without any further ado. The mandate of the TRC can be made broad enough, along the lines of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in South Africa at the end of apartheid in 1990, which included the provision of selective (but not blanket) amnesty. It would be wrong to see TRC or Disappearance Commission as mechanisms to extract revenge on any individual, organization or political party. They rather comprise the mandatory first step to reconciliation and establishment of lasting peace.
The author is op-ed editor at Republica