Assistance Overdue: Ongoing Needs of Civilian Victims of Nepal’s Armed Conflict
Seven years after the end of Nepal's armed conflict, civilian victims are still struggling in the absence of effective help from the government, according to a report by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), in partnership with Center for Civilians in Conflict. According to the report a government relief program, set to end in 2014, has failed to deliver sufficient services and support.
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While engaged in a prolonged armed conflict from February 1996 to August 2006, the warring Nepali government and Maoist forces committed widespread atrocities against the civilians of Nepal. Together, the parties killed more than 17,000 people and disappeared at least 1,300. They also perpetrated torture and sexual violence. The harm the warring parties inflicted has had a lasting impact, leaving victims with material needs, such as financial and in-kind assistance and services, and non-material needs, such as justice and truth.
In 2008, the post-conflict government of Nepal established the Interim Relief Program (IRP) to provide immediate financial and in-kind assistance to those harmed by the conflict. The government has also been debating the creation of a truth, reconciliation, and disappearances commission that would deal with non-material issues. The combination of these programs has the potential to help many victims on numerous fronts. The IRP, scheduled to end in 2014, however, has not fully met victims’ needs and expectations, and the commission as proposed would fall short as well.
This report assesses—based on victims’ needs and expectations—the government’s actions to date and its future plans for responding to civilian harm. It finds that Nepal’s response to the armed conflict and civilian harm has been inadequate. The Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) and the Center for Civilians in Conflict call on the Nepali government and international community to hold further, meaningful consultations with victims and civil society, and to be guided by their perspectives in developing a more comprehensive and enduring solution. In particular the organizations recommend the creation of a long-term program for material assistance that would ultimately replace the IRP and the creation of a more credible and effective commission that addresses non-material needs, such as justice and truth.
While other organizations have written compelling reports about the human rights abuses experienced by the Nepali people or the obstacles they have faced to relief and reparations, this report takes a somewhat different approach. Rather than analyzing the information primarily through a legal lens, the report assesses government programs and proposals according to the criteria of how well victims’ needs and wants have been or could be met. This approach derives from the goal of recognizing human dignity embodied in human rights and humanitarian law. The concept of making amends, transitional justice, and victim assistance all promote the principle of humanity, yet they seek to help victims harmed during armed conflict in different ways. Instead of relying on just one of these doctrinal frameworks, this report focuses on the cross-cutting aim of recognizing and assisting victims post harm. It therefore highlights victims’ experiences and concerns through substantial use of testimony. It also centers its analysis on victims rather than, for example, society at large, the state, or specific institutions. The report defines the term “victim” broadly to encompass all individuals and family members who experienced physical, psychological, or socioeconomic harm.
The Civilian Impact of Nepal’s Armed Conflict and Victims’ Resulting Needs
Nepal’s ten-year armed conflict had a dramatic effect on civilians and left victims with a host of needs and expectations. In September 1995, Nepal’s recently created parliament dissolved the country’s communist government, which had been in power for nine months. In response, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) campaigned for the establishment of a people’s republic and the total abolition of the monarchy. On February 13, 1996, claiming that their demands had been ignored, the Maoists declared a “people’s war,” which they framed as a battle between the lower classes of society and high-caste elites. The declaration sparked an armed conflict that would last for a decade.
During the conflict, forces from the government of Nepal and the Maoists targeted civilians with impunity, frequently accusing individuals of politically supporting their enemy. The Maoists often executed civilians publicly to create fear, while the government routinely eliminated its perceived enemies through enforced disappearances. Both sides committed torture and severe beatings as well as rape and other forms of sexual violence. The perpetrators carried out these crimes in particularly violent ways, and families often experienced multiple incidents of abuse.
The harm inflicted during the conflict has had lasting impacts on the physical, psychological, and socioeconomic well-being of civilians. Summary executions have traumatized many of those left behind. The death of a breadwinner has usually also placed a heavy burden on families and especially on widows, who are culturally discouraged from working outside of the home and who may not be supported by in-laws. Enforced disappearances have generally left relatives with not only comparable financial burdens but also the pain of not knowing whether their loved ones were alive or dead. Survivors of torture and severe beatings have often continued to struggle with permanent physical disabilities and psychological trauma that have made it difficult for them to support their families and move on with their lives. Victims of sexual violence have endured social stigma; their communities have sometimes blamed them for their situation and made it difficult for them to remarry.
Victims told IHRC they have required different types of support to deal with these effects of the armed conflict. Victims asked for financial aid to meet their basic needs. Looking to the future, they also spoke of the importance of job training and employment opportunities, educational support for their children, and assistance with medical expenses for both physical and psychological harm. In addition, victims repeatedly identified non-material as well as material needs and expectations. Many saw justice as a way both to punish perpetrators and to prevent similar harm from being perpetrated in the future. Others prioritized a desire for truth, even though it can be in tension with justice in the form of prosecutions. For example, families of the disappeared often wanted to learn the truth about the fates of their loved ones, and other individuals wanted to know why they were targeted.
Drawing from a US$50 million World Bank grant for post-conflict recovery, the government of Nepal created the IRP in 2008. As its name indicates, the program aims to provide interim humanitarian assistance. The IRP was designed to help some, but not all, categories of victims of the armed conflict. The IRP has given cash grants to families of the deceased or disappeared and to some of those disabled during the conflict. It has also offered scholarship money for up to three children of the deceased, disappeared, or disabled and vocational training for a limited number of victims. People with the most serious physical disabilities have received certain health care benefits. The government originally promised assistance to internally displaced persons and to those who lost property during the conflict as well; however, these groups have received minimal aid.
The IRP has helped thousands of victims and can be commended to a degree, but it has proved inadequate as a comprehensive tool for meeting victims’ needs in both its design and implementation. The amount of financial aid provided and the process for distributing it have fallen short of expectations. For example, the program has allocated no assistance at all to certain groups, notably victims of torture and sexual violence, and it has staggered the dispersal of aid to other categories of victims, creating confusion. The IRP has failed to provide widespread vocational training and employment opportunities, its scholarships have been limited in size and number of recipients, and it has offered medical care only for those with the most serious physical disabilities, ignoring those who suffer psychological effects. In operationalizing the IRP, the government has also created obstacles to access through limited reach, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and politicization and corruption that have given some individuals, especially those with political party connections, preferential treatment.
In addition to being too narrow in the scope and nature of its interim assistance, the IRP has not accounted for persistent future needs. For example, the program’s one-time cash grants have not provided sustained assistance. The IRP has also not guaranteed extended medical care. If care is not available locally, it entitles victims to only a single trip to a government hospital with no follow-up visits. Furthermore, the limitations of its scholarships and vocational training mean that the program has not provided enough help for victims to rebuild their lives for the future. As a result of the IRP’s flaws in design and implementation, the program has failed to meet victims’ needs and expectations fully—and in some cases, it has not addressed their needs at all.
Because the IRP was never meant to be the ultimate response to the needs and expectations of conflict victims, an evaluation of Nepal’s response to civilian harm from the armed conflict must also assess the government’s long-term plan, which would deal with non-material as well as material needs. The 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the 2007 Interim Constitution obligate the government of Nepal to create a truth and reconciliation commission and a disappearances commission. In March 2013, through Ordinance 2069, the government adopted a combined institution—the Commission of Inquiry on Disappeared Persons, Truth, and Reconciliation (the Commission). The Supreme Court suspended it in response to a civil society petition so it remains a proposed body. If established, a commission could provide material reparations to different categories of victims, including those not covered by the IRP. It could also deal with the non-material desires of victims that the IRP was not designed to address. A commission thus has the potential to benefit many victims.
Seen through a victim-centered lens, however, the body proposed in Ordinance 2069 has substantive and procedural shortcomings that could prevent it from fulfilling the needs expressed by victims. Substantively, the Ordinance does not give the Commission power to require the government to distribute reparations or prosecute perpetrators. It is also not adequately responsive to victims’ perspectives on justice and truth. For example, it does not require that victims’ wishes be meaningfully considered by the Commission and in the process could perpetuate impunity: the body could impose a form of reconciliation over the objections of victims and grant amnesty to repenting perpetrators who reveal the truth about their abuses, even if they committed serious international crimes. Procedurally, the Ordinance gives the Commission only two years to complete its work and does not ensure victims in remote parts of the country have access to the Commission. In addition, the minimal involvement of victims and civil society in the appointments process makes the Commission vulnerable to politicization at the expense of victims. A lack of transparency, including no obligation to make a final report public, could undermine justice and truth. While a commission could be an important response to the unmet, non-material needs and expectations of victims, Nepal should address these and other concerns, in consultation with victims and civil society, before moving forward with its creation.
Calls for Change
This report aims to infuse a more comprehensive victim-centered approach into government policy considerations. To do so, the report highlights the harm suffered by the victims of the Nepal’s armed conflict, the needs and wants expressed by those victims, and the government’s attempts to deal with the situation.
Based on the needs and expectations victims specified, the report recommends that the government of Nepal continue and broaden its material assistance. The existing IRP should distribute its promised assistance and carry on in a modified form until it can be replaced by a new, long-term and more complete program that provides enduring financial and in-kind assistance. Going forward, the government should ensure its assistance explicitly covers not only the deceased, disappeared, and disabled, but also victims of torture and sexual violence. It should provide greater support for physical and psychological medical care, education, and employment. In addition, it should increase efforts to overcome obstacles to access and to distribute assistance in a fair, non-discriminatory way.
The report also recommends the government create a commission (or commissions) on truth, reconciliation, and disappearances, but certain criteria must be met to ensure a victim-centered approach is central to the body’s mandate. In particular, the government should grant the commission enough power to address victims’ needs effectively, prohibit forced reconciliation as well as amnesties that promote impunity for serious human rights violations, and develop a process that is accessible and transparent and mitigates politicization. The government should coordinate the commission’s reparations mechanism with any program that replaces the IRP in order to make sure that victims’ material needs are met more completely.
Finally, the report calls on the international community to help fund these recommendations while using its leverage and creating incentives to ensure the country implements them properly.
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