"We Cannot Forget": Truth and Memory in Post-Conflict Nepal

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Executive Summary

In the context of an ongoing truth-seeking process in Nepal, the manner in which victims conceptualize truth and relate it to justice is instructive. This is particularly true as the country's two truth commissions, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP), advance in their efforts to provide victims with truth about past events. Victims'conceptualizations about the value and meaning of truth illustrate the importance of why "it is not enough to know what has been done, but also to know what it means to various actors in society. In trying to understand different perceptions of truth in various districts of Nepal, it is clear that previous and present historical and political contexts have informed the way in which the past is understood by various actors, at all levels.

Interviews of victims of human rights violations and other serious crimes committed during the armed conflict conducted from 2014-2015 for this study have revealed important information about the views of this fundamental constituency regarding truth-seeking efforts in Nepal. Victims clearly value the identification of perpetrators and explanations for the causes that led to violations, the circumstances and facts of violations, and the fate and whereabouts of the forcibly disappeared. For some, especially victims of sexual violence, truth is more complicated, and effort will be needed to help victims to overcome societal stigma and use existing opportunities to break down harmful misconceptions about their experiences.

Image removed. Martyr's Gate in Rukumkhot, Rukum (Chiran Manandhar)

Historically and politically situated truth-seeking practices reveal the importance that victims place on not only situating their individual experiences within the broader context of conflict, but also the significance of acknowledgement of the harms they and their loved ones endured. Making public the individual and collective stories of sacrifice and contribution means victims' gaining respect, a sense of dignity, and self-worth. Further, there are clear demands for prosecution and reparative measures to hold perpetrators to account and get to the root of victims' current suffering.

Obstacles to the full realization of meaningful truth-seeking efforts remain. On the national level, policy makers and other government officials seem to have limited understanding of victims' needs and experiences, and in many cases they are willing to forego further search for the truth in deals to resolve other political disputes. At more regional and local levels, while government actors are much better informed about victims' experiences and expectations, they also tend to rely on patronage networks. This has led to the perception among victims that many of those receiving benefits are not "real" victims but simply have close connections to local elites. Lack of outreach and poor decentralization efforts may also impede inclusive truth seeking if concerted efforts are not made to include those in even the most far-reaching districts.

For those affected by the conflict who were historically marginalized, memorialization as a form of reparation and truth telling is an important option that respondents tend to believe would help garner respect and legitimacy for victims, their relatives, and communities, locally and nationally. While the effects on social reconciliation and healing are yet to be fully explored, there are indications that the creation of meaningful, victim-centered memorials designed in consultation with victims and communities could be an important way to both acknowledge victims' diverse experiences and supplement the truth-seeking, criminal justice, and reparative measures victims seek.

It must be noted that because a limited number of districts formed the core of this research, there are limitations to the extent to which these findings may apply to the larger population. Further, while some perpetrators were interviewed, the perspectives of perpetrators still need be explored in more depth by future research. Despite these limitations, these findings represent a valuable starting point for engaging in reflections about Nepal's long transition to sustainable peace. More thinking can be done about how to evaluate truth seeking and memorialization in Nepal at both the local and national levels.

Based on the findings in this report, we make the following recommendations in support of victims' right to truth in Nepal:

To the TRC and the CIEDP

  • Fully and effectively implement their mandates and ensure the vindication of victims' rights.
  • Educate the public about the context and causes of violations, so as to encourage prevention and non-repetition.
  • Disseminate information about the circumstances, motivations, methodologies, and consequences of violations in locally relevant languages.
  • Implement effective channels to ensure that civil society organizations, victims' groups, and other key stakeholders can contribute to the work of the TRC and the CIEDP; include and encourage their active engagement, involvement, and participation throughout the process.
  • Hold sessions and hearings in all parts of Nepal, including remote and rural locations, so as to engage all Nepalis in truth seeking. Make efforts to reach victims residing in remote areas, those who may not know about the commissions' mandate, and those that may be more vulnerable to undue pressure from perpetrators or their associates not to participate, in order to provide them with a safe opportunity to file a claim if they so wish.
  • Encourage memorials and commemorative events that incorporate victims' names. Recommend memorialization processes that both assist victims in articulating their experiences of human rights violations and abuses and create space to promote learning from the past and non-repetition in the future.

To Nepali Policy Makers

  • Provide strong political support and adequate state resources to facilitate the realization of the right to truth for victims of serious human rights violations and other crimes under international law during the 1996-- 2006 armed conflict in Nepal.
  • Establish opportunities for meaningful participation of victims and civil society in crafting and implementing credible truth-seeking measures, including the TRC and CIEDP. Ensure transparency in the process in order to build society's trust in the TRC and the CIEDP.
  • Conduct public awareness campaigns on both the legal remedies available to those who wish to pursue criminal cases and how to access legal assistance.
  • Publicly recognize victims as citizens harmed as a result of human rights violations.
  • Issue an official apology to victims for human rights violations experienced at the hands of state actors as well as for the state's failure to protect victims of violations committed by non-state armed groups. Thee specifics of the apology should be decided on in consultation with victims' groups, and it should be issued as part of a prominent public event, preferably attended by representatives of these groups.

To Civil Society

  • Promote public awareness and shape opinions in Nepal towards promoting the right to truth and accountability for serious international human rights and humanitarian law violations through the judiciary, the TRC, and the CIEDP.
  • Pressure government to ensure it complies with the Supreme Court ruling not to allow amnesty for serious human rights violations.
  • Promote community-based memory work; victims and local communities should have ownership of the memorialization process and, therefore, be involved in deciding on the location, form, and construction of memorials. Working together on memorials can encourage collaboration among opposing parties in the con#ict and assist in developing debate around what really happened during the conflict. Memorials could include museums or documentation centers at the local and regional levels and at sites of violence.
  • Support the prosecution of emblematic cases involving those responsible for the worst offences.
  • Engage critically and constructively in the work of the TRC and the CIEDP by contributing insights and information, facilitating access to victims, and monitoring and observing.