Nepali Times
"We will address impunity..."

Ian Martin is the head of the High Commissioner for Human Rights' (OHCHR) new monitoring mission in Nepal. He has 30 years of experience leading missions in Rwanda, Bosnia Herzegovina, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Darfur. In an exclusive interview with Nepali Times, Martin talked about the mandates and challenges of the monitoring mission.

Nepali Times: Are we expecting too much from your mission?
Ian Martin:
I hope we can fulfil expectations although one must be realistic about what a limited number of people can do. Monitoring human rights and humanitarian law in a conflict situation is inherently very difficult. But so far I'm getting assurances of cooperation that suggest that our work should be able to make a real impact.

What exactly is your mandate?
We will be assisting the National Human Rights Commission and of course, civil society organisations. Ultimately, that is where the protection of human rights depends. But in the meantime, we also have a mandate to do independent monitoring of the human rights situation and have very strong commitments in the agreement to having complete freedom of movement and access to places of detention, high-level channels of communication with the authorities including the army. That puts us in a position where we ought to be able to be effective.

What challenges do you foresee?
One of the challenges is going to be carrying out independent objective investigations because of many reports of violations of human rights and humanitarian law. But our responsibility is not just to depend upon reports from others but to assess those ourselves. Access is difficult in these terrains to get promptly to places where incidents have occurred. So it's not going to be easy to carry out the investigations first hand always. I certainly see that as a challenge. In an armed conflict and highly politicised environment, it is not easy to ensure that we approach things with the standards of testing the credibility of information that the UN must apply.

What will be your first order of business?
Our immediate priority is to open the channels of communication which I have already begun doing in discussion with the government and to begin assembling the team that we need, orient and train the first of the human rights officers to join this operation. People have to understand that it takes time. We are a functioning team. Once we can open offices in other parts of the country we will start to function from there. How soon we can do that also depends on how quickly the donors are willing to give resources that are necessary for this operation because it is dependent on voluntary funding.

What would be the profile of independent monitors?
We won't be able to find people who have both previous experiences in human rights investigation/monitoring and fluency in Nepali language. We would like to recruit some Nepali speakers as human rights officers and are also giving some basic training in Nepali to those who have arrived. But we need the assistance of interpreters.

So when will the deployment start?
Our initial team of about 12 monitors is already here and as soon as they complete their training, we will begin to operate. The UN has already begun to operate and has a human rights presence through the human rights adviser and the human rights information unit that is being established. We will be operating at the initial level from next week.

How will the monitors operate in Maoist controlled areas?
We clearly need to get some guarantees that there won't be any threat to our personnel moving around the country and there have been public statements that indicate support for the operation. So we'll have to test that out. My expectation is that all parties will cooperate with this operation and guarantee the security of our personnel. Certainly, the international community would be very concerned if that was not going to be the case.

Do you think the operation will help future negotiations?
I have been making it very clear that my mandate is confined to that one of human rights monitoring and assistance but I certainly believe that if we can contribute to improvement in the human rights situation, it can be a positive factor in the overall path to peace. That's been the experience in other countries. So it's not my mandate to explore possibilities of negotiations. However, the secretary general has made it clear at a number of occasions that the United Nations is willing to offer its services to assist towards peace. But that is not my mandate. My mandate is to contribute to an improvement in the human rights situation.

Where will the monitors be reporting?
Our report will go to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour and she has asked in the agreement to report to the general assembly and of course the secretary general.

Will you be opening up previous investigations?
I wouldn't separate monitoring from investigation. I think we have quite enough to do addressing the current situation and fresh reports of incidents rather than open up retrospective investigations. But of course, one of the objectives is to address impunity and therefore, the extent to which there is proper follow through on investigations into past incidents is very important.

How long do you expect the mission to remain in Nepal?
The agreement is initially for a period of two years but it is renewable, so it becomes a matter for discussion between the high commissioner and the government of Nepal. As we come towards the end of that two-year period, let's see what the situation is like then.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)