The Geneva-based World Organisation Against Torture, better known by its acronym OMCT, reported last week that two boys were arbitrarily arrested and tortured by police. Raju Lama, a 22-year-old garment labourer from Kathmandu and Manoj Rai, a 17-year-old student of the Nandi Night School at Naxal, were reportedly arrested and severely tortured at the Hanuman Dhoka district police office in Kathmandu.
Until two years ago, an allegation of this nature from an international organisation would have been a serious matter. It would have been raised on the floor of the house by raucous parliamentarians and street protests may have been triggered calling for the resignation of the home minister. There may have been outraged editorials and human rights groups would have taken up the cause with janjati activists perhaps launching a signature campaign.
None of this happened when the OMCT statement about Lama and Rai was released. The deafening silence is an indictment of our sagging morality, and a sad commentary as to how brutality has numbed us as a society about rights and wrongs. Nepalis have begun to accept that national institutions have very little respect for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the name of fighting the Maoist insurgency, the state has now become a law unto itself. It took the direct presence of three very conspicuous European diplomats in dark suits to deter soldiers outside Singha Darbar from re-arresting leftist poet Purnabiram last month. Many others haven't been as lucky, an unaccounted number of victims continue to be in illegal detention and several have died in captivity without even being acknowledged by the detaining authority.
These days, if a youth is not spotted in the countryside for five consecutive days, people automatically assume that he has been a) killed in a staged encounter, b) 'taken away' by the Unified Command, c) abducted by Maoists, d) is hiding from the fear of both forces or e) has fled down south. The erosion of the rule of law began when Sher Bahadur Deuba was prevailed upon by the army to declare a state of emergency. Even at that time, many legal experts pointed out that there were enough provisions in the law and there was no need to sacrifice fundamental rights to protect the people from insurrectionists.
Deuba was later persuaded that putting the constitution in virtual suspension (by declaring a mid-term election, which couldn't be held for the same reason that warranted the imposition and continuation of the state of emergency in the first place) was the easiest way to get out of the scrutiny of rights activists. The slide gained further momentum in the wake of the October Fourth royal takeover. One of Deuba's favourite quips used to be that activists never failed to condemn government excesses while much more outrageous violations of human rights by the insurgents went uncensored. There was more than a grain of truth in his allegations. In the initial stages of the insurgency, civil society not only failed to denounce Maoist killings and abductions, it went to the extent of condoning their tyranny by blaming the government for everything.
This is the reason civil society's voice of reason has very few takers even when violations these days are overwhelmingly by the forces of the state. Civil society leaders like Padma Ratna Tuladhar, Daman Nath Dhungana, Sindhu Nath Pyakurel and Birendra Keshari Pokharel failed then to recognise that a faulty democracy was a better guarantee of human rights than the most benevolent of dictatorships. After countless experiments with controlled regimes all over the world, it is clear that human rights and democracy are two sides of the same coin. One can't exist in the absence of the other. Democratic societies are less likely to violate human rights because abusive leaders can be removed by their own party, opposition parties can check, and even unseat, a ruling party that is reckless enough to permit violations. And civil liberties allow the media to be a tool in preventing and stopping repression. The challenge before international organisations in these times isn't limited to ensuring that the human rights situation in the country is better monitored.
Coercive forces must be made answerable to the people's representatives if they are to be made accountable for their excesses. As long as armed men remain under the control of a palace or a politburo, no amount of monitoring can make them exercise restraint. All universal values-gender equity, human rights, equalisation of opportunity, environmental concerns-spring from an abiding faith in the people. As long as the people remain marginalised, no other prescription is going to work.