Peter Bouckaert (below, right) has worked as Senior Emergencies Researcher at Human Rights Watch in Chechnya, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Indonesia, Rwanda and Burundi. He has been in Nepal for the past month to help prepare HRW's report, Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Civilians Struggle to Survive in Nepal's Civil War , which was launched on Thursday. He spoke to Nepali Times about the seriousness of the crisis.
How does Nepal compare with other human rights hot spots where you have worked?
What is disturbing about Nepal is that although it is a relatively low-intensity conflict in terms of the daily fighting that goes on, it is extremely deadly. A lot of civilians are caught up and are casualties, or are being disappeared. This is a conflict that has a very high impact on the civilian population. It is a difficult guerrilla war where it is hard to find the Maoist rebels, so a lot of times civilians get caught in the middle.
How different are the abuses committed by the two sides?
The kind of abuses committed by the Maoists and the government are very different in nature. What we find on the Maoist side is a very targeted campaign against certain categories of people like landowners, people who refuse to pay extortion demands people they perceive as spies and then there are peaceful political opponents from the RPP to the Congress and other political parties. They are extremely brutal in their methods that they use to control their areas. We have documented many killings by the Maoists which are basically demonstration killings: they are used to demonstrate to the population what happens when you oppose them. Particularly when the Maoists start targeting teachers and peaceful political opponents in the areas under their control, we get very concerned about their commitment to very basic issues of democracy and human rights.
And the security forces?
On the military side we find an army relatively unprepared and untrained to deal with the kind of military challenges they face. Travelling through Nepal from the east to the west, it becomes obvious how difficult it is to deal with an insurgency movement like the Maoists. We found that the army and the unified command troops keep going into villages and the next day you read that a group of Maoists were killed in an encounter but when you go and investigate, those people were actually captured, they were under full control of the army and were later executed. And this is not Maoist propaganda that we are passing on, we actually went out and researched many of these cases, talked to many civilians and we found many cases in which Maoists were executed after they were captured. And that's a war crime, it is a very clear violation of the Geneva Convention and it is going on all over Nepal. I was just in Banke where there was an encounter last week in which two civilians were killed. They were part of a larger group which also included some suspected Maoists that were detained by the army.
Is the situation getting better or worse in your assessment?
Clearly there was a tremendous amount of human rights violations when the army was first deployed and the state of emergency was declared. Hundreds of people are still missing from that period and there are strong indications that many of those people were killed in army custody at places like the Chisapani barracks. The government has completely failed to investigate abuses by the army from that period and many of the commanding officers from those barracks continue to serve in relatively high positions in the army, which I think sends a message of impunity both to the army and to the population, which is fully aware of those who were involved. The situation has changed since that early deployment of the army, but there is still a high level of very serious abuses. Especially the number of summary executions being carried out by the army are just absolutely unacceptable.
Do you think Nepal is capable of resolving the crisis by itself?
Nepal can't resolve this crisis by itself and it desperately needs the help of the international community. Nepali politicians have failed the people, the palace has failed in its duty, the security forces have failed and for sure the Maoists do not provide an attractive alternative if we judge them by their actions. It is important that the international community is unified in pressuring all sides in this conflict and bringing an end to the abuses, which are very much at the base of the conflict. Both the Maoists and the security forces are targeting and using civilians in their war effort. But what we see is a deep split within the international community. There are some like the European community which have taken a strong stance against the abuses by the government but they have been hampered to some extent by the much greater silence on the part of the US and, to a lesser extent, the Indian Embassy, which are major players in the country. States providing weapons must pressurise the Nepali government to abide by its commitments under international human rights and humanitarian laws, the Geneva Conventions.
Has international spotlighting helped reduce abuse?
The Nepal government is concerned and it tried hard last year at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to defend its actions. Appropriations from the US earmarked for the Royal Nepali Army will now only be released if the Secretary of State certifies that it is complying promptly with habeas corpus orders and cooperating with the National Human Rights Commission in giving unimpeded access to places of detention. Although, the Secretary of State may waive these requirements if he determines that to do so is in US interests.
The international community must continue to be more involved and press the government to abide by its stated commitments. But it is also important for it to be united and have a strong stance on the abuses of human rights by both the Maoists and the government: not just broad statements but reacting to specific incidents, such as the recent call by the Maoists to close private schools which is having a tremendous impact on education all through the country as well as specific incidents of killing by the security forces. Help must be given to the National Human Rights Commission to monitor the conflict. Human rights abuses are no longer a side part of the conflict, but is integral to it and helps perpetuate it.
And what is your recommendation to the Maoists?
They should immediately stop abductions, torture and killing of civilians and comply with international humanitarian law. They must ensure that the rights to freedom of opinion, expression and association are safeguarded in areas under their effective control and stop punishing people for exercising these rights. They must also stop forcing entire communities to attend political indoctrination programs.