Our meetings on a cold January day in Rolpa - a remote, mountainous district that was the birthplace and stronghold of Nepal’s Maoist movement - were challenging. Although it was freezing and our welcome had been less than warm, these discomforts were overshadowed by the disheartening statements I was hearing about my subject of research, justice. “People do not want justice, they would rather have peace,” I was told in response to queries about what was being done after the brutal ten-year war. “Peace is more important than justice.”This was not the first time I had heard this point of view during my research, and the majority of the organizations we met with that day reiterated this line. But at one meeting, we heard a story that revealed a different sentiment. The latest incident of violence in this district, we were told, had occurred when a man had tracked down the men responsible for his father’s death during the war and killed them. This did not sound like someone who was satisfied with peace and a lack of justice. In the end, I was left with more questions than answers. What is the true nature of the search for justice in Nepal?
The idea that justice is less important than peace is significantly different from what I had discovered in my research prior to travelling to Nepal. I had read articles affirming the necessity of undertaking prosecutions and of forming the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2006. Our group had spoken with a Nepalese human rights lawyer who was targeted by both conflict parties and forced to flee his country for speaking out on behalf of victims. Arriving in Nepal to hear that so many organizations, government officials, and other leaders were unconcerned with or even denying the importance of justice was disconcerting and difficult to comprehend.
Travelling around Nepal, I heard a range of proposals to address the issue of justice. While I tried to acknowledge the bias created by my own concept of justice, it still seemed that very few proposals were poised to deliver real justice to victims. For example, there was much talk of a blanket amnesty. Politically, it is easy to see how this would be attractive. Both the army and the Maoists have an interest in avoiding the justice process, as both would have to face up to a wide range of crimes. The Maoists, now in power, have a greater incentive to enjoy their ‘victor’s justice’ and not seek prosecutions against the army, which would necessitate uncovering some of their own wrongdoing. But what would a blanket amnesty give to the victims, to ordinary citizens who have suffered for years? Some organizations spoke out against an amnesty, asking such questions.
The Regional Human Rights Commission in Butwal suggested that a few symbolic prosecutions of key perpetrators might be a plausible option - the symbolism of someone being held accountable would hopefully assuage victims’ feelings of injustice. But tough questions still remain. Who would these ‘symbolic few’ be? Is it likely that those in power would admit guilt? Further, how much would it really mean to victims, when the majority of perpetrators would go free?
The Local Peace Commissions (LPCs), established in each district under the CPA, work to deliver compensation to victims’ families. This compensation is highly important to many families due to the incredible poverty in Nepal. However, most families have added that in terms of justice, compensation is largely useless unless backed up by prosecutions or a formal acknowledgement of the crimes. Besides, in many cases the reparation process has actually discouraged victims or their families from pursuing further justice, and many are reluctant to file investigations for fear that it will diminish their chances of receiving compensation. For these families, poverty is more pressing than justice. Both LPCs we spoke with delivered that same discouraging refrain that peace is more important than justice and that people were not seeking more.
In conflict studies, we believe justice is essential to healing and reconciliation. Without justice, the conflict will remain alive, under the surface at best, as victims are left with trauma and grudges. While there is a lack of overt violence, inequalities and injustices run rampant, raising questions of whether the peace can last. Most of what I heard in Nepal left me wondering whether justice would ever be achieved, and what its absence or its presence might mean for the country.
In spite of these doubts and questions, it is important to mention those inspiring organizations and individuals who are actively seeking justice in Nepal. One example is Advocacy Forum, which files criminal investigations on behalf of victims against perpetrators from both conflict parties. Unfortunately, most cases have not found much success, often due to corruption or lack of capacity in the police forces or judicial system. All the same, this type of work and determination is an important start. Some organizations expressed dismay at the lack of justice thus far. We heard many critiques of the blanket amnesty and expressions of disbelief at the idea that justice should be forgotten for the sake of peace.
But the most frustrating aspect of justice in Nepal is the lack of agency in its population. I had the sense that everyone was waiting for someone else to take action, “waiting for their Mandela”, as we heard some individuals put it. As it stands today, there is no effective channel to pursue any of the proposed paths to justice. Even if the chosen course of action is to forget the past and move on, there must be some movement to unite the country behind this and move forward into the future together. Instead, there is a prevailing sense of passivity. Who or what is Nepal waiting for, and how long can they afford to wait? The wounds from this war are deep and will take a long time to heal, but without justice, can the process even begin?
Kyrstie Lane was in Nepal for a two-week field course titled “Challenges to Peacebuilding in Nepal” led by Dr. Pushpa Iyer of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Kyrstie’s blog is part of a series of reflections by Dr. Iyer and her students on the challenges to building peace in this country after a decade long war. -Ed.
About the author: Kyrstie Lane received her BA in International Affairs and Foreign Language from the University of Puget Sound. In 2012 she graduated from the Monterey Institute of International Studies with an MA in International Policy, with a concentration in conflict resolution.