The Need For Justice

By:  Senator Patrick Leahy
Kathmandu Post

(as submitted to the Kathmandu Post)

Three years ago, thousands of brave Nepalis took to the streets to protest the abuses of a corrupt monarch and the security forces under his control.  Since then there have been some remarkable, positive changes in Nepal, and yet its future as a peaceful, democratic republic is far from secure.

The Nepali people who risked their lives -- and some gave their lives -- did so, like the founding patriots of my country, with the conviction that they deserved a government of elected representatives, accountable to the people, which respects human rights and the rule of law.

The election of an inclusive Constituent Assembly, the process of drafting a new Constitution, and the sharp decline in human rights violations are impressive steps.  What has yet to be seen, however, is any effort to end the impunity that has shielded those responsible for the murder, disappearance, torture, and arbitrary imprisonment of thousands of civilians during the ten year conflict.

As a former prosecutor and now chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee -- as one who has observed the struggles of many countries to build effective justice systems and reconcile divided societies after years of authoritarianism and conflict -- I recognize the difficulties.  Powerful forces can become accustomed to acting above the law to protect their interests.

But any student of history knows that governments ignore impunity at their peril.  Without justice, democracy cannot develop.  As others have pointed out, not a single person has been prosecuted for a major human rights crime -- before, during or since the end of the conflict.  More often, the political parties demand the release of their supporters instead of supporting the machinery of justice.  The army and the Maoists have acted to perpetuate impunity.  The lack of accountability impedes reconciliation and contributes to the continuing use of violence, undermining the rule of law and the peace process.

Nepal's leaders face immense challenges:  improving the standard of living of Nepal's impoverished citizens; ensuring political representation and economic opportunities for minorities and castes who been victims of discrimination; integrating and rehabilitating former Maoist combatants; democratizing and professionalizing the army; protecting the role of civil society and a free press; improving transparency and strengthening the institutions of government so they are less vulnerable to corruption and manipulation.  The UN, the United States and other countries are helping Nepal tackle these problems, and I have supported increases in U.S. aid for these purposes.  But today, millions of Americans and people around the world are losing their jobs, and our attention is increasingly focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Middle East and Iran.  Nepal's leaders should recognize that protracted political polarization and failing to enforce the rule of law jeopardize the support of the Nepali people and the international community.

One tragic example that has received attention recently may help illustrate the point.  Five years ago a 15-year-old girl named Maina Sunuwar was tortured to death at an army barracks by soldiers who were training for a UN peacekeeping mission.  After denying any role in the crime, the army was pressured to conduct an internal inquiry which led to a court martial.  But those involved were charged with minor offences and never served any time in jail.  The girl's body was exhumed at the barracks two years ago, but no one has been brought to justice.  Some of the accused continue to serve at army headquarters, and the army has refused to cooperate with the police investigation.

In 2004, when the then Royal Nepal Army was implicated in widespread atrocities, I wrote a law that blocked U.S. military aid for Nepal.  I did not renew the law after the peace agreement was signed, and today the army is again requesting aid from the U.S. to participate in UN peacekeeping -- which we, in principle, support.  How the army cooperates with civilian prosecutors in Maina Sunuwar's case and the many others like hers will weigh heavily in our decision.

No one expects Nepal to reverse overnight the injustices and inequities rooted in 300 years of feudal autocracy.  But neither is there time to waste.  If Nepal's political parties, including the Maoists, actively support efforts to end impunity and work together for the benefit of all Nepal's people, our interest in investing in Nepal's future will remain strong.

(Patrick Leahy is the senior United States Senator from Vermont. He chairs the Judiciary Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee that funds U.S. foreign aid programs.)