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Ganesh Datta Bhatta: Political leadership has been undermining transitional justice

Ganesh Datta Bhatta: Political leadership has been undermining transitional justice

Nepal formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a transitional justice body to investigate war-era crimes and human rights abuses, in 2014. But there has since been little progress in transitional justice. Political leaders’ lack of the willingness to investigate war-time cases is one reason the commission has failed to work properly. Kamal Dev Bhattarai speaks with Ganesh Datta Bhatta, the commission chairperson.

Can you update us on the commission’s progress thus far? 

There is a perception that the commission hasn’t been able to deal with war-time cases. This isn’t true. Despite legal hurdles and resource-crunch, we have made good progress in investigating cases. So far, we have gotten around 64,000 complaints from conflict victims, and we have completed preliminary investigations in around 4,000 cases. Similarly, we have kept 3,000 cases on hold for lack of evidence. Putting cases on hold is not our priority, but our laws don’t permit us to go ahead without solid evidence to establish crime. Doing so is not easy. For that, there should be consensus among five commission members, and the complainants must be informed as well. If needed, we also have to listen to their views on our decision. We have also started detailed investigation of individual cases.  In total, we have to probe nine types of cases. Likewise, we have provided identity cards to 600 war victims; a court order has since halted the process. We have also recommended compensation for them.  

What hurdles are keeping the commission from working effectively? 

The first is lack of human resources to investigate cases. We have received 64,000 complaints and investigating each case is a long and time-consuming process that calls for skilled human resources as well as robust infrastructure. But we have hardly a dozen staff. Frequent transfer of commission employees is another problem. I am sorry to say there is no government support for us. The Covid-19 pandemic also affected our works for nearly two years. To expedite things, we have to set up offices in all seven provinces, and their numbers have to be increased in line with the volume of complaints. But the government and political parties are not being accountable to conflict victims. They fear if the commission is empowered, they could be summoned on war-era crimes and rights violations. 

Are there other issues hampering progress as well? 

Initially, we formulated ambitious laws and regulations, and took a process-loaded approach. It takes a long time to conclude a single case so we cannot produce an instant result. Similarly, successive governments failed to exercise the desired sensitivity while making appointments to the commission. People who have sound knowledge of laws and Nepal’s peace process should have been appointed, which didn’t happen. The misguided appointment process seriously hampered the commission’s work. Only capable people should be appointed in the commission. 

What about the Supreme Court’s order to amend the transitional justice act? 

The Supreme Court, international community and conflict victims are all demanding that the Enforced Disappearances Inquiry, Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act 2014 be amended at the earliest. But the political leadership has shown no interest in this. Without amending the laws, the commission cannot work effectively. There are also other issues that need to be addressed urgently. As the investigation process takes a long time, there should be an interim relief package for conflict victims. This gives the message that the state is positive about addressing their concerns. Similarly, the compensation sum of Rs 300,000 must be raised. 

How closely is the commission working with the Ministry of Law and Justice? 

It is unfortunate that seldom has the ministry cooperated with us. Whenever a new law minister is appointed, he or she doesn’t consult us. They get their information and feedback from bureaucrats. Incumbent Law Minister Govinda Bandi is trying to take a radical approach to transitional justice. The law minister and political leaders are saying that they want to complete the remaining tasks in six months to one year. Such statements don’t help. So, striking the right balance among the stakeholders is going to be difficult. The law minister is undermining the commission by giving an impression that it is the ministry’s task to take the transitional justice process to its logical end. He is bypassing the commission at every step. 

We at the commission still want to give him the benefit of the doubt when he says that he can conclude the transitional justice process within a year. But, realistically, the process will take another three to five years, and that too if the commission is fully empowered and allowed to work without a hitch.

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