October 23, 2004

KATMANDU, Nepal -- The beautiful mountain kingdom of Nepal is in crisis. Since 1996 it has been gripped by a brutal civil war between a poorly trained military and police with a terrible record of human rights abuses, and a retrograde Maoist movement that makes few apologies for its equally brutal killings and systematic intimidation and extortion of poor Nepali villagers.

More than 10,000 Nepalis have died. Thousands have been displaced. As the conflict grows, the Maoists have secured effective control over most of the countryside.

Yet the world has hardly taken notice.

Chandra Kala Upreti has noticed. On Dec. 7, 2003, uniformed Nepali army troops arrested her husband Bupendra on his way home from his shop. He sent a message the next day that he was being held at the local army barracks, a fact confirmed by a friend arrested with him and later released. That was the last she heard of him.

Chandra Kala has now joined thousands of families in Nepal whose relatives have disappeared in government custody, most since 2001. Most have likely been killed after interrogations. The army frequently kills those they believe are Maoists or sympathizers and then claims they died in "armed encounters." According to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Nepal had the highest number of "disappearances" in the world in 2002 and 2003. Torture in custody is common.

The Maoists are, if anything, even more brutal. They target whoever opposes them - "class enemies," informers, teachers, peaceful political activists and civilians who refuse to pay extortion or feed them - in the most horrific ways.

Villagers who might initially have supported the Maoists have learned that the rebels have little regard for them. They've witnessed first-hand the murder and torture that are regularly meted out if Maoist rule is defied.

These rampant human rights abuses are an enormous added burden to millions of very poor Nepalis. Eighty-two percent of the country's 23 million people survive on less than $2 a day, and almost 90 percent live in rural areas where it can take villagers days to walk to the district headquarters.

While attractive to tourists, for Nepalis the terrain is mountainous and harsh. Clusters of villages exist far off the beaten track. News of atrocities from these areas takes a long time to get out and is extremely difficult to confirm.

The world needs to take these problems seriously. Nepal depends on foreign aid and military support. Its economy relies heavily on tourism. The poorly equipped army has requested and received large amounts of military aid from the United States, Britain and India. But thus far the armed forces have offered only a rhetorical commitment to human rights.

When called to account for well-documented abuses, the government has engaged in obfuscations, denials, and slander. Human rights workers and political activists who dare to criticize or question the behavior of the security forces face abuse, and some have later disappeared themselves.

While the Nepalese government has an obligation to defend the state from an armed rebel group, it also has a duty to respect the human rights of all Nepalis. When military aid is put to illegal purposes, the donors should raise serious questions. Britain has now decided to give only non-lethal military assistance. India and the United States continue to supply lethal military aid.

But abuses have become so serious that the U.S. Congress is now considering legislation that would make future U.S. military aid contingent on an improved human rights record by the security forces. This would be a good step.

Another important step would be to provide intensive, realistic training with a strong human rights focus. While the government suggests that such steps would weaken its fight against the Maoists, the greater danger may be the disaffection that the behavior of government forces is creating in the general public.

Many international observers now accept that there can be no military solution to the conflict in Nepal. Confidence-building measures are crucial. A nine-day holiday ceasefire between the two sides that began Wednesday might offer a modest place to start. The international community, for its part, should immediately demand that both sides agree to allow independent and impartial human rights monitoring teams into areas under their control.

Until the war ends, these monitoring teams would be an important protection against abuses. If they succeed in reducing violence and bringing abusers to justice, the government and the Maoists may have more trust in the possibility of a durable peace.

Perhaps then many other families will not have to experience the pain that Chandra Kala and her three children have endured.

Peter Bouckaert in senior emergencies researcher and Tejshree Thapa is South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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