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Nepal: Government Forces, Maoist Rebels Target Civilians

Both Sides in Civil War Should Allow Access by Human Rights Monitors

(Kathmandu) -- In Nepal’s escalating civil war, civilians in contested areas are executed, abducted and tortured both by government forces and Maoist rebels, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Military aid providers and donor countries must insist that both sides end attacks on civilians, conclude a human rights accord allowing independent monitoring, and cooperate with the work of the National Human Rights Commission.

The 102-page report, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Civilians Struggle to Survive in Nepal’s Civil War,” details how civilians in contested areas are often faced with untenable choices. Refusal to provide shelter to the rebels puts villagers at risk from Maoists who are ruthless in their punishments, while providing such support leaves them vulnerable to reprisal attacks from state security forces.

“Neither the government nor the Maoists appear particularly concerned with the protection of civilians while they fight this dirty war,” said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “If they want to have any legitimacy in Nepal or with the international community, they need to end attacks on civilians.”

Human Rights Watch documented many cases of extrajudicial executions by each side. For example, near the village of Bhandariya, witnesses saw the Maoists take away four men. Shortly thereafter, they heard the sound of bullet fire coming from the fields outside the village. They formed a search group and found the bodies. All four had been shot, and their legs and arms had been broken. In another case, several eyewitnesses saw two men being pursued by the Army in Belbhar, Bardiya district. An eyewitness saw the two men emerge from the field, with their arms up, saying “We are not Maoists, please help us. We surrender.” The witness watched as the soldiers, who had the suspects outnumbered and surrounded, shot the two surrendering men dead at close range.

The government’s tacit policy to “break the backbone” of the rebellion has led to many extrajudicial killings and “disappearances” by its forces. According to the United Nations, Nepal now has the unfortunate distinction of being among the world’s prime locations for forced disappearances. Most of those who “disappear” are never heard from again. The Maoists rarely commit enforced disappearances; instead they usually declare their abductees to be “class enemies,” and then execute them in the name of their “People’s War.”

Both the government and the Maoists engage in regular intimidation and extortion. The Maoists infamously impose a “tax” on local villagers and travelers, while the government attempts to isolate the Maoists by trying to cut off their access to food and shelter in villages. Many soldiers use the license granted by their superiors in the army and police to engage in extortion and blackmail. Visiting hapless families, they often demand money to ensure the safe release of their relatives from custody. The Maoists use children as messengers, cooks, and porters to gather intelligence on troop movements in violation of international law restrictions on the use of children during armed conflict.

“Rampant abuses have created a climate of intense fear in Nepal’s villages,” said Adams. “Because of Nepal’s geography and poverty, Nepalis under attack or threat usually have nowhere to turn to for protection or redress. Unfortunately, the international community is not playing the constructive and proactive role it should to address these problems.”

The report shows how civil society has been marginalized by the conflict. Government officials have characterized human rights workers, lawyers, journalists and even the independent National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) as closet sympathizers of the Maoists simply because they document government abuses. The Maoists have threatened and killed local activists who oppose or just fail to support them.

While both the Nepali government and the Maoists have made repeated commitments to protect human rights, in practice both have ignored those commitments in their zeal to defeat their enemy, Human Rights Watch said. The government has rejected virtually all allegations of abuse by its forces. The Maoists have responded to allegations of abuse by maligning their victims, claiming that those killed had acted against the liberation of the people or served as informers undermining the Maoists’ march toward creating a communist society.

Both sides have agreed in principle to the idea of concluding a Human Rights Accord, which would allow independent and impartial human rights monitors, including the National Human Rights Commission, to freely conduct investigations in areas under their control. However, the agreement still remains unsigned. The Human Rights Accord would be a key confidence-building measure to overcome the mutual mistrust and recriminations on both sides.

“The Human Rights Accord would create ways to ensure that both sides meet their obligations to protect human rights,” said Adams. “The international community should make rights protection its highest priority in Nepal. Donors should show strong support for the National Human Rights Commission and ensure that it is fully funded.”

India, the United States, Britain and other countries that provide military assistance and training to government forces should increase and improve the human rights training they offer and to monitor the end use of all lethal aid. (No country provides arms to the Maoists.) Human Rights Watch cited the notorious massacre in Doramba in August 2003, in which government forces arrested and summarily executed two civilians and 17 Maoists. In the face of well-documented investigations, the army has engaged in a consistent pattern of denial and obstruction.

“Instead of making excuses for Nepali troops by claiming that they are still on a ‘learning curve,’ it is time for the Nepali government to take responsibility for its forces in the field,” said Adams. “Countries that support Nepal’s armed forces need to pressure the government to credibly investigate massacres like Doramba and punish those found responsible.”

More than 10,000 Nepalis have died since civil war began in 1996. Most victims have been civilians from the country’s most vulnerable communities: the rural poor, Dalits (also known as “Untouchables”) and indigenous communities. From an isolated rebellion in remote mountainous districts of western Nepal, the Maoist insurgency has spread throughout the country, even reaching the capital Kathmandu, where the threat of Maoist attacks alone has in recent weeks brought the city to a standstill.

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