The victory of the Maoists in Nepal's election sets a critical challenge for the government that will follow, says Meenakshi Ganguly of Human Rights Watch.
The counting is done in Nepal's constituent-assembly elections of 10 April 2008. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is poised to lead the country; the final results released by Nepal's election commission on 25 April confirmed the Maoists' capture of 220 seats in the 601-seat assembly, making them the largest single group. Of the two established parties, the Nepali Congress (NC) won 110 seats and the (now leaderless) Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist / UML) won 103. The Maoists thus will need allies to compose a government with a stable majority, but there is no doubt that they will dominate the new polity.
Nepalis have great hopes for peace after two decades of conflict and bloodshed in the Himalayan nation. In mass demonstrations and riots of 1990, they took to the streets demanding parliamentary democracy. But these aspirations were foiled, and between 1996 and 2006 nearly 13,000 people died as the Maoists embarked upon an armed rebellion to end feudal monarchy and social injustice. In June 2001, the country was thrown into chaos and deep mourning when Crown Prince Dipendra massacred several members of his family including his siblings, mother and father, King Birendra. After the rampage, Crown Prince Dipendra shot himself. He died after three days in hospital. His crown passed on to his uncle, Gyanendra, who, in 2005, decided to reclaim the monarchy's control over Nepal by declaring a state of emergency. His edict led to further violence as people took to the streets again in April 2006, in another fight for democracy.
The violence within
In 2004, Human Rights Watch travelled to Nepal to document human-rights abuses during the armed conflict between government forces and the Maoists.
We met the family of 17-year-old Reena Rasaili. Armed government forces surrounded their house on 12 February 2004 and pulled Reena out of the house, accusing her of being a Maoist supporter. She was beaten and interrogated in front of her family, and then taken to a nearby field and shot. Her relatives believe she was raped before she was killed.
We also met the relatives of Musharaff Khan, who had dared to criticise the Maoists. A group of armed Maoists surrounded his house on 5 November 2003. As they forced their way into the house, he tried to escape, jumping over the back wall, but was caught in the lane outside and taken away. Two days later, villagers found his body in a field. It bore several bullet-wounds and also the marks of severe beatings and torture.
Villagers repeatedly told us about the terror that consumed their lives. We were warned not to step out after dark. A knock on the door in the middle of the night could mean either government security forces or the Maoists. Both were dangerous, because both were prone to kill.
After signing a "comprehensive peace agreement" in November 2006, the Nepali army and Maoist armed cadre were restricted to a few barracks; their weapons locked up and placed under United Nations supervision. The Maoists have already said that as soon as they take charge of government, they will vote to strip the king of his power and ask him to vacate the Narayanhity palace in the capital Kathmandu. Soon after, they will begin the process of integrating former Maoist fighters into the existing Nepali army.
A human-rights test
But this is when the hard part begins. The families of Reena Rasaili and Musharaff Khan are still waiting for justice. Security forces or Maoists killed, "disappeared" and tortured thousands of others. Their families too want the perpetrators of such crimes to be found and prosecuted.
The Maoists have steadfastly denied committing any abuses. They claim that while a few "transgressions" may have occurred, those rogue actors were immediately punished. They also deny recruiting children into armed combat. In a 2007 report, Human Rights Watch found that thousands of children were a part of the Maoist forces, while many more had fled their homes to avoid recruitment.
The government forces too have denied allegations of human-rights violations. In May 2006, the United Nations released a report documenting the "disappearance", illegal detention, ill-treatment and, in many cases, torture, of forty-nine individuals they confirmed in December 2003 to be in the custody of the army's Bhairabnath battalion based in the capital's Maharajgunj camp. In December 2007, partially buried clothing and other materials were found at a site in Shivapuri national park outside Kathmandu. Human-rights activists allege that these are the remains of the forty-nine detainees that the Nepali army secretly cremated after killing them in custody. The Nepal army has not acknowledged responsibility for any of these cases though it provided information on a few individuals. Some 600 people still remain "disappeared" in Nepal (see "Nepal: Investigate Kathmandu ‘Killing Field'", Human Rights Watch, 28 December 2007).
Nepalis want peace. But for lasting peace, the new Maoist government must investigate all allegations of serious human-rights abuses and prosecute those responsible. But just taking action against the Nepali army, once the greatest enemy of the Maoists, will reek of a witch-hunt. Maoists must also ensure the prosecution of its own cadre who committed human-rights abuses and show that human-rights violators have no place in a new Nepali army (see "A New Dawn in Nepal?", Far Eastern Economic Review, 15 April 2008).
Only then can the Maoists claim that they have formed a genuinely rights-respecting democracy; only then will they earn the people's trust. The United States has already decided to take the Maoists off its terrorist watch- list. The United Nations and the wider international community will be watching to ensure that no Nepali human-rights abusers enter the ranks of its international peacekeeping forces (see UN Nepal Information Program).
The Maoists have been given a chance to shepherd the county's historic political transition because Nepalis believe in their commitment to equality and justice. Now they must deliver on those promises.
Meenakshi Ganguly is senior researcher on South Asia for Human Rights Watch.