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I. Summary

We are very poor people with just a bit of land that feeds us.  My husband and sons have gone away to work in the city.  I live alone with my daughter.  Every so often, men in uniform come to my house to ask for food.  It is my duty to feed guests, so I try my best, though I have little to spare.  But I don’t ask any questions about who they are, because it is safer not to know.  They can be the army.  They can be Maoists.  Both are dangerous.

Forty-five year-old woman in a hill village1

The Nepali people are caught in the middle of an increasingly brutal civil war between rebels of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and government security forces.  Since the conflict started in 1996, more than ten thousand Nepalis have died.  Most have been civilians from the country’s most vulnerable communities: the rural poor, Dalits (at the bottom of the Hindu caste system) 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 brought the city to a standstill. 

After several years during which an ill-equipped police force was left to face the Maoists in front-line combat, in November 2001 the Nepali government mobilized the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) and declared a state of emergency.  Since then, the fighting has increased dramatically, as has the number of deaths of combatants and civilians. 

Civilians supporting neither side are often faced with fateful choices.  Refusing to provide shelter to the rebels puts villagers at risk from Maoists who are ruthless in their punishments; providing such support, however, leaves them vulnerable to reprisal attacks from the state security forces.

Both the Maoists and government forces have dismal human rights records, including the gravest of violations: summary executions, torture, arbitrary arrests and abductions, and persecution based on political associations.  Human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists have been attacked for their work.  The unwritten government policy to “break the backbone” of the rebellion has led to many extra-judicial killings and “disappearances.”  Nepal now has the sad distinction of being among the world’s prime locations for enforced disappearances––cases in which people are abducted, arrested, or otherwise taken into custody and those responsible deny all responsibility or knowledge of their whereabouts.  According to the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Voluntary Disappearances, Nepal had the highest number of disappearances in the world in 2003. Most of those who “disappear” are never heard from again.  The Maoists rarely commit enforced disappearances, but only because those they abduct are invariably and publicly declared to be “class enemies” and executed 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 they enjoy from their army and police superiors to engage in extortion and blackmail, visiting hapless families and demanding money to ensure the safe release of their relatives from custody.  The Maoists use children as messengers, cooks, porters and to gather intelligence on troop movements in violation of international law restrictions on the use of children during armed conflict.  There have been recent reports that the Maoists have abducted schoolchildren for forced indoctrination in the remote hill districts of western Nepal.

All of this has led to a climate of intense fear in the villages.  As a human rights activist in Nepalgunj, a conflict-torn city in the southern plains, told Human Rights Watch: “The Maoists are called terrorists by the government, and that is what they do—create terror. But the security forces are supposed to provide security, and they are no different. People live in constant fear.”

Exacerbating the abuses is the desperate poverty of average Nepalis.  Nepal is among the poorest countries in Asia.  Almost 40 percent of Nepal’s twenty-three million people live below the poverty line.  Per capita income is approximately US$230 per year.  Almost 50 percent of children under five suffer from malnutrition, and 82 percent of the population survives on less than two dollars a day.  Life expectancy at birth is just 59.6 years and infant and maternal mortality rates are still among the highest in the region.2  The literacy rate is only 44 percent.

Almost 90 percent of the population lives in rural areas, where the delivery of basic services such as health, education, and clean water is inconsistent at best.  Nepal’s mountainous terrain and poorly developed infrastructure frustrate development.  The communication and road links are underdeveloped, particularly in the poorer areas of western Nepal.  According to World Bank data, there are just fourteen telephones per one thousand people.  It can take villagers days to walk to the district headquarters.  The terrain is mountainous and harsh.  Clusters of villages exist far off the beaten track.  News from these areas takes a long time to get out, and is extremely difficult to confirm.

In such conditions, both rebels and government security forces have functioned with wanton disregard for the rule of law.  By the time independent investigators can reach the spot of alleged abuses, witnesses have often been threatened by the perpetrators into keeping silent.  Predictably, the rule of law has almost vanished under these harsh circumstances; the result is that both the Maoists and government forces have committed numerous atrocities.

The seriousness of the crisis in Nepal is underscored by a strongly worded statement issued by eight United Nations Rapporteurs on July 14, 2004, that expressed concern about the “extremely grave human rights situation in Nepal.”3  The experts noted that they had sent nearly 150 urgent appeals to the government about individual cases of concern since the beginning of 2004.

Nepal presents the international community with a difficult challenge: how to help resolve a conflict between a brutal Maoist rebel movement and Nepali security forces with a horrendous record of abuses.  The United States and India have viewed the Maoists as ideologically similar to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge or Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, both renowned for atrocities of the worst kind, and they have supported the Nepali government with little regard for (in the case of the United States and India) or in spite of (in the case of the United Kingdom) its rights record.  The United States and India, in particular, have provided government forces with new weapons that, in the absence of necessary reforms in military and police, and appropriate training and monitoring, may increase the conflict’s brutality without bringing a resolution any closer. 

India, Nepal’s largest supplier of military materiel and training, continues its unquestioning support for the government, reaffirming this recently in a state visit by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to New Delhi in October 2004.  The United States has also dramatically increased its military aid since the September 11, 2001, attacks, in part because it initially saw Nepal as a part of the “global war on terrorism,” a position from which some parts of the U.S. government and military have since retreated.  The United Kingdom and Belgium have also provided substantial military support to the Nepali security forces.

These countries are correct to be concerned about the Maoist movement in Nepal.  Based on the Maoists’ rights record in areas they currently control, there is reason to be extremely concerned about how they would behave if they reached power.  No government is known to give direct support to the Maoist movement. 

At the same time, it has become increasingly difficult for states to justify providing political and military support to the Nepali government, while ignoring continuing abuses by state security forces and the failure to bring those responsible to justice.  This is why the European Union and United Nations bodies have taken a more nuanced stance to Nepal’s armed conflict, condemning both sides for the country’s downward spiral and for massive human rights abuses.  The March 2004, United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution on Nepal signaled the diminishing patience of many countries with both sides, and was a particular rebuke to the government for its failure to cooperate with the United Nations on human rights or address abuses committed by the security forces, and its obstruction of efforts to strengthen the independent National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

Many government supporters have been particularly frustrated by the unpredictable behavior of King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev and the bickering among the main political parties, which at times has left a political vacuum in Kathmandu and left the Maoists without a clear negotiating partner.  Nepal’s political system has been effectively paralyzed since 2002, when the King assumed direct rule over the country and suspended the country’s struggling democratic process.  A new government was installed in June 2004, but it has dubious legitimacy.  Parliament has ceased to function and the courts have been neutralized by the executive branch and armed forces.

While both the government and the Maoists have made repeated commitments to the protection of human rights, in practice both have ignored those commitments in their zeal to defeat their enemy.  The government has rejected virtually all allegations of abuse by its forces.  Instead of addressing well-documented cases of abuses, it has launched verbal and physical attacks on human rights workers, activists, and their affiliates.  Senior members of the government have stated that anyone working on behalf of human rights (including the National Human Rights Commission and United Nations human rights officers) is a “Maoist sympathizer,” aiding and abetting terrorism. 

During interviews with senior officials within the army and the government, Human Rights Watch was told over and over again that activists naively believe exaggerated accounts of abuse. When Human Rights Watch raised specific cases documented in our research, there was outright denial. This was epitomized in the case of a 15-year-old Dalit school girl, Maina Sunuwar, from Kavre district in February 2004.  The girl’s mother, Devi Sunuwar, was a witness to an extrajudicial execution by government forces and gave statements to journalists and human rights workers.  Within days, Maina was accused of providing food to Maoists and was taken away by security forces.  Since Devi was not home at that time, the soldiers left a message with her husband, asking Devi to come to the barracks to secure the release of their child. But when she went to the army, she was told that her daughter was not in custody.

When Human Rights Watch asked army spokesperson Col. Deepak Gurung about Maina’s whereabouts, he insisted that an inquiry had been ordered and that the girl was not in army custody. He went on to claim that Devi Sunuwar was a liar who had lied about her niece’s execution4 and was now lying about her daughter’s disappearance.  Yet in April 2004, Devi was finally told by an international agency that her daughter was killed by security forces on the very day that she was taken into custody, a fact later confirmed to Human Rights Watch by the local district administration.  Not only had the army denied the arrest when questioned by Human Rights Watch, soldiers have been visiting the family’s house regularly since then.  Frightened by these visits and fearing another arrest and murder, the Sunuwar family left their home and are now forced to earn a living as migrant laborers.  At this writing, soldiers were still turning up, questioning neighbors about the family.

For their part, the Maoists have responded to allegations of abuse by maligning their victims: they claim those killed were acting against the liberation of the people, they were revisionists, they were informers undermining the Maoists’ march toward creating a communist society.  “Their methods are unimaginably brutal, like chopping off hands or tongues and breaking bones,” a member of Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission told Human Rights Watch.  “Killing by Maoists is done to terrorize the whole population.  They do not tolerate any opposition.” 

For example, Ganesh Chilawal5, a thirty-five-year-old father of two, was gunned down in broad daylight by the Maoists for his work advocating on behalf of victims of Maoist abuses.  Chilawal was an active member of the Nepali Congress party.  In 1998, Chilawal had been attacked by Maoists in his village home for his pro-Congress activities.  He was cut all over his body, leading to three months of hospitalization.  After this experience, he founded the Maoist Victims Association, an NGO working to help civilians who had been victimized in different ways by the Maoists.  As part of this work, Chilawal spoke out openly against the abuses suffered by the persons who sought the support of his organization. 

The Maoists started threatening Chilawal directly.  He received threats to his life through letters, faxes, and telephone calls.  His family asked him to stop; they knew from his first experience that the Maoists could be very brutal in their assaults.

On February 15, 2004, as Chilawal was leaving his office in Kathmandu, two Maoists on motorbikes fired five rounds of bullets into him.  He collapsed and died almost instantly.  The Maoists have since claimed responsibility for Chilawal’s murder, even posting his murder as a success on their website, Krishna Sen Online. 

While the Maoists proclaim many of their abuses, the government rarely accepts responsibility, even in well-documented cases.  When the government admits to the occasional allegation, it insists these are rogue acts that are investigated and punished. “Barring occasional individual aberrations, the security forces are operating with maximum restraint in their mission to provide security,” then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, declared to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva on March 18, 2004.  The Maoists, perhaps less concerned about international opinion, simply justify their acts.  For instance, when the Maoists bombed a civilian bus in Kathmandu in May 2004, they apologized for the civilian deaths but attempted to justify their human rights crime by saying that the civilians were riding with the army in defiance of a nationwide “bandh,” or strike. 

There have been two rounds of peace talks, both ultimately unsuccessful.  Many Nepalis believe that a negotiated end to the conflict would have beneficial human rights consequences.  From February to August 2003, the government and Maoists largely maintained a ceasefire and held peace talks.  Both sides agreed in principle to the idea of a Human Rights Accord, which would bind both parties equally and, most critically, would include a robust nationwide monitoring component in both rebel and government held areas.  The Human Rights Accord was considered a key confidence-building measure to overcome the mutual mistrust and recriminations on both sides.  However, on August 17, 2003, the day that negotiations resumed between the government and Maoists, the army massacred nineteen detainees in Doramba.  The Maoists renounced the ceasefire and resumed armed hostilities. 

Since then, the Human Rights Accord has fallen by the wayside, replaced by the government’s “recommitment” paper on March 26, 2004, which claimed to embrace the principles of the Human Rights Accord but falls far short of its standards.  The Maoists, for their part, have only issued general statements affirming their commitment to abide by the laws and customs of war, but continue to justify their killings of suspect civilians. 

Without a military solution or a political settlement in sight, both government forces and Maoist rebels continue to commit widespread abuses of human rights and humanitarian law.  Yet while Nepal is burning, the rest of the world is doing little but watching the carnage mount.  With most observers in agreement that a military stalemate will continue––U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that there can be no military solution to Nepal’s conflict––there is a substantial risk that in the absence of  sustained international pressure Nepal could slide into the ranks of a failed state.

The government of Nepal must take all steps necessary to bring an end to rights violations by its security forces, particularly attacks on civilians and the mistreatment of all persons, including rebel suspects, in custody.  Instead of making excuses for its troops by claiming that they are still on a “learning curve,” a phrase commonly used by Nepali officers and bureaucrats and echoed by U.S. military analysts interviewed by Human Rights Watch, it is time for the Nepali government to assume full control over its forces in the field, institute prompt, independent and impartial inquiries into every allegation, and appropriately punish those found responsible.

The Maoist forces are also obligated to abide by the laws of armed conflict, including prohibitions on the killing and torture of any person in their custody.  In addition, the Maoists must address practices by their forces that target the civilian population, such as extortion of the local population.  Actions that discourage aid agencies from participating in needed development projects particularly harm the rural poor.  The use of children in support of military operations must also cease.  The Maoists must take all appropriate measures to ensure that all forces under their control comply with international law.

Detailed recommendations are found at the end of the report. Human Rights Watch urges the government of Nepal and the Maoists to:

  • Comply with international human rights and humanitarian law, in particular prohibitions on attacks on civilians; executing or ill-treating persons in custody; committing “disappearances,” abductions and unlawful arrests; and committing acts of extortion or looting.

  • Investigate all allegations of abuse and appropriately discipline or prosecute the perpetrators in accordance with international fair trial standards. 

  • Sign and implement a human rights accord reiterating existing obligations pledging to abide by the Geneva Conventions and to honor and protect the human rights of civilians within their zones of control; allow independent and impartial human rights monitors, including the National Commission of Human Rights, to freely conduct investigations in such areas; and cooperate with those investigations.

Human Rights Watch urges donors to use their leverage with the Nepali government, which depends on donor assistance for almost 60 percent of its national development budget, to insist on tangible improvements in the human rights record of government forces.  Countries such as India, the United States, and the United Kingdom, that are providing military aid, should properly monitor the assistance, and ensure  necessary professional and rights-friendly training  so that civilians are protected. 

Financial, technical and political support should be provided on an urgent basis to the National Human Rights Commission to fulfill its mandate to impartially investigate human rights abuses.  Political pressure should be brought to bear on both government and rebel leaders to end violations and punish and discipline the perpetrators.  Foreign governments, diplomats, and relevant U.N. agencies should speak in public as well as pursue private diplomacy to address human rights violations. Special attention must be given to defending human rights defenders, lawyers, activists, and journalists raising human rights issues or exercising their fundamental rights to speak out or participate in political activities.

The states most active in Nepal––India, the U.S., the U.K. and the European Union––should act decisively and in concert to promote adherence to international human rights and humanitarian law in Nepal.  International assistance, particularly military assistance, has been provided to the Nepali government with little regard for these concerns.  The United States in particular remains under the illusion that criticizing the Nepali government will only aid the Maoists.   But in a brutal conflict where ordinary people have been the primary victims, it is difficult to see how respecting human rights could be any kind of disadvantage.

Note on Methodology

Human Rights Watch sent a three-person research team to Nepal in March 2004.  The team spent time in Kathmandu interviewing government officials (including army officers), politicians, human rights activists, members of the international and diplomatic community and victims of human rights violations.  The team then conducted investigations in several other parts of the country.  For practical reasons, the team stayed largely in the southern plains known as the Terai, where there is better road access to isolated villages.  The team also documented cases in and around the Kathmandu valley, and in Kavre district.  All evidence of violations documented in the report is based on first-hand testimony.  In order to protect victims and witnesses from reprisals by either side, the names of persons and any information which might identify them, such as village names and specific dates of incidents, has been withheld in certain cases. 

[1] Human Rights Watch interview, name withheld, early March 2004.

[2].”Nepal Country Brief,” October 2004, [online] (retrieved September 28, 2004.)

[3] “UN Commission on Human Rights Experts Reiterate Grave Concern Over Situation in Nepal,” July 14, 2004.  The U.N. Rapporteurs were on torture; violence against women; extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions; independence of the judiciary; freedom of opinion and expression; protection of human rights defenders; enforced and involuntary disappearances; and arbitrary detention.



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