Whose reconciliation?

  • Reconciliation is not possible without the disclosure of truth and the prosecution of individuals involved in grave human rights abuses
- SUMAN KHADKA, Sanjeev Pokharel
Whose reconciliation?

Apr 28, 2014-

Shradha Ghale’s recent op-ed (‘Whose discourse?’ April 21, Page 6) summarised a paper by Simon Robins, which focussed on how victims in Bardiya believed that ‘human rights’ were a group of NGOs. In one stroke, three concepts—human rights NGOs, ignorant victims and the notion of human rights itself—were derided. Ridiculing organisations that have fought for justice, even if imperfect, is no way to start a discourse on reconciliation. Ghale’s piece, despite raising valid points, has flaws, which we will highlight to expand the ongoing debate on transitional justice in Nepal.

Conflating ideas

Ghale raises three points: agendas prioritised by indigenous victims of conflict differ from the agendas of Kath-mandu-based human rights groups; the former focus on truth, compensation and economic/social support with less of a priority on prosecution whereas the focus of the latter is the reverse; and third, it concludes that human rights organisations not only do not advocate for socio-economic rights for the marginalised but want to continue with the entrenched inequalities.

The first two findings are based on empirical data from 31 families. While it is disappointing, there is nothing new about the differing agendas of national/international agencies versus local people, neither is this limited to transitional justice programmes.

The second finding would not have been problematic had it not muddled a poor victim’s condition of poverty with the notion of justice itself. It is doubtful if poor indigenous persons will trade bread for justice for the death or disappearance of their loved ones. They may opt to forgive and move on but to say that poor people have no hard feelings against perpetrators comes from an elitist mindset that assumes that only westerners and elites understand the notion of legal justice. The researcher does not dig deep into a Tharu’s notion of legal justice, largely because the study is framed within an interpretive paradigm where respondents’ answers are taken at face value. A critical research paradigm would have allowed for a more reflective process, which can accommodate complex realities. This is no different to findings where women from the Far West were found to think it is acceptable for their husbands to beat them if they burn food. While such opinions are valid, just because they come from victims does not make them right. Also note that there are many poor, Tharu victims who are in fact fighting for legal justice. Even if some of them may have been ‘encouraged’ to do so, there is nothing wrong with conscientisation.

Moreover, victims did prioritise truth regarding disappearances, which concern civil-political rights. Hence, it is wrong to say that victims are primarily concerned only with socio-economic rights. This is not to say socio-economic rights are not important but that killings/disappearances and basic needs are distinct issues that should be addressed separately. Poor or rich, everyone deserves these rights; they are not tradeable. A dangerous subtext of Ghale’s article and Robins’ paper is to make attacks against Tharus and the poorest easier since they are less likely to take legal action against their perpetrators.

Incorrect deduction

Although the article gives the impression that the findings are based on data from victims, this is not true of the third finding, which primarily stems from the assumptions of the researcher and selective secondary data. While the needs of victims differed from those prioritised by NGOs, one cannot conclude that this means that NGOs are fighting to retain entrenched inequalities. This is not only an invalid interpretation of the ‘finding’ but also unethical.

Additionally, victimhood as linked to caste and ethnicity is reported as a finding even though this is not what is explored and only one person made such a link. The report uses the surnames of selected victims and selected NGO staff to erroneously generalise caste as a primary factor in the victimhood narrative. It is like saying we talked to two corrupt police officers, both Rais, and hence, conclude that all police officers are corrupt and their corruption is linked to their caste. Moreover, the statement that conflict victims were mostly Janajati and Dalits is not based on facts. According to INSEC, an NGO, indigenous groups and Chhetris/Thakuris were the top two communities that recorded the highest number of deaths during the conflict. The victims of state violence mostly belonged to indigenous groups while victims of Maoist violence were mainly Chhetris/Thakuris. Belonging to an elite caste does not make atrocities against them justifiable, even if used in radical politics.

For someone interested in dissecting local discourse, Robins also does not explain how he, a male foreigner, was able to interact with indigenous people. Ironically, even as Robins and Ghale attempt to bring out the voices of the marginalised, they mock them for their inability to define human rights as it is in textbooks. Respondents always talk based on their sphere of knowledge and use the terms and language they know. They do not need to theorise abstract concepts to know the essence of the term. In this case, however, the victims did elaborate on human rights by saying that people should not be killed like dogs, including soon after arrest. But this is not mentioned, because the primary objective of the paper appears to be biased, to show that victims do not want prosecution processes, all they want is basic needs.

Strike a balance

We are not saying we should only focus on prosecution. Paul Van Zyl, who worked in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), shows how important reconciliation is in transitional process and it cannot be solely about prosecution, not least because a peace agreement is impossible in the first place without some notion of amnesty. It is also not practical to prosecute every single case. Moreover, the victims themselves may not stress prosecution, as was found in Robins’ paper. Hence, a focus on compromise and reparation is equally important and Robins shows its relevance to Nepal.

But Zyl also warns that reconciliation is not possible without two conditions: disclosure of truth and prosecution of individuals involved in grave human rights abuses under the pretext of the conflict. Victims cannot be asked to forget their losses, receive some money, shake hands with perpetrators and move forward as long as perpetrators of gross human rights abuses continue to hold important public offices without facing even the slightest form of punishment. Hence, we need to balance both reconciliation and prosecution and move ahead at the same time. The Maoists know very well the importance of a ‘package’ deal. It is about balance, irrespective of how human rights wallahs have used or misused this narrative.

Another issue we need to address is that reconciliation has been limited only to the TRC bill. The same forces that want more reconciliation in the bill are asking for perpetrators to be forgiven and pushing for more conflict in society through their communal polarising politics, particularly through caste/ethnic-based ideologies. So the question remains, how can we address this discrepancy between a conflict approach to politics in society and a reconciliation approach in the TRC? Does reconciliation mean amnesty to continue conflict politics or can this be a way for healing and uniting the whole of society through positive politics?

Khadka is a PhD candidate at Monash University and Pokhrel is a Kathmandu-based political analyst and blogger

Published: 29-04-2014 08:43

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