Whose voices?

  • The victims’ movement seeks a human rights practice rooted in the everyday experiences of victims’ lives
- Ram Kumar Bhandari, BHAGIRAM CHAUDHARY
Whose voices?

May 12, 2014-

Conflict victims who read the recent piece by Suman Khadka and Sanjeev Pokharel (‘Whose reconciliation?’ April 28, Page 7) were shocked to see how they were characterised. This is an attempt to respond to that piece and the article, written by Shradha Ghale discussing the research work of Simon Robins, that prompted it. We want to begin by stating that we welcome this discussion: any interaction around victims’ perspectives on the transitional justice process in Nepal is welcome, all the more so when it draws on research work with victims that is otherwise rarely referenced by those creating that process. Victims also understand that their organisations and human rights NGOs are on the same side in the struggle against impunity and for justice: we should ensure that these debates build, rather than challenge, solidarity.

Robins and rights

Simon Robins, upon whose work Ghale’s original op-ed was based, is someone who has worked with victims of the conflict since before it ended. He was instrumental in supporting the establishment of the Bardiya Conflict Victims’ Committee in 2006 and has consistently worked with and supported victims and their organisations since. As such, to characterise his work as just based on ‘31 interviews’ misses the point that his approach to the perspectives of victims is based on many years of engagement, particularly with the families of those missing in the conflict. We know him well and respect his work, not least because he has consistently sought to aid victims to represent themselves rather than seeking to speak for them, something that we still believe many human rights NGOs can learn from. When Khadka and Pokharel accuse the research of “deriding” and “mocking” victims for not knowing what human rights are, they only reveal their own prejudices. As victims ourselves and as victims’ representatives, we know that rural victims approach violations with a lack of knowledge of the tools with which professional human rights workers do so. This is simply a statement of fact about the perspectives of many victims. Whilst this raises many challenges for the victims’ movement, it never threatens our respect for victims or our desire to articulate an agenda that comes from their everyday experience, rather than privileging approaches from outside their communities.

The discussion of the social and economic needs of victims in Bardiya reveals an ignorance of how many rural Nepalis perceive justice. The Tharu, like many of janajatis who were targeted by the state during the conflict, understand that they became victims because they were socially excluded. Justice for them—whether transitional or not—is inextricably linked to addressing their marginalisation and poverty. They understand that they became victims because of who they are. Addressing both the legacies and causes of the conflict, as transitional justice claims to, demands that the exclusion that led to violence be addressed. It remains a mystery to many victims as to why human rights NGOs devote so little attention to social and economic rights. Indeed, there has been not a single publication around the transition from a human rights organisation that addresses social, economic or cultural rights. The article is correct in saying there is no ‘smoking gun’ that proves as this is because those leading human rights NGOs in Nepal do not prioritise social exclusion—on the basis of caste, ethnicity and gender—as a rights issue, but those of us in the victims’ movement cannot reach any other conclusion.   

Addressing poverty

It is also clear from the long struggle of the victims’ movement that mobilising victims to advance their own agenda is only possible if one addresses victims’ poverty. The wives and mothers of the disappeared in Bardiya have seen their poverty deepened by the loss of their men folk; in many cases if they don’t do daily labour, they cannot feed and educate their children. For such people to protest impunity first demands that they can feed themselves: social, economic, civil and political rights are deeply entwined. Why do those advocating for transitional justice work so hard to ignore half the agenda? The article asserts that Robins claims victims have no interest in legal justice: in fact he makes the more subtle claim that victims have a set of priorities, and for many, addressing poverty and feeding children is a greater priority than seeing prosecutors punished.  

Khadka and Pokharel discuss conscientisation, which is exactly the point at which the victims’ movement and the rights NGOs appear to diverge. We believe that victims have a right to play a leading role in defining how the state approaches addressing legacies of violations and—more than this—that victims should be actors in any transitional justice process. To date, the discussion of transitional justice in Nepal has been a very tired debate between a human rights community talking about prosecutions and a political class seeking to avoid at any cost their own prosecution. Victims’ agendas have been largely absent, and victims in Bardiya and elsewhere have been spectators to this discussion, with no agency at all in any process.

Conscientisation, as defined by Paulo Freire in his work with the marginalised of Brazil, means “breaking through prevailing mythologies to reach new levels of awareness—in particular, awareness of oppression, being an object of others’ will rather than a self-determining subject.” Whilst human rights NGOs appear to seek to teach victims about rights—and this is clearly hugely important—they seem to not prioritise victim agency in the process. Rights agencies appear committed to a modality of working on behalf of victims rather than ensuring that victims can speak for themselves, and funding their own organisations: victims remain objects of the rights discourse, rather than subjects in their own right.

Articulating needs

Ironically, whilst the article expresses surprise at how Robins was able to interact with local (sic) people, its efforts to paint both Robins and Ghale as somehow mocking victims says more about the authors’ own perceptions. Robins’ research has always been made in collaboration with victims, through participatory approaches in which he has facilitated victims’ groups to do their own research on their peers and members. In criticising his work, the authors are also criticising the victims’ movement.  

We reject the claim that all victims need is a language of human rights and a set of priorities for action gifted to them by people who know better. What Robins’ research shows is that victims—regardless of how little formal education they have received—can and do theorise their own experience, but in their own terms and not those of outsiders. The Tharu of Bardiya know exactly what they want from efforts to address the crimes committed against them: the real problem is that hardly anybody is listening to them. The victims’ movement is seeking to drive a human rights practice rooted in the experience and resistance of victims’ everyday lives that addresses the needs they articulate, whether or not these are sanctioned as the priorities of well-funded agencies who currently define what transitional justice should be.

Bhandari is founder-coordinator of the National Network of Families of Disappeared and Missing and Chaudhary is President of the Conflict Victims Committee in Bardiya

Published: 13-05-2014 08:52

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