by Ram Kumar Bhandari
OCTOBER 28, 2020
A Danger of Ignorance
Living in uncertainty is deeply painful for everyone who loses a family member in whatever circumstances of his or her journey of life. It is a human tragedy to live in a state of ambiguity. When my father was forcibly detained and disappeared during Nepal’s armed conflict (1996 - 2006) in 2001, never to be heard from again, my family tragedy destroyed my whole universe. Like myself, hundreds of thousands of families miss their relatives and remember them everyday as the search continues. “I remember my son every moment and every day. He is near and I never forget; it is not only an absence of my son but more importantly a right to life and right to know of his forced disappearance,” says Moti Maya, a mother whose son was forcibly disappeared. Every family, community and the nation remember the disappeared relatives. Each family member suffers everyday and the state authorities are not listening to their voices. Every year, as part of the global movement against enforced disappearances, we, family members, commemorate the Day Against Enforced Disappearance.
We raise up the voices of families affected by enforced disappearance, express solidarity with the struggle for justice worldwide, and remember our beloved family members who were forcibly taken away from their workplace, home, communities and never seen again.
Families are left with a series of unending questions: Why has the state failed to address the families’ demands for truth and justice? Why does the state repeatedly fail to deliver justice and punish the perpetrators? Why has it failed to criminalize enforced disappearance as a crime against humanity? Why did innocent citizens and political activists disappear and never come back? Why is the state unable to say whether they are ‘dead’ or ‘alive’? How long should the families wait for the truth and justice?
If states don’t answer these questions they will have failed their responsibility towards the families as citizens. They must be held accountable for their abuse of powers for the cost of human loss and for letting the thousands of families wait for nothing for so long. It’s a big tragedy against human dignity and an additional pain in our life and history. Argentinians writer Julio Cortazar (1981) writes that “It is necessary to maintain in an obstinate present, with all its blood and all its disrepute, something that it’s already being made to enter the comfortable world of oblivion; it is necessary to continue considering as alive those that perhaps are not but that we have the obligation of claiming, one by one, until the answer finally shows the truth that today it is intended to be hidden.”
Government and the concerned agencies must listen to the families’ demand for truth –“the right to know” and the serious episode of enforced disappearances of painful past must be resolved with a guarantee of non-repetition; that nobody will face such situation in the future or be deprived from ‘the right to life’.
The culture of dishonesty and continuing silence exacerbate the social harms and damage the reconciliation process and chances of a sustainable future. Rather than hiding the truth, we must think about absence and remember the disappeared, keeping memories alive, and document our history of oppression for the next generation. With no acceptance of guilt or punishment for the numerous human rights abuses committed by both sides against ordinary citizens, there can be no national healing, or collective progress. Citizens must be able to trust that their government and officials will act in accordance with and uphold the law, and protect all citizens from harm.
The denial of past crimes perpetuated by the state or non-state actors is not only unjust, but dangerous. This deliberate ignorance is an insult to the thousands of missing and their families, as well to a nation that claims to be governed by the rule of law. By refusing to acknowledge crimes committed during the civil war, political parties show that they are not serious about dealing with the past, nor addressing needs of the surviving families. It is an attempt to rewrite history by excluding those who have suffered the most, denying not only victims’ right to justice but also their contribution to the national struggle for changes. When families and relatives of victims can’t trust the state to hear their voices and respect their concerns, they may consider revenge or revolt as a way to reclaim their rights and dignity. It is an opportunity to shift from a culture of ignorance to a new culture of solidarity and dignity.
The campaign for the right to the truth about enforced disappearances began in Latin America in the 1980s. The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights began to assert a right to the truth concerning the disappeared based on Article 32 of the 1977 Additional Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which identified “the right of families to know the fate of their relatives” in the context of armed conflict. Victims, the relatives of the disappeared, have the non-derogable right to know the truth about the circumstances in which violations took place and, in the event of death or disappearance, the victim’s fate. There is an obligation in international law for the State to remember the past and to avoid denial or revisionism that includes a duty on the State to clarify the truth about past events and the history of violations, not least in order to avoid recurrence. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) commits to assure the right to life (Article 6.1), to prevent from torture or inhumane treatment (Article 7), to provide liberty and security (Article 9), right to recognition as a person before the law (Article 9) and to provide effective remedy (Article 2.3) to the victims and families. However, the international law and mechanisms fail the wider demands of justice, needs, aspirations and hopes of victims of enforced disappearance.
The right to truth
The right to truth is known as an ‘autonomous’ right. The victims’ right to know the fate of relatives stands in addition to their right to justice. The right to truth also has the character of a ‘collective’ right, meaning it is also articulated as a society’s right to know the history of its own oppression. The armed conflict involves direct acts of violence, but wars leave social, political and economic legacies that linger long - what victims still face today in ongoing conflicts and the aftermath of conflict. How long should the victims of political crimes and human rights abuses wait for the truth?
The end of 20th century has been lost to conflict and post-conflict transitional efforts, but hundreds of thousands of citizens’ whereabouts are still unknown resulting in frustration and anger without an answer and without a closure. The dark night of the disappeared still exists, the long list of disappeared continues, whose lives have been stolen from their families and communities. The endless suffering of the families and their passion to know the truth is sadly waning. Living with ambiguity, the disappearance is one of the most devastating tragedies a family could ever endure. The right to life of every person should be protected and the victim rights must be guaranteed in order to effectively rebuild a humane society.
“Let’s look forward, not back” is a common response on the subject among both those in power and politics. But the families and their communities cannot help but to look back – they cannot and will never forget. The families remember, the community remembers, the country remembers and the memory of the disappeared lives on. After all these tragic years, the problem isn’t that my disappeared father wasn’t seen again; the problem is that those responsible refuse to speak about the crimes they committed in the past such as in Nepal and beyond.
What happened to my father is not unique, but the way in which it happened highlights the total disregard the state has for families. Everyone knows what happened. I have had to live for 20 years knowing what happened and who did it. However, instead of taking action against the alleged perpetrators, the authorities protected them. Both the influential politicians and security institutions at the top compromised to not criminalise enforced disappearances in the case of Nepal, playing a role to weaken the search process. Enforced disappearance must be considered as social agenda, as every family member is a part of society. It’s a lost history of our time that destroyed an individual, family and social life of many. Let’s remember those disappeared in every step, we family members never forget until our last breath and the journey of justice continues. Let me finish with a sentence by Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, who was killed on 24th March 1980 in his struggle on searching for truth: “Let's not be afraid to be left alone if it's for the sake of the truth…”.
Ram is a justice advocate and educator based in Nepal and Portugal. He has over a decade’s experience working with marginalized communities, in particular the families of the disappeared (his father disappeared in 2001), victims and survivors of conflict, ex-combatant youth, ethnic minorities, rural youth, and women’s groups. Ram helped launch a community radio station in Nepal, the Network of Families of the Disappeared (NEFAD), the Committee for Social Justice, and the Conflict Victims Common Platform among other organizations. He has also submitted petitions to the UN Human Rights Committee, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, and the Nepali Supreme Court. Ram has written extensively on victims' rights, disappearance, transitional justice and nonviolent conflict in English and Nepali. He is a PhD candidate at Nova School of Law in Lisbon.