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Truth telling in Nepal: Vikki Bell at the ‘Unofficial Truth-telling: International Experiences and Lessons for Nepal conference, Kathmandu, March 2016.

Organised by The UN Development Plan for Nepal, and the newly launched Transitional Justice Resource Centre the ‘Unofficial Truth-telling: International Experiences and Lessons for Nepal’ conference took place to coincide with the ‘International Day for the Right to the Truth’, 24-26th March 2016 in Patan, Kathmandu.

As part of a panel on aesthetic approaches to truth-telling, Vikki Bell spoke about her research in Argentina, with a focus on protest and/as art; on memorials; and on museum and documentation centres.

Partners in the organization of the conference were the Conflict Victims’ Common Platform (CVCP) group. Many of the audience were women and men who had personal stories of suffering torture, imprisonment, and of relatives disappeared during the conflict in Nepal. Such discussions were as much an education for the speakers as for the audience.

The context for the discussions was the continuing lack of movement in relation to transitional justice mechanisms in the decade since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2006). The agreement signalled the end of a ten year conflict which killed more than 16,000 people, wounded tens of thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands and ‘disappeared’ around 1600 people.

Among other things, the agreement promised a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and a Commission of the Investigation of Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP). These two commissions were established in February 2015, but to date, they have not taken a single complaint. There are tens of thousands of victims of human rights violations and as Nepal is a state party to several different international human rights treaties, it has an obligation to provide an effective remedy and reparations to the victims. The lack of progress in fulfilling this obligation, and a lack of victim-centred approach, has led to deep frustration amongst victims’ groups.

The CVCP brings together 17 different victims groups, from all sides of the conflict; an extraordinary achievement established in the past year. They articulate their position as ‘critical engagement’ with the government and have been advocating through print media and the blogosphere.

The right to truth day was marked with a demonstration by the group, heavily policed and at which the chairperson, Ram Kumar Bhandari, and others were arrested.

At the conference itself, many personal testimonies were offered. Some of the audience were relatives of the estimated 1500 disappeared and told moving stories of their relatives being taken – sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, husbands. Others had been kidnapped and detained without knowing where they were; some had been left physically disabled by the conflict. One young man had been a child soldier. A young woman spoke about the sexual violence she had suffered, exacerbated by attitudes to women who have been raped, forcing her into marriage with her violator.

These stories were offered alongside experiences of truth-telling from other parts of the globe, related by a host of international speakers.

People spoke of how they felt so let down by the lack of progress with the TRC and CIEDP, where they had hoped for a chance to tell these stories, and to receive some reparations that might aid the difficult circumstances of their present lives, exacerbated by loss of property, no formal education or income. This was another step in the torture process, one man said; another spoke about the long wait ‘to feel justice’.

Writer Manjushree Thapa, who spoke on the same panel as Vikki, shared her concern that there is an active ‘project of amnesia’ in Nepal, where the political culture is to forget the past and maintain the shortest of political memory. The interconnection of Nepalese peoples, with many interrelated by class, caste, marriage, and political patronage to perpetrators, she said, did not help encourage a culture of honesty around this history. The literary community has been brave and some have tried to address these issues, with memoirs such as Jeetman Basnet’s 258 Dark Days and the photographic project A People War organized by Kunda Dixit.

The conference also heard panels on the development of the ‘right to truth’; international humanitarian law; documentation in post-conflict societies; the use of technology; and experiences of truth-telling from elsewhere, including experiences from South Africa, the Balkans, and South America.

A short documentary film showing clips of video interviews being made by Voices of Women Media was shown under the working title ‘Memories’. Here the voices of mothers of mainly disappeared sons tell the stories of survival that in their small details convey a heartache that echoes across continents.

The day after the conference, the Kathmandu Post reported that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission announced that it would consult and include the Common Victims’ Platform in its tasks, collecting testimonies, formulating reparation policy and preparing commission’s report to be submitted to the government. It would be welcome if this is indeed the case and these tasks commence without further delay.

Reported by Vikki Bell