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More than 1,000 people remain unaccounted for in Nepal following a decade of violence that concluded in 2006, and the circumstances behind their disappearances have yet to be officially investigated. A new official body, the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons (CIEDP), began its work this March and aims to shed light on these abductions. To support this critical mandate, ICTJ hosted an intensive three-week course for the commission, providing CIEDP the technical and operational support necessary to finally tell the truth about Nepal’s disappeared.
Conflict raged in Nepal for nearly 10 years beginning in 1996, resulting in the deaths of over 13,000 people and the enforced disappearance of 1,300 more. The Comprehensive Peace Accord, signed in 2006, laid out steps for a transition into peace, aiming to heal the wounds of victims and their families through truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition. Given the widespread use of enforced disappearances, one of the key measures born from this transitional process was the implementation of CIEDP.
“During the conflict, enforced disappearances were a systematic violation. It has negatively impacted the lives of victims’ families, especially wives who are still suffering from the repercussions of the disappearance of their loved ones both socially and legally,” said Rim El Gantri, ICTJ Head of Office in Nepal. “Knowing the truth about what happened will help heal the wounds of the Nepali society and be a relief for these families, notably for women, liberating them from the social stigma of being ‘non- declared’ widows.”
CIEDP was established in 2015 but did not become operational until March 2016, when the government approved its regulations. According to its mandate, the CIEDP will investigate matters related to the enforced disappearances in order to “find out and record the truth and bring it out for the general public.”
In order to achieve this goal, the commission has to go through a number of different processes, including ante-mortem data collection – or the compilation of information involving the disappeared person before he or she disappeared, that are relevant to determining his or her whereabouts. Ante-mortem data collection requires not just technical knowledge (for example in forensic anthropology) but demands emotional sensitivity in dealing with the disappeared person’s family as well as an understanding of the political context in which the disappearances took place.
In Nepal, families of the disappeared have not only filed their complaints before the CIEDP but in the course of our pilot ante-mortem data collection work with EPAF in March, have come forward to provide information about their disappeared family members. The CIEDP has only begun its work; it still has to collect and analyze data from hundreds of unresolved cases, gleaned mostly from interviews. Despite the efforts made by civil society organizations and international groups to document the different events and circumstances, there is still an enormous amount of information the CIEDP must gather.
ICTJ’s training program aims to empower CIEDP to fill that gap. In cooperation with the Peruvian Team of Forensic Anthropology (EPAF), ICTJ developed a training program to provide investigators with the technical skills necessary to collect ante-mortem data about enforced disappeared persons, store it in a database and use the information to design research strategies and forensic interventions.
This work is critical to building capacity on the ground. “Respecting the right of families of the disappeared to know the truth isn’t only important as a matter of principle. It is also important in practical terms: it can help inadequately-resourced commissions like the CIEDP ask the government for the capacity and funding they need to fulfill their mandates and fulfill it well and sooner,” said Ruben Carranza, Director of ICTJ’s Reparative Justice Program. “Respecting the right of families of the disappeared to engage with the CIEDP strengthens those families and the organizations they are part of to pushback against impunity and ask for reparations. We wanted to help the CIEDP understand fully the technical, political and emotional requirements for doing its work.”
The first phase of the training started on May 23, 2016 and lasted for about three weeks. The first week was devoted to theoretical aspects of forensic science and preliminary investigations. It was designed to build the capacity of the trainees so that they can effectively conduct ante-mortem interviews while also understanding the ways in which the information they gather can be used. They discussed how to build strategies to most effectively document information, and how to adapt to different local contexts.
In addition to the technical aspects of data collection, training also addressed the psychosocial challenges that investigating disappearances can pose. Instructors reviewed how to counsel victims of violence and how to react when the interviewers themselves need support in the face of stressful situations. The training was interactive, based on practical exercises and simulations, and participants felt that it gave them a basis from which to work. “The AMDC training to the CIEDP’s core researchers was constructive, productive and fruitful in the long run,” said Dr. Bishnu Pathak a commissioner in the CIEDP.
After participants completed initial training they began a pilot phase in which two teams conducted interviews with victims who submitted complaints to the CIEDP. The first team went to Kavre Polchowk and Sindhu Polchowk while the second one went to Bardiya (the district with the highest number of enforced disappearances).
The course participants conducted their field work under the supervision of EPAF instructors, ICTJ experts and CIEPD commissioners, and it proved to be a valuable practical exercise. It was also a powerful human experience, allowing interviewers a chance to work with victims, listen to their stories and try to document the necessary and relevant information using an ante mortem data collection form.
Coming back to Kathmandu, the last week of the training served as a debrief session, as participants discussed the challenges they faced during the pilot phase and assessed ways to overcome those hurdles. The group also analyzed the documentation forms, suggesting changes to better fit the local contexts.
According to CIEDP participants, the training was both interesting and practical. They now have a better idea of the role they will play and the challenges they will face in the field.
“The training went very smoothly. It shed the light on the practical challenges CIEPD would face in the field,” said El Gantri. “This is just a first building block of a whole construction that would influence the final results of the commission’s work.”
ICTJ and EPAF plan to continue their joint support of CIEPD as it seeks to put its mandate into practice. The next phase of this assistance will take place in late July, focusing on deploying data collection teams according to geographical areas, controlling the data collected and recording it in database.
Photo: Sarmila Tripathi holds her missing husband Gyanendra Tripathi’s portrait as she participates in a sit- in protest in front of Nepal prime minister’s residence in Katmandu, Nepal. (AP Photo/ Binod Joshi).