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Making soldiers behave

Bipin Adhikari
The Kathmandu Post
16 March, 2006

A crying baby can be a ruse, a dead body can be a booby trap and a wounded insurgent can be a socket bomb. Anyone can pop up with a weapon. There are landmines everywhere. The fear of being surrounded and lynched by armed rebels is also not unfounded.

The job of the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) and its allied forces in operation in different parts of the country to contain the armed rebellion of the Maoists is not easy at all. It is extremely stressful. An illegitimate government at the top and the seven disgruntled political parties at the bottom make the vocation of the Royal Nepalese Army further maddening.

There is a range of different moral repertoires upon which the RNA may draw in order to validate any particular patterns of human rights violations in this background. But that is not going to be an excuse for Nepal at the ongoing 62nd Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) in Geneva.

There is already a strong network active on the queue in Geneva mobilizing fresh opinion against the February 2005 crackdown on democracy and gross human rights violations by the state actors in its aftermath. It is on the same theme that the Commission had adopted last year the Item 19 resolution leading to an agreement between the government and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for a country-wide OHCHR presence in Nepal to carry out human rights monitoring and reporting.

This time around the general focus is going to be on the fast deteriorating human rights situation, with some of the nongovernmental organizations pressurizing the states for a variety of sanctions against Nepal for its failure to improve the situation.

Many states are under pressure of international opinion to issue standing invitations to the human rights mechanisms of the UNCHR in line with Resolution 2004/76 on human rights and Special Procedures. These invitations constitute announcements by states (that have not made such announcement) that they will always accept requests to visit from all Special Procedures in Geneva to check the human rights abuses in their territories.

In particular, countries like Nepal, India and China that are members of the Commission are being asked to demonstrate their commitment to these special procedures. There is every indication that many states would be required to do so when seeking membership of the Human Rights Council, the body which will replace UNCHR, if they fail to issue a standing invitation as expected.

It must be recalled here that standing invitations are a means to promoting and protecting human rights through more effective cooperation with the Special Procedures. However, they are not an end in themselves and must be accompanied by other forms of cooperation.

The security situation in Nepal continues to deteriorate. With it the human rights situation has also become further critical. As a soft punitive measure, the OHCHR has already called upon the authorities to exclude human rights violators in the security forces of Nepal from participating in the United Nations peacekeeping operations. Some others have gone to the extent of asking the international community to review Nepal's participation in peacekeeping operations abroad, given the Nepali Army's poor human rights record at home.

The Maoists are not just statistical numbers. The job of the security forces being mobilized to contain them involves balancing of two important professional challenges: The need to use force effectively to accomplish the mission objectives and the need to avoid unnecessary force. Only by meeting these challenges, the basic objective behind the mobilization of the army in the internal conflict can be effectively realized. They demand a strong determination on the part of all including the top management of the RNA. This has not happened.

Efforts to make that happen remain meager. In fact, the number of off-hand critiques of the RNA is alarmingly high. As such, it is not so strange that the efforts to teach, train and equip them to deal with these challenges are frighteningly low. Even the civil society organizations think that their job finishes after issuing press release and staging a demonstration over a certain issue.

Some are just busy in exploiting the political vulnerabilities of the situation to help the political parties out. Bizarre it might look, but most of the human rights groups do not have any plan to keep the RNA engaged in human rights business. Some interventions made by the OHCHR and the NHRC have helped much. Some more sincere efforts from all concerned agencies can really make a significant difference.

A policy of "carrot and stick" needs to be applied by all those who are monitoring human rights in Nepal. The RNA is not a terrorist organization or a fig leaf institution which is in the interest of nobody. It has to grow with the applicable legal and human rights standards. Every violator of human rights must be subjected to the legal process, and nobody should be allowed to escape with impunity.

But asking the international community to review Nepal's participation in the UN peacekeeping operations as a form of punishment to the RNA is too unkind as a solution. It demoralizes the whole institution; and benefits none.

Regardless of where armed personnel work, and whether they wear "blue helmets" or not, if they break the law or violate human rights standards every soldier should be brought to justice. This is important to make sure that the army has the respect, honor and attention that it deserves as the legitimate institution.

A general call to boycott Nepal's security forces from the UN business has a political insinuation for an undersized country fighting for its existence. Its toughness also stems from the fact that democratic credibility or human rights commitment of the most of the core group of developing countries which supply troops to the peacekeeping operations is open to all. Since 1948, close to 130 nations have contributed military and civilian police personnel to peace operations, but the demand such as this one for penalizing the whole institution for the faults of a few has so far never been the established practice.

[The writer is a lawyer]

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