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Nepal: “The authorities have understood that we must have contact with both sides”

04-05-2006 Interview

Friedrun Medert, head of the ICRC delegation in Nepal, talks of the challenges facing the new authorities, how the conflict has affected people's lives, the role of the ICRC and how it is perceived.

 What is the current political temperature in Nepal?  

After the recent feverish period, climaxing around 22-24 April, we're back down to a " slightly-raised " temperature, because some of the people's demands have been met. But many tasks lie ahead, and questions such as who will control the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), and will it be part of the truce? What arrangements will the seven-party alliance (now in government) make with the Maoists?

Our work has been greatly hampered by the recent strikes and blockages. But there has been a public statement by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), that the ICRC is allowed to circulate at any time. This is good, but the problem is that you may come across a tree-trunk blocking the road – some are booby-trapped, but you don't know, so you have to turn back.

 How has the violence affected people's everyday life?  

In the countryside, apart from district headquarters, there are areas the government doesn't control – the Maoists control them at times but not always, so there's a power vacuum; there is no police presence, few health posts.

People have had problems when moving between their own areas and the district HQ, because when they come to the HQ the authorities consider them as sympathetic to the Maoists; but when they return home the Maoists think they have been informing the authorities. They are totally trapped! – whatever they do, one party at least will consider it wrong.

These mobility problems also jeopardize people's livelihood – they are poor anyway, they need to go to the market, and if this is hampered they become even poorer.

In Kathmandu, the recent violence brought life to a standstill – shops and offices were closed, there were no cars moving about… whatever produce people wanted to bring into town, couldn't get in because the access roads were closed. Food was left rotting at the farms, while people in the city were eating rice and tomato ketchup…

 What are the ICRC's main activities in Nepal?  

We concentrate on detention related activities i.e. visiting those deprived of their freedom to assess their conditions of detention, protection of the civilian population, tracing people whose whereabouts are unknown, restoring links between family members… it's an operation that it very much what we call protection-focussed.

Delegates go to the field, sometimes for ten days or so, very often on foot. They carry out " release checks " – meaning, asking families whether someone has actually been released from prison [as the authorities have stated ] .

The delegates also note down allegations by villagers of how they have been adversely affected by the conduct of hostilities, or badly treated by different armed formations, which may be the Maoists, the Royal Nepalese Army or the police. The ICRC intervenes with the authorities in the hope that they will take the necessary measures to prevent re-occurrence – and punish the perpetrators.

 How does the Nepalese government perceive the ICRC?  

I haven't yet met the new authorities! But the previous government had a good perception of the ICRC; it understood that, in order to do its humanitarian work in a neutral and impartial fashion, the ICRC needs to have contact with both sides. They did not contest that at all – on the contrary, since in recent years we had accompanied home around 100 Nepalese from Maoist captivity!

At the same time, some authorities see us as a thorn in their flesh, when we constantly pester them – confidentially – about questions of treatment [of detainees ] and detention conditions… and when we ask them whether they really think that this or that is a correct way of conducting hostilities. However, they understand that we are duty-bound to do it.

 Where does the ICRC stand with the Maoist rebels?  

Relations have improved greatly over the past year. We have had regular contact with the Maoist leadership, and these have helped us link up in the field with regional leaders. They accept our mandate and our work.

We would like this to go beyond acceptance and see it translated into very concrete improved conditions for the civilian population. I think it will take some time, but we have taken a big step forward over the past year.