Nepal: needs continue after the guns fall silent
The Nepalese peace agreement dates from 2006. But four years on, the ICRC is still helping people deal with the aftermath. Working with the Nepalese Red Cross, the ICRC is helping families find out what has happened to missing relatives, getting mine victims back into society and pressing for international humanitarian law to be included in the new Nepalese constitution. ICRC Head of Delegation Patrick Vial explains.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is known for operating during conflicts. What role is the ICRC playing in Nepal's post-conflict situation?
The ICRC's job under international humanitarian law is indeed to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict. But humanitarian needs remain when conflicts end. In post-conflict Nepal, much of our work is related to people who went missing during the conflict. We are also helping people injured during the conflict who need surgery or physical rehabilitation. In addition, the ICRC is promoting IHL in government circles, to security forces and to civil society. The aim there is to prevent future violations. We often work with our national partner, the Nepal Red Cross Society (NRCS) and we're supporting the NRCS in a number of ways, particularly by helping them develop their ability to respond effectively in times of emergency.
What has the ICRC done about the missing persons issue?
During the conflict, families of people arrested or disappeared by parties to the conflict regularly approached the ICRC. We tried to locate these people, or at least find out what had happened to them, through our visits to places of detention and through confidential approaches to the authorities.
Now, four years after the 2006 peace agreement, more than 1300 people are still missing. The ICRC has published a comprehensive list of all missing persons and distributed it widely, both to highlight the gravity of the problem and to encourage the authorities and former parties to the conflict to find solutions. The ICRC and the NRCS have been working closely together to help alleviate the suffering of the families of missing persons since the end of the conflict.
What are the immediate needs of the families of missing persons? What is the ICRC doing to help?
The ICRC conducted a comprehensive study into the needs of the families and disseminated the results widely by publishing a report. The study revealed that families'overriding need is to be told officially what happened to their missing relatives. That is the only way to end the pain of not knowing whether a loved one is dead or alive. Then there are the economic and psychological needs that result from their loss, and the need for justice.
The first way in which the ICRC is supporting these families is by helping them find out what happened to their relatives. We do this by submitting cases to the former parties to the conflict, along with information that will facilitate their internal investigations. When we get an answer we pass it on to the families, with the support of NRCS volunteers.
Second, we have directly supported the families of missing persons by providing them with income-generating opportunities, helping them form associations that advocate for their rights, and facilitating their access to the interim relief package that the government offers to victims of the conflict. I am proud to say that the vast network of dedicated NRCS volunteers is central to the successful implementation of all these activities.
Third, the ICRC has been providing legal advice and submitting suggestions to the Government and parliamentarians, to ensure that the law regulating the future Commission on Disappearances really helps the families.
Finally, we are working closely with forensic and legal experts and institutions such as the National Human Rights Commission to build up the country's capacity to perform exhumations and to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing persons, as IHL requires.
You mentioned the ICRC's physical rehabilitation programme. What does that involve?
The ICRC launched a physical rehabilitation programme in 2006. The aim is to enable people who lost limbs or suffered other injuries during and just after the conflict to resume normal life, and to restore their dignity. With the help of NRCS district chapters and sub-chapters, the patients are referred to two facilities supported by the ICRC: the Green Pastures Hospital in Pokhara and the Rehabilitation Centre run by the Nepalese Army in Kathmandu. The ICRC covers the patients'transportation and accommodation costs. So far, more than 1100 people have benefited from this programme.
Many patients are victims of landmines, improvized explosive devices and unexploded munitions. These devices were used during the conflict and continue to cause injury among the civilian population. The NRCS Mine Risk Education programme, which the ICRC is supporting, helps to make the most affected communities aware of the risks related to these hazardous remnants of war.
The country is going through a transition phase, which includes the writing of a new constitution. Does the ICRC have a role to play in that?
The ICRC’s broad mission is to promote respect for international humanitarian law. We are therefore pressing for the inclusion of IHL as one of the guiding principles of the new constitution. Such a provision would help protect future generations of Nepalese citizens against suffering if armed conflict were ever to recur. As an organization with strictly humanitarian objectives, the ICRC takes no part in debate related to the political aspects of the constitution.
What are the problems in bringing aid to civilians during political unrest and violence?
A number of problems confront anyone trying to help. It may be difficult to get to and from the scene safely, and once you're there you have to provide first aid and get people to hospital. In order to deliver services, you have to be recognized as being neutral and impartial, and people must see that your only objectives are humanitarian.
In Nepal, one recurrent problem is that ambulances are often stopped or even vandalized by angry crowds during bandhs (political strikes) and strikes. This clearly violates the basic right of access to health care. But those who misuse ambulances to carry people who are not patients make the problem worse. They are equally responsible.
How do we address this problem? By working closely with the NRCS. We speak to ambulance operators about stopping the misuse of ambulances while at the same time calling on groups enforcing bandhs to facilitate the work of first-aiders and ambulances. We also ask the authorities to ensure respect for ambulances and to take action against misuse.
How do you work with the Nepal Red Cross Society and other partners in the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement?
We are working in close partnership with the Nepal Red Cross Society to strengthen its emergency response capacity and its ability to help families separated by conflict, violence, disaster or migration. The ICRC supports the training of NRCS volunteers and provides emergency first-aid materials. We also support the National Society's efforts to promote humanitarian principles and teach people about the risks associated with mines.
Finally, the ICRC provides general coordination for other partners in the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement working in Nepal as regards security and activities related to armed conflict, situations of violence and their direct results. We also work with our Movement partners on areas of common interest, such as supporting the NRCS'development as an organization and earthquake preparedness and response.