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Families of missing persons in Nepal: a study of their needs

30-06-2009 Report

The present report sums up the findings of extensive research on the needs of families of missing persons in Nepal. It has been carried out by an external consultant familiar with the matter and the particular context of Nepal, under contract to the ICRC.

Executive Summary 

 The present report sums up the findings of extensive research on the needs of families of missing persons in Nepal. It has been carried out by an external consultant familiar with the matter and the particular context of Nepal, under contract to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The objective of the report is twofold:

  • to give a voice to the families of persons unaccounted for in relation to the 1996-2006 armed conflict in Nepal;

  • to provide stakeholders in the peace process under way in Nepal since 2006 with information giving them a better understanding of the families'needs.

The emphasis on needs is in contrast to the dominant rights-based approach deriving from a predominant legal discourse. There is a perception that the concept of rights gives agency to victims, since unlike needs, which are a passive concept, rights are something that can be claimed. This research in Nepal has shown that the contrary is true. When victims, families of the missing or others are asked about what they want, very few use the language of rights.

 

Thus for the majority of those met during this study, the fact that they have rights - to truth, to redress,to justice and to reparation - plays little part in the formulation of their demands in response to their victimhood. The very language of rights remains an external discourse that means little to them. The vast majority of the families talk of the problems they face and the needs that emerge from those problems every day, and this becomes the natural language when discussing the issues arising from their victimhood.

The needs of the missing persons'families cannot be generalized; they will depend upon their family circumstances, education and economic situation. Most families do, however, agree on their priorities: they want an answer regarding the fate of the missing and they want economic support in the absence of breadwinners, whilst only a minority of families, notably the urban and the educated ones, mention justice as a priority. 

...in the spring the new birds start singing, the cloud comes up and the cuckoo starts singing. The mother has the feeling that "maybe this cuckoo is my daughter   who is still alive and has come to see me.
(Father of missing girl, Gorkha) 

Families are reluctant to believe that their loved one is dead; 80% of those met show some degree of ambiguity about the fate of their missing relative. Even though there are culturally appropriate ways to perform rituals in the absence of a body, for most families the only conceivable proof of death is the body itself. The performance of death rituals without this proof is not acceptable: 83% of families require the dead person's body. To believe that a body is indeed that of their loved one, families require either a scientific test, such as DNA testing, or a " chain of truth " th at links the body and the gravesite to what they know of their relative's disappearance.

A majority of those met reported symptoms consistent with the impact of trauma, and a small minority were disabled by mental illness. Many of those met display chronic physical symptoms, presumably somatic, that they attribute to the long-term effect of the disappearance. A number of wives of missing persons face extreme stigmatization in their homes that has led to their being ejected by their in-laws, leaving voluntarily or continuing to live there in terrible conditions. In their communities the problems of missing persons'families are poorly understood; wives of the missing are often stigmatized for refusing to behave as widows are expected to.

Having a missing relative makes a family poorer. A minority of households face challenges in feeding their families, and a small number of households with no economically active member have no alternative but to beg for food. Families articulate their economic needs in terms of what they cannot afford, and for most this prioritizes food, education and health care.

We hear people on the radio talking about these things. But nobody has come and told us about our rights. We don't have any concept of human rights.
(Sister-inlaw of missing man, Rolpa) 

 A minority of families have to contend with administrative issues, notably concerning the transfer of land or property, owing to the ambiguity of the fate of a head of household. A majority of affected families favour a legal status of " missing " so that such issues can be addressed.

While justice is not their first priority, families want those responsible for their relatives going missing to be prosecuted. In a ddition to the direct perpetrators, families hold informers, those who gave the orders and those at the political level responsible and believe they should be punished. Most reject amnesty outright, but around one-third of families would accept amnesty subject to certain conditions in terms of knowing the truth and receiving compensation. There is a general confidence that with new laws it would be possible to prosecute perpetrators and receive justice in Nepal: any trials should be accessible to victims and should ideally be held in their local area.

The attitude of families to reparations is dominated by the need for economic support and for acknowledgement. For most, this results in an urgent demand for interim relief, while reparations and compensation must await the truth. Families also want to see the missing acknowledged as martyrs, if and when the truth of their fate is known, and to see memorials built in tribute to them. Whilst most state victims believe that the CPN-M-led government will address the missing persons'issue, hardly any victims of the CPN-M share this view. Around half of all families would be ready to join a protest movement if the authorities do not address the missing persons'issue, and it is worth mentioning that 15% of them said they could envisage to start a new insurgency over the issue.

Sometimes I think that when they took our people, they should not have killed them, they have the right to live. (…) It is treating them like beasts to kill them immediately after the arrest. They treated our people like dogs. But I don't know exactly what are rights.
(Focus Group participant, Magraghadi, Bardiya) 

As a result of its findings, the ICRC has identified five areas where urgent action is needed, namely the inadequate inclusion of victims and family as sociations in the transitional process; the remaining uncertainty of families as to the fate of their missing relatives; legal issues concerning the status of the missing persons and their families; the families'difficult socio-economic situation; and the need of families and communities for psychological and psychosocial support.

The ICRC recommends that the Government of Nepal take all necessary measures to address the needs of the families of missing persons in the above-mentioned areas. These measures include the empowerment of family associations; the creation of an independent body in charge of supervising all activities to clarify the fate of the missing persons, with the objective of providing answers to the families concerned; the adoption of legal provisions designed to clarify the status and rights of the missing persons and their families; the development of assistance programmes (economic, social, medical, psychological, etc.) according to specific needs and vulnerabilities of the families and their members; and action towards a public acknowledgement of the situation of the missing persons'families (such as reparation policies, commemorative measures, etc).