Accounting for Justice
Nepal has a kind of adaptable and robust fragility. Peace and stability have been relative terms here for the last two decades. Public trust has haemorrhaged from political and state institutions due to the fundamental lack of political accountability. We see so many high profile, jaw-dropping examples of corruption and abuse of power that are as flagrant as they are shameless. This is combined with the weakness of political institutions, ambiguous and unclear motives of political actors and a disconnect between the public and the political class, all serving to undermine public trust and eroding any remaining sense of a functioning social contract. Political accountability is a culture of expectation. The expectation of account giving and being held responsible for decisions made and their consequences. It is very easy to bash Nepali politicians for corrupt or opaque practices, but civil servants, NGOs, business and the media also need to be held accountable for their actions. Having listed these pillars of society, the question raises itself, who is left to hold them accountable and how will they do it?
Before suggesting an answer to this question, it might help to examine the example of transitional justice from an accountability perspective. Since the end of the conflict and signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006, the focus of Nepal’s political actors has remained on political transition at the expense of justice for victims of the conflict and their families and economic transition for equitable growth. But who answers for this? Justice is inherently linked to equitable economic development and inclusive processes. Social exclusion remains a critical challenge to development and the delivery of justice. Bear in mind Nepal’s diverse demography, composed of over 100 ethnic communities, with complex caste and ethnic structures. Combine this with challenges in accessibility of the state, political instability, a weak economy, natural disasters and entrenched economic interests and it becomes clear that demanding justice, and accountability for its provision, is an uphill struggle.
Despite promises of reform, delivery of reparations and justice for victims from the war era has been inconsistent, to say the least. The much-delayed Truth and Reconciliation process suggested a lack of political will to address victim demands for justice and the fact that victim compensation has not been fully disbursed gives an indication that those managing the process are more invested in political concerns than concerns about justice and reconciliation. Even now additional reparation measures are being discussed in the TRC over a decade after the end of the conflict. Justice delayed is justice denied, on a practical as well as theoretical level. With every passing day compensation to victims and their families is worth comparatively less and less. Compound interest based on the average inflation rate from 2006 would make 1 lakh compensation then worth 2.55 lakhs now. Had victims had their compensation awarded soon after the conflict ended, how many small businesses and investments might have changed lives over the last decade? Living for 10 years unreconciled to the past and to perpetrators of crimes can cause incalculable psychological damage. But who answers for this? The same delay looks like it is happening for the survivors of last year’s earthquakes. In both cases weak governance, blighted by political manipulation and the lack of effective oversight, has stalled what could have been effective justice provision to victims and an example to the world. For relatives of the more than 1,000 disappeared, distress, frustration and a sense of betrayal have grown for years with the lack of accountability for serious human rights violations and war crimes committed during the civil war. Even now victims of torture and sexual violence are excluded from compensation schemes. But who answers for this? Political parties have actively avoided dealing with the past crimes. Indeed, they have, to one degree or another, exploited the lack of accountability to avoid reining in the unlawful activities of their own activists and to justify interference in the criminal justice system. This has undermined the rule of law and had serious consequences for trust in the state and justice processes.
Accountability and conflict dynamics are inextricably interlinked. Weak governance and oversight coupled with poor public service delivery has affected the planning, implementation and monitoring of local development activities along with people’s perception of local institutions. Political capture of development programs and the underuse or misuse of local development funds all have the same negative effect on perceptions. Growing youth unemployment has led to a situation where 1,500 Nepali youths go abroad in search of employment every day, while those who have no such option are vulnerable to the lure of criminal gangs or extreme political organisations. The government must make a concerted attempt to understand drivers of conflict and mistrust. They must then address lack of accountability through openness and community engagement. INGOs and NGOs, while remaining critical and keeping a safe distance, should support the work of government in service provision, in part by closing the information feedback loop between local people and government and enabling local people to contribute to holding government accountable.
The constant political instability and uncertainty, fragile economic outlook, the state’s continued inability to establish rule of law, the criminalization of politics, and the persistence of youth unemployment have all been cited as causes of the re-emergence and flourishing of armed and criminal groups. The challenge for Nepal over the coming years is to reverse these trends and engage citizens actively in holding public institutions and individuals to account. To create conditions for citizens to engage with the state constructively and productively, there must also be concerted effort to re-establish the social contract and belief in the social contract. Youth-centered programming has to be part of the way forward. Young people must receive effective support and have clear, government-supported pathways to employment alongside opportunities for constructive political input. Nepal’s young-generation surprised many when they excelled themselves in the face of adversity during the earthquakes and nakkabandi. The young generation has surely earned their right to call for accountability in getting what they are entitled to. But without reciprocity how can they not feel like an abandoned generation?
Einstein said: ‘you cannot solve problems with the same thinking that created them.’ Perhaps it is time to think of innovative ways to support citizens’ righteous demands on the state and to think of ways to help the state fulfill those demands in an accountable and transparent way. Instead of the kneejerk mistrust of state and politics, crafting interventions that tackle the absence of political accountability and actually support and augment good practices of the government, and engagement of citizens, can provide us a way forward.
Writer: Ankit Khanal and Benjamin Britton
Ankit Khanal is the Programme Manager at Community Solutions Initiative Nepal and Benjamin Britton is Innovation Advisor at FieldReady.