Cornered Colonel: UK arrest draws mixed reactions at home
KOSH RAJ KOIRALA
After Pushpa Basnet bagged last year´s CNN Hero Award recently, Nepal is once again in the headlines in the global media.
This time, the news is about the arrest of the serving Nepal Army (NA) Colonel Kumar Lama in the UK on the charge of torturing, as a public official, two separate individuals when the Maoist insurgency was at its peak in Nepal seven years ago.
The arrest has not only evoked diplomatic tension between Nepal and the UK but also has divided the political classes and human rights defenders back home as to whether or not the arrest made under the principle of “universal jurisdiction” undermined Nepal´s sovereignty.
Human rights advocates say the arrest last week has also raised a question in the eyes of the international community over Nepal´s commitment to uphold human rights, and its ability to make the guilty of serious rights violations accountable.
“Universal jurisdiction is invoked when the country concerned is either unwilling or unable to punish those guilty of serious human rights violations. The arrest has put a question over Nepal´s commitment to human rights,” argued human rights lawyer Govind Bandi.
A specialist unit of the Metropolitan Police Service had arrested Colonel Lama at St Leonards-on-Sea in East Sussex last Thursday on the suspicion of him torturing detainees in Nepal in 2005 when he was battalion commander in the Gorusinge Barracks in Kapilvastu.
He had reached Britain some two weeks earlier on leave from his duty in South Sudan, where he is serving as senior Military Liaison Officer in the UN Peace Keeping Mission, to meet his wife and children who are living there for the past several years.
The arrest that came as a surprise to both the government and political parties, which are dillydallying the formation of the much-awaited Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and Disappearance Commission, have objected to the move of the UK Government.
While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) summoned the British Envoy to Nepal, HE John Anthony Tucknott, and filed a protest note to him against the arrest a day later, major political parties, including the UCPN (Maoist), Nepali Congress, CPN-UML, were also quick enough to object the arrest, stating the move taken without prior information to Nepal Government went against international laws and the "general principle of the jurisdiction of a sovereign country.”
Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha termed the move of the UK Government “inappropriate,” as political parties in Nepal are currently in the process to form transitional justice mechanisms to address conflict-era human rights violations.
“We have never said guilty persons of human rights violations during the conflict are given general amnesty. Since the arrest does not come in line with the basic principle of universal jurisdiction, there is no ground to be satisfied with it,” he said.
Shrestha asked the UK Government to immediately release Colonel Lama and allow him to join his duty at the UN mission in South Sudan, considering the fact that Nepal is currently in a transitional period, and is still in the process to book the guilty of human rights violations during the decade-long conflict.
“We respect the demand of the international community that TRC be formed at the earliest. We are also ready to make transitional justice mechanisms compatible with international standards,” he said. “But the arrest made at this time cannot be justified in any way.”
However, the UK has defended the arrest, it being made under the principle of “universal jurisdiction” which permits the UK to arrest and prosecute people accused of human rights abuses committed overseas, even if the crime is not connected to events in the UK.
The arrest was made in response to a petition filed by the UK law firm, Hickman and Rose, on behalf of the victims who took support from a local human rights organization in Kathmandu.
Also a large section of civil society and human rights activists have welcomed the move of the UK Government, saying this would help end growing impunity in Nepal.
“The inordinate delay in the formation of Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Disappearance Commission and the government´s decision to revoke court cases against party cadres has put judicial competence and criminal justice system in Nepal in question,” said noted human rights activist Subodh Raj Pyakurel who is also Chairperson of Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC), a human rights NGO.
Human rights activists also complain that the country had to face a humiliating situation largely due to the ´unwillingness´ of the government and political parties to give a heed to their suggestions to form transitional justice mechanisms even six years after the Peace Process began.
“Cases of serious human rights violations transcend any geographical borders. It is unfortunate to see the government objecting to the move of the UK Government,” said another human rights activist, Charan Prasai.
The fallout of the arrest of Colonel Lama could leave far reaching consequences to NA, especially in its involvement in the UN Peace Keeping Operations, with various international rights organizations, including UN-OHCHR, questioning over its vetting process and mounting pressures that these rights bodies are exerting on the NA to do something about its “poor” human rights records.
Nepal is the sixth largest troops-contributing country to the UN Peace Keeping Missions in various conflict zones around the world, with altogether 4,651 peacekeepers, including 110 women, currently serving in various 12 UN missions.
It may be recalled that the OHCHR, in early October, had released a 233-page Nepal Conflict Report that chronicles some 30,000 documents and cases of the insurgency-era human rights violations. The Report shows that some 60 percent of cases of serious human rights violations were committed by state security agencies.
As Nepal steps up diplomatic efforts through its embassies in London and Geneva to secure the release of Colonel Lama, while trying to convince the international community, including the UK, that it is in the process to form its own TRC to address serious human rights violation cases during the conflict, the next few weeks will be crucial for Nepal, and the date to watch out for: January 24, when Colonel Lama will be produced at the Central Criminal Crown Court in London.
This will also be a test case for Nepal´s diplomacy in view of the various rights bodies, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, putting pressures on the UK authorities not to let pressures from Kathmandu have any influence in Lama´s prosecution.