Saturday, September 2, 2006

Challenges for Civil Society in Nepal

More than dozens of innocent civilians have been killed by the Maoists after the revival of parliament in April. The Maoists hacked to death NC cadre Sushil Gyawali in broad daylight in Bardia. They attacked and injured over eighteen people, including lawyers, journalists and pedestrians while they were demonstrating against the Maoist atrocities in Bara. Raj Kumar Kusiyat was abducted from his house in Sunsari district.

These are some of the Maoist atrocities that surfaced in the media in the last couple of weeks. All these cases have one thing in common -- the perpetrators. The perpetrators in all these cases were the Maoists who believe in Mao Tse-tung's "power comes from the barrel of a gun".

While the Maoist atrocities continue unabated in post-April Nepal, the human right activists are nowhere to be seen as they were during King Gyanendra's heydays -- crisscrossing the globe attending talk programs and delivering lectures on human rights abuses taking place in Nepal.

Shouldn't they be protesting against the Maoist atrocities and pressurizing them to denounce violence? However, it is not the silence of human rights groups that surprises me the most but the silence of the "official" civil society that vehemently opposed and helped bring down King Gyanendra's despotic rule.

Civil society can and has played a significant role in safeguarding human rights, peace building, and democratization in different parts of the globe.

In countries such as South Africa, Mozambique, Mali, the Philippines, Guatemala, Liberia, and Northern Ireland peace, reconciliation, and democratization became possible in part due to the relentless effort and neutral stance of civil societies.

During the April revolution, hundreds of thousand of citizens participated in mass rallies organized by the "official" civil society. Nepali citizens ignored and betrayed by politicians for decades had found a strong platform for citizen activism in the form of civil society.

However, the failure on part of "official" civil society to condemn the Maoist atrocities which is against the ceasefire code of conduct signed between the government and the Maoists has raised a question on the neutrality of the civil society.

The civil society of pre-April revolution era was the projection into the future of a vision that rested upon an emotional unity. However, the civil society of post-April revolution cannot and should not base itself on mere emotions. The leaders of civil society should strive hard on the building of carefully nurtured institutions, practical realization of ethical values, and involvement of the greatest possible numbers of people in public life.

The main task of civil society in post-April revolutionary era is to construct democratic mechanisms of stability that secure constitutional checks and balances, increase public awareness in the spirit of respect for law, and encourage citizen activism.

Civil society is a major component of democracy. It creates a much needed participatory space for the citizens. In Nepal where radical communist insurgency has taken a heavy toll, existence of an active and neutral civil society has an ideological function: as a component in a counter ideology to "authoritarianism".

The civil society has a greater responsibility towards safeguarding political freedom and legitimatization of a social space in which private property and economic institutions ought to develop independently without state's interference.

The obvious obstacle to democratization is the civil disorder, violation of human rights, and civil liberties. There has been an unprecedented upsurge in crimes, vandalism, and vigilantism in the last decade or so. Such social pathologies have tremendously eroded the levels of trust and social capital. The civil society now must work towards revival of the lost trust and societal capital that is necessary for democratic stability and societal well-being.

Both in the liberal and the socialist visions of civil society, the basic organizing principle is the same-human rights. The official civil society which once enjoyed tremendous public support and played an important role bringing down the autocratic regime may lose societal trust and support if it fails to voice concerns and protest against indiscriminate killings, tortures of innocent civilians, abductions, and extortions.

Indifference and passivity on part of citizens is the greatest threat to democracy. A democratic state cannot survive without active citizens.

Civil society does not act in opposition to the democratic state, but cooperates with it and helps achieve democratic stability. Instead of staying silent on the Maoist atrocities, the leaders of civil society should raise the concerns.

For the consolidation of democracy, we need a civil society whose members agree that we should all live together under a common system of rule making and enforcement. Human rights and democracy are inseparable and interdependent. Human rights standards underpin a meaningful conception of democracy and democracy offers the best hope for the promotion and protection of human rights and civil liberties.

The civil society should strive towards promoting truth, justice, and reconciliation. The parties involved in violation of human rights that took place in the last one and a half decades have not sought any kind of forgiveness. The victims of human rights abuses continue to suffer psychologically. These victims, most of which are internally displaced citizens do not even have a choice between either justice or peace because neither option explicitly or officially is offered to them yet.

Internally displaced citizens are still forced to live in subhuman living conditions. Their plight is still being undermined and ignored by both the government and the Maoists.

Like many post-revolutionary societies, political landscape in Nepal has evolved and changed tremendously in the past couple of months. Civil society should take a lead in promoting accountability and justice for past abuses.

It should assist in the long-term task of reconciliation. It would be extremely hard and in some case impossible for internally displaced people to forgive the Maoist cadres in their villages that forced them to flee their homes.

Nepal's future as a well functioning democratic state to a large extent rests on effectiveness of the civil society. The leaders of the civil society should not let public trust be eroded because when people are pessimistic and lose confidence, they withdraw from the effort to build a better life and community. Society begins to lose its talent and energy. The decade-long bloody insurgency has claimed thousands of innocent people and displaced millions of fellow citizens. We cannot and should not withdraw from the struggle of building our nation.

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