Awaiting Justice? Time to re-think the picturing of conflict survivors in Nepal

I was at the British Embassy in Kathmandu a couple of weeks back to attend a gathering on enforced disappearances. The event marked the 6th anniversary of the killing a 15-year-old girl, Maina Sunuwar, in 2004 by the Nepal Army. The main draw was the première of a short film entitled, ‘Awaiting Justice‘ (presented as ‘Nyay Kahile?’ in Nepali, which literally translates as ‘Justice When?’). The film documents a visit in December 2009 by nine top diplomats to Bardiya District where a high number of people were ‘disappeared’ during Nepal’s decade long conflict (1996-2006).

I was looking forward to seeing the film, but  the title had already begun to raise questions in my mind. I tend not to be a pedant when it comes to language, but I have seen such passive terminology far too often when referring to rights holders in Nepal. ‘Waiting’ is a term that is unfortunately reflected in the way many of the individuals are represented, not least by the human rights movement.

Since the end of the conflict there has been a concerted push by human rights organisations, both national and international, as well as some embassies and the UN (particularly OHCHR – Nepal), for investigations and prosecutions into past abuses. This has mainly focussed on case documentation and political lobbying via legal argumentation. Despite this there are those of the opinion that survivors and the families of those ‘disappeared’ or unlawfully killed have been, up until recently, marginal voices in this campaign, with their priorities given less prominence in the face of the more powerful international ‘human rights project‘. Some would even say that the families agenda has been deliberately distorted to fit that of the international community. A cynical analysis would be that this agenda centres on furthering international human rights law through work in politically weak and conflict damaged countries, with an emphasis on ‘putting people in prison‘ rather than delivering to the wishes of those who suffered most (which tends to centre on material and emotional relief).  Not that justice isn’t a good thing, it just raises the question of who all this effort is actually for? If in reality things are far more complex than the cynics may have you believe, this is not to say there is not an element of truth here. There are certainly legitimate questions to be asked about the independence of some CBOs in Nepal, and whether undue influence is exerted on them to be ‘on message’ with the bigger agencies controlling the agenda and funding. What interests me most though is how this plays out strategically and representationally?

Few resources and time appear to have gone into growing the public profile of the CBOs and winning arguments amongst the public to mobilise support. The ‘legal-first’ strategy that is pushed so hard by the various human rights agencies is making slow progress exactly because it is not duel tracked with a wider communication strategy that seeks to garner support beyond a narrow constituency of human rights activists and lawyers. Documentation of cases and legal arguments saturate the landscape, with a war of words occupying what small amount of media space is given over to these issues. Almost forgotten are the lives of those who live on. When we do hear from them it is usually to recount, once again, the painful episode that took their loved ones away from them (‘the case’).

The embassy film thus takes a now predictable format – a parade of  ‘cases’, narrowly defining the individuals in the context of the abuse rather than as complex and dynamic people. This is particularly evident in the main segment of the film where the diplomats are petitioned by a group of people who lost relatives or were themselves tortured. The decision to include so much of the meeting is questionable as it fails to engage after a short time. Not that the testimonies are  boring or unmoving. What they are is contextually adrift in a barren meeting hall, where embassy staff sit silently as if holding court before their 4×4 convoy returns them to Kathmandu. There is no attempt to break down the empathic gap between the audience and people featured. More surprisingly, there is almost no explanation about why the diplomats made the trip to Bardiya, possibly underlining the exclusive nature of the product (i.e. it is for those who know rather than to info those who don’t). I am also unable to tell you what the film is for or how it will be used.

This is not a criticism of  the international community in Nepal, they do good work – and this initiative may turn out to be well placed. The criticism is this – firstly, if you are to spend time and money on visual media then a lot more thought is needed than appears to have gone into this production, that even at 10mins failed to engage me or generate empathy due to its narrow passive ‘victimisation’ of those it represents. The second criticism, and the more important as it goes beyond one short film, is why such representations persist (when there are obvious alternatives) and whether they expose a dynamic between the rights holders and those agencies who take a ‘for the community’ rather than a ‘with the community‘ strategy?

It is strange that despite the involvement of the self organised community based organisation – Conflict Victims Committee – there is no representation in the film of the substantial work they have done in campaigning for justice. In fact I have not come across one substantial piece of visual media that looks at these CBOs in Nepal (though that doesn’t mean such work isn’t out there).

Of course, it is unrealistic to expect embassies to be masters of visual communications, and the fact that they even thought about filming their initiative (which was mainly symbolic – the abuses are already well documented) is positive. But such agents need to realise that winning the legal arguments is only half the battle. Failure to generate a ground swell of public solidarity with those who fight for justice and reparations will at the very least hamper progress, at worst make you irrelevant.

A more thoughtful approach is taken in the 2009 International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)  film, unfortunately with an equally passive sounding title, ‘The Wait Continues‘. The film narrows its focus on one incident where 17 workers from Jogimara were reported killed whilst working at an airport construction site in Kalikot.

The film is a more considered affair than ‘Awaiting Justice’, where the audience is firmly placed in the context of the 15 families who lost their sons. They are interviewed in their village and homes. We see them going about their daily lives. Yet it is what the family members recount that is most notable. Rather than presenting details of ‘the case’ (we learn only the basic facts of what happened) they tell us about their hopes and fears, their doubts and ways of coping. A particular poignant moment is when one man relates how his neighbour has moved away to escape the memories of his son. But asks, ‘What will he do with his son’s plate, and the glass he drunk from?’ immediately summoning a human universal of the memories evoked in us by objects used by the ones we love.

Towards the end of the film ICRC reps walk into the village. This is probably the most awkward moment throughout and draws attention to the fact the focus is on a community that has found it difficult to represent itself effectively (though it does note that others have). It is an all too familiar image – the human rights /UN worker who comes to the village to ‘extract’ research information, maybe never to return, leaving the interviewees disheartened and suspicious of their intentions. This cannot be a direct criticism of the film itself, which is well made, or ICRC for that matter, but does highlight the lack of visual media that presents the pro-active, self organisation of many families across the country to fight (rather than ‘wait’) for reparations, truth and justice. The ICRC documentary is complimented by a set of decent stills by K.Kayastha that begin to scratch a surface that could do with a bit more scratching.

he ‘legal-first’ singular track has produced a stack of reports. Much could have been done to wed these with a visual advocacy strategy – much in the way OSI has done in recent times. A couple of reports illustrate a lost opportunities. The ‘waiting‘ continues in two reports by the Nepalese human rights organisation Advocacy Forum (AF) and US based NGO, Human Rights Watch (HRW). AF is an excellent organisation, and I have worked with them in the past. However, a strategic shift in the representation of survivors and rights holders would be a positive step.

Two reports – ‘Waiting for Justice‘ and ‘Still Waiting for Justice‘ – present excellent documentation on over 60 cases of ‘unpunished crimes from Nepal’s Armed Conflict‘. In many instances AF has fought hard for these cases to be investigated by the police, despite obstruction. However, once more we enter the territory of passive victims, illustrated in the first report by the widely used (and rather tired in my opinion) photographic technique  of representing ‘disappearances’ by having family members hold up photos of those that are missing (in the second report photos are abandoned except for the cover, which incidentally is one of mine – where at least we see the family members out on the streets protesting).

What surprises more is that HRW did not do more to improve the visual representation. Over the last couple of years to their credit they have done much to adopt more visual tools in their work, particularly on their website.

Other examples are the reports by OHCHR-Nepal on abuses in the Maharajgung army barracks and in Bardiya district. The Maharajgung report does not feature any photos at all. A glossy summary version of the Bardiya report (the original version having almost sunk without trace on it launch) contains eight un-captioned colour photos – with none of the photos being self explanatory enough to stand alone. This disappoints all the more because UN agencies, including OHCHR themselves with their work on prison conditions in Nepal, have grasped the value of visual media in providing context and building understanding in the wider population. I covered this here.

It is obvious from such laudable initiatives, such as A People’s War trilogy, that with some effort and thought a more diverse and nuanced representation can be produced. The thing the project did best was invest in a time scale that allowed the people pictured to become rounded individuals to the viewer. Through the follow-up book, and last in the trilogy, ‘People After War‘, we are able to travel along a narrative that leads the reader away from a black and white reading of events and people. The exhibition that travelled across the country drew huge crowds (allegedly 350,000), with some of their thoughts recorded in the second book in the trilogy, ‘Never Again‘. Six thousand copies of ‘A People War‘ were distributed to schools and libraries for free. So, why did one publisher decide it was necessary to have such a public debate on these issues, but not one human rights agency has come close to producing an initiative that stimulates such a public interaction?

Obviously, an argument can be made that all these representations differ due to the agents responsible for them, their objectives , expertise and the time available to produce them. This is a fair point – as it is fair to say that factually people are ‘waiting’ due to the state being the agent to deliver some of the things they want. But what ever your appraisal of these different approaches it is hard to deny that what is lacking is a substantial participatory communication approach that puts the power of representation in the hands of the families and survivors (at the very least this would enhance historic documentation). This may open up more space to discuss some of the issues of social exclusion that lead to the violations in the first place and remain un-resolved. A coherent communication strategy that looks to engage with a wider public audience in Nepal in order to increase pressure on political actors wouldn’t go a miss either.

These would not only go some way to addressing criticism that families lack control over how they are represented, and how their priorities are not accurately portrayed by the mainstream human rights community. It could also begin to break down societal barriers that currently block the establishment of a wider debate and recognition of the injustice that is being perpetuated. Whether participatory or not, a venture that focussed more on ‘campaigning‘ rather than ‘waiting‘ would be a good start.

Examples from other countries should inform those working in this sector in Nepal of what is possible. From a professional point of view the work of Paula Allen with the women of Calama in Chile stands out as a committed and long term approach. Marcelo Brodsky’s work ‘Buena Memoria‘ from Argentina provides an inclusive and personal documentation and memorial to  those who were ‘disappeared’ from his school (watch the video for the event held to remember those who were killed). Omar D’s work on ‘disappearances’ in Algeria, ‘Devoir de memoire/A Biography of Disappearance, Algeria 1992-, commissioned and edited by Autograph ABP, is also worth noting. As is the discussed at an LSE conference on ‘disappearances’ in Algeria in 2008, raising the question;

‘How we can disseminate the truth about events that are officially denied or obfuscated by the legal system, how to lobby for the application of UN resolutions on forced disappearances and whether human rights organisations can overcome post-colonial and economic interests. Can imagery be more potent than text in bringing human rights issues into public knowledge? Can we talk of a politics of aesthetics in the context of subjects who have been stripped of their civil existence? How can the invisible be made visible?

To watch a video introduction to the LSE event click here.

Also worth checking out is the ‘Existence Denied‘ book produced by the International Coalition of Enforced Disappearances (ICAED) that pulls together a series of stills from around the world that illustrate the emotional impact of those whose loved ones have been disappeared, as well as the activism they themselves have initiated to find out what happened and bring perpetrators to book.

Agencies can also explore the value of participatory photography as a tool for communication within and across communities, for understanding and reconciliation, but also for historical documentation. Not that such methodology is without its faults, but as I discussed in this post it lends itself to just this situation. A good example is the TAFOS (social photographic workshops) project in Peru which took place in the context of political violence, extreme poverty and lack of political representation – a situation similar to Nepal’s.

Much of the value of the project is encapsulated in this quote, which I will leave you with;

… “TAFOS was a project of visual inclusion, with pictures that, in its character of a documentary mirror, made visible the invisible and took risks for a country still alive. Their pictures show us a country struggling for respect and recognition of basic rights for its people; a country in the process of consolidation and transformation that, however, still enjoys life; summing up, a country with a clear bet for life and change”.

Huarcaya, Roberto. Hacer visible lo invisible. In: País de Luz. Talleres de Fotografía Social, TAFOS. Perú: 1986-1998. Lima-Peru: Pastor y Müller, 2006. p. 44-47 (English Translation).

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