The Nepal Government has denied that a joint team from the Nepal Army and Chitwan National Park destroyed homes belonging to landless Chepang people on 18 July 2020.
The operation “removed 8 Katha of maize crop, 9 wooden towers and 2 sheds from the area (but) the operation team has not destroyed any of those 8 HHs [households] Iiving there and any of their property,” says a letter to United Nations (UN) human rights experts dated 21 December.
Razing of the houses was condemned by organizations led by Amnesty International Nepal, which called it an “act of cruelty” and a human rights violation.
In its letter, the Permanent Mission of Nepal to the UN in Geneva writes that 201 households had been removed from a buffer zone of the park, in Madi Municipality, in 2017 but that eight other households did not relocate and “continued to capture the land through cultivation of crops, putting wooden watch towers and so on. The park authority has been warning them time and again but they didn’t pay any attention”.
Houses destroyed without warning
The Chepang families say that without warning on 20 July the personnel set fire to two of their homes and used elephants to trample eight others, destroying money, identity papers and other possessions, along with the dwellings. They added that they had been willing to move as requested earlier but had been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, reported The Record.
Two days later, Raj Kumar Chepang, who had been arrested in the park with six others on 16 July for reportedly fishing illegally, died in hospital. His family says he was tortured in custody.
In a letter to the government, four UN human rights experts wrote on 16 October 2020, “While we do not wish to prejudge the accuracy of these allegations, we are concerned that forced evictions, intimidation and violations of the rights of indigenous peoples are escalating.
“We wish to recall that already in 2008 following his country visit to Nepal, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples raised concerns over serious human rights violations committed against indigenous peoples in the Chitwan National Park by park rangers and military officials designated to patrol the park’s premises,” continues the letter.
“We are concerned that forced evictions, intimidation and violations of the rights of indigenous peoples are escalating”— United Nations Special Rapporteurs
The experts add that they were “gravely concerned over the reported violence and alleged acts of torture and ill-treatment perpetrated by Army personnel against Chepang community members, which appear to have caused the death of Mr. Raj Kumar.
“Those allegations, if confirmed, would contravene the absolute and non-derogable prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under international law.”
The letter writers are non-paid, independent experts elected for three-year mandates to monitor specific human rights or situations in particular geographic areas. Their role includes receiving allegations of human rights violations and communicating about these to governments and in reports to the UN Human Rights Commission. They do not have power or authority to enforce their views or recommendations.
Soldier charged with murder, in custody
Responding to the allegations of Raj Kumar Chepang’s death, the Permanent Mission of Nepal letter says that the alleged perpetrator, an army officer, has been arrested, charged with murder and is in custody. Security has been provided to witnesses of the incident, it adds. In addition, his family has been provided compensation of one million rupees plus the cost of his daughter’s schooling.
Authorities are “always highly sensitive towards proper law enforcement and securing all the fundamental rights of citizens ensured by the Constitution. The National Parks are always working for the conservation of forest and wildlife with due consideration of the protection of Human Rights,” the letter says.
In their own letter the experts list numerous human rights laws that apply to the incidents. These include the: UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and UNESCO’s Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention.
“Please provide information on the criminal investigations that the Government has carried out in order to investigate and bring to justice the perpetrators of the burning and destruction of houses and forced eviction of the Chepang community, the alleged torture and ill-treatment of Chepang community members and the death of Mr. Raj Kumar Chepang. If no investigation has been performed, kindly explain why,” adds the letter.