No one seems to know who is calling the shots in Nepal. The silence is deafening when that question is asked of academics, human rights advocates, journalists and others who are interested in the future of what has become one of the world's poorest and most lawless nations. There is no single answer - perhaps it is the king, parliament, army, Maoist insurgents or the countries with the most influence, the US and India. That confusion lies behind Nepal's slide from a hopeful, new democracy in 1990 to what some experts now describe as a state lacking governance, civil and human rights, and law and order. Central to the descent is the civil war launched by Maoist rebels in 1996 to create a communist republic. More than 11,000 people have since been killed and the figure mounts daily, often by double digits. Despite US and Indian military and financial support, the army is making little headway against the rebels. As the conflict drags on, seemingly without resolution, tactics on both sides have become increasingly dirty. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, highlighted the problems during a visit to Kathmandu which ended this week. She criticised the rebels for using children as soldiers and told the military to end abuses such as illegal detentions. 'I call upon both sides to make an unequivocal and formal commitment to uphold fundamental rights and to fully respect international humanitarian law,' Ms Arbour said. Her comments echoed the sentiments of a slew of reports issued in recent months by human rights and non-government groups. Some, including Amnesty International and the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, have concluded the best way forward is for UN intervention through the appointment of a special rapporteur to help negotiate peace. But experts agreed this week that, given Nepal's political confusion, such an approach only raised the deeper problem of who was in a position to negotiate with the Maoists. Recent opinion polls have shown Nepalis strongly back democracy and reject a return of the monarchy or rule by the Maoists. But they also expressed more than four times more support - up to 38 per cent - for the Maoists than for the main political parties, the Nepali Congress and United Marxist Leninist Communist Party (UML). Nonetheless, an ACNielsen/Org-marg survey conducted for the US-based National Democratic Institute and published last month showed 67 per cent of the 3,000 respondents from 60 of the country's 75 districts approved of the job being done by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. Mr Deuba was sacked by King Gyanendra in October 2002 for incompetence, but reappointed last June. His tenure and that of his multi-party cabinet are dependant on the king for support. That, civil rights proponents claim, flies in the face of the 1990 constitution which removed the absolute monarchy and ushered in democracy with elections the following year. The experiment has so far been shallow, though, especially with the start of the insurgency and failed attempts by a succession of governments to broker peace. Gyanendra became king in June, 2001, after the heir to the throne, crown prince Dipendra, killed king Birendra, Queen Aishwarya and nine other members of the royal family in a shooting spree at the palace. The prince then turned the gun on himself and died several days later. Civil rights groups claim King Gyanendra has effectively been in control since declaring a state of emergency in November, 2001, after increasing attacks by the Maoists and the collapse of peace talks. The executive director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, Basil Fernando, said last week that the result was a political and legal vacuum that permitted abuses by the army and Maoists. His group's report, issued on January 20 in conjunction with its sister organisation, the Asian Legal Resource Centre, said Nepal was 'drowning in a madness of barbarity without any rule of law and seeing its people killed, tortured, forcibly disappeared, displaced and living in constant fear'. 'Instead of providing protection to the people, all the state institutions responsible for the basic functioning of the country are conducive to the growth of terror and uncertainty among the population,' the report said. It included a list of 1,003 names of people who had disappeared after apparently being taken by the army to military camps for questioning. Mr Fernando said that men, girls and women between the ages of 18 and 80 had been taken to the camps for interrogation. He contended many had nothing to do with the insurgency. As Nepal had signed and ratified all international covenants on civil and political rights, it was obligated to abide by the rules they stipulated. 'If a person has to be detained, the defence ministry secretary should sign an authorisation - even in an insurgency,' Mr Fernando said. 'There is nothing like that happening. It is virtually a situation of anarchy, allowing the military to solve the situation as it wishes.' Ms Arbour's five-day visit lifted some of the gloom, as it seemed to be seen as a first step towards UN involvement. But even if her report does lead to the UN Security Council appointing a special rapporteur, there is no guarantee of a change in the situation. The recommendations made by the UN's special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Asma Jahangir, after a visit at the invitation of parliament in January 2000, were never implemented. Among her observations was that there was an 'urgent need to put in place strong, independent and credible mechanisms to investigate and prosecute alleged human rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions and disappearances, attributed to the police and other state agents'. Five years later, that plea is still being echoed by human rights groups. Nepali analyst Deepak Thapa doubted that a special rapporteur could do much other than highlight the crisis to an international audience. Ultimately, though, a decision on international action 'boils down to figures'. 'The 11,000 deaths is not much compared to the killings in conflicts elsewhere,' said Dr Thapa, the head of the Kathmandu-based Himal Association's Social Science Centre. 'That is the reason why human rights groups have generally been late in coming to Nepal and only recently been expressing concern.' UN concern would put pressure on the US and Indian governments to 'tighten the screws' on Nepal's political leaders and army to be more aware that the world was watching. 'This is something that no number of reports from Amnesty International or other groups will do - it will have more weight,' Dr Thapa said. Nepal's army has been receiving financial and military help from the US and India since the American-led war on terrorism was declared after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Outgoing US Secretary of State Colin Powell made a landmark visit to Kathmandu in January 2002, after which US$20 million of economic assistance was pledged. Mr Deuba is also known to have close links to the US State Department. India has supplied helicopters and weapons to Nepal's army. China also has an indirect role. As a neighbour of Nepal, it is doubtless eyeing US operations closely. Dr Thapa said that while India's government was fearful of any Maoist insurgency spilling across its border, there was little support in New Delhi for King Gyanendra. The US also faced a dilemma because it rejected a Maoist takeover of Nepal, and had little choice but to back the king because he had the army's support. In such circumstances, democracy would suffer, Dr Thapa concluded. Not all Nepalis share such bleak assessments. From Kathmandu and in the larger cities and towns, the insurgency is far less noticeable than in the countryside. Investigative journalist Binod Bhattarai said that the insurgency had changed the nature of society, making it more accepting of the violence the insurgency had brought. A recent trip to the country's far western areas had brought home the seriousness of the situation, which was not so noticeable in the capital. 'The far west is one of the areas where the Maoist influence is strong,' Mr Bhattarai said. 'It's totally different from Kathmandu. The conflict we feel here is many, many times more subdued than in the districts. [Plain clothed] security personnel with guns are on patrol and the Maoists also move around with guns without formal uniform. That's in the plains and it's worse in the mountains.' He believed that, in the circumstances, the military was in control of the country. Former water resources minister Dipak Gyawali denied that the situation was as bad as human rights groups and the foreign media made out. 'The situation now is really not much worse than before,' he said. 'It's the current political drift that heightens the sense of crisis, leading to a lot of angst among human rights groups and the media.' Mr Gyawali conceded that there was confusion about who was in control of the country, although the king had made it clear he stood for multi-party democracy and a constitutional monarchy. However, there would be stalemate while political parties refused to reform to allow for change, he said. Elections wanted by Mr Deuba may force that change. But whether such steps will lead to the resumption of talks with the Maoist rebels and an end to Nepal's impasse is uncertain. International pressure may yet be the best hope for Nepal.