On July 20-21, 1998, an Algerian government delegation met with the United Nations Human Rights Committee to discuss Algeria's second periodic report regarding its implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In its oral presentation to the committee on July 20, the Algerian delegation insisted that "there was no crisis of human rights in Algeria" but rather "a terrorist phenomenon which violated human rights." After its review, the committee, in unusually strong language, characterized the Algerian situation precisely as a "widespread human rights crisis."
The Human Rights Committee is a body of eighteen independent experts, elected by the 140 countries that are states parties to the ICCPR to monitor the implementation of the covenant (for a description of the committee and the text of the ICCPR, see Appendices 2 and 3 of this report). The committee's findings draw badly needed attention to the plight of ordinary Algerians who have been caught up in a vicious cycle of violence. Security forces have been implicated in torture, forced disappearances, arbitrary killings, and extrajudicial executions on a scale that can only be characterized as systematic. Women and men, young and old, have been brutally slaughtered by armed groups. Insurgent groups have engaged in a campaign of terror and intimidation against women and girls in particular, many of whom have been abducted, sexually assaulted, and sometimes mutilated by members of armed groups. The committee, in condemning the massacres of civilians, expressed particular concern that "women have been the victims of not only killings but also of abduction and rape and severe violence." It also called attention to the apparent failure of the authorities in a number of massacre situations to intervene to protect the population or to apprehend the perpetrators, and considered that allegations of involvement or collusion by the security forces themselves in these atrocities were widespread and persistent enough to require independent investigation. (The committee's "Concluding Observations" are reprinted as Appendix 1 of this report.)
The committee's report comes as the Algerian government continues to resist independent scrutiny of this "widespread human rights crisis." The authorities have stoutly refused to accede to the request of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, that they cooperate with expert U.N. bodies such as the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. The government has similarly ignored requests by independent international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to conduct fact-finding missions relating to the most severe abuses. Such credible investigations are critical to ensure that the perpetrators of atrocities and human rights abuses do not continue to enjoy impunity and the victims are not compelled to live in a climate of fear.
Algeria did, however, agree to receive a "panel of eminent persons" appointed by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and headed by Mario Soares, the former president of Portugal, which visited Algeria from July 22 through August 4. The secretary general was careful not to describe the mission of the panel in terms of human rights. Rather, its charge was to "gather information on the situation in Algeria and present a report to him, which he will make public." According to Annan's spokesperson, "The government of Algeria has assured the secretary-general that it will ensure free and complete access to all sources of information necessary for the panel to exercise its functions in order to have a clear vision and a precise perception of the reality of the situation in all its dimensions in Algeria today." The other members of the delegation are I.K. Gujral, former prime minister of India, Abd al-Karim al-Kabariti, former prime minister of Jordan, Donald McHenry, former U.S. permanent representative to the U.N., Simone Veil, former French secretary of state, and Amos Wako, attorney general of Kenya and former U.N. special rapporteur on summary and arbitrary executions. At the time of writing, the group had not yet presented its report to Annan. In light of the Human Rights Committee's conclusions, the special panel's handling of Algeria's human rights crisis, a crisis the government insists does not exist, will be closely watched. The diplomats' visit, in any event, should not be seen as a substitute for an in-country investigation by U.N. human rights experts such as the special rapporteurs on torture and extrajudicial executions.
The Algerian government's fifty-five page report to the Human Rights Committee, submitted in March and more than two years overdue, described in detail the official bodies established and statutes passed since 1992 with respect to human rights. Human Rights Watch, in the briefing paper it submitted to the committee regarding Algeria's report, examined the discrepancies between the report and actual practices with regard to the gravest human rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions, torture, forced "disappearances," arbitrary arrest and detention, failure to protect the right to life, and restrictions on the rights of freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Because the mandate of the Human Rights Committee is to assess implementation of the ICCPR by the government in question, neither its findings nor the Human Rights Watch submission address in any detail the responsibility of the armed groups for the many atrocities they are alleged (or in some cases claim) to have committed.
The committee prefaced its August 4 "Concluding Observations" on Algeria's report by stating that the two days of discussions with government representatives were "characterized by a sense of solidarity by the Committee with the suffering of the Algerian people." However, it found the government's report deficient in its failure to "provide sufficient specific data" and expressed regret "that many of its questions were not fully answered by the Delegation." The committee expressed serious concern regarding the government's compliance with its obligations under the covenant in a number of areas, including those highlighted by the Human Rights Watch submission. Among the committee's most significant conclusions were the following:
Massacres of Civilians
The committee declared that it was "appalled at the widespread massacre of men, women and children in a great number of villages and towns," and the sexual violence directed against women. The committee went on to express concern "at the lack of timely or preventive measures of protection to the victims from police or military officials in the vicinity and at the persistent allegations of collusion of members of the security forces in terrorist attacks." The committee urged Algeria to conduct independent investigations, and "in all cases of massacres to conduct an independent enquiry into the conduct of the security forces, from the lowest to the highest levels, and where appropriate, to subject them to penal and disciplinary sanctions."
Arbitrary Killings and Extrajudicial Executions
The committee characterized the government's responses "with regard to innumerable reports" of such killings, some while in custody, as "less than satisfactory"; it urged the government to set up independent mechanisms to investigate such cases, to bring offenders to justice, and to grant access to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other independent observers.
The committee, while noting the denials of the government, wrote that it was "deeply concerned over persistent allegations of systematic torture" and "deplore[d] the apparent routine acceptance by trial court judges of confessions extracted under duress, even where there is medical evidence of torture...." It urged the government to establish a credible system for monitoring treatment of detainees, to have specific allegations of torture investigated by an impartial body and the results published, and to ensure that officials involved in torture are prosecuted and, if convicted, severely punished.
The committee expressed grave concern at the number of "disappearances" and "the failure of the State to respond adequately, or indeed at all, to such serious violations." The committee urged the Algerian government to establish a central register to record "all reported disappearances and the day to day action taken to retrace the disappeared." It further asked the government to give an account in its next report, due in June 2000, of the number of cases reported, the investigations conducted, and the results achieved.
The committee addressed Algerian human rights violations in other areas as well, including issues such as the independence of the judiciary, media censorship, and restrictions on the right to form political parties. With regard to legislation, the committee recommended that Algeria amend its Family Code to eliminate "important areas of inequality" for women, and to revise Penal Code amendments that increased the number of death penalty offenses and extended the time for which a suspect may be held in garde à vue detention.1 The committee also expressed concern that the Arabic Language Decree of July 5, 1998, mandating "the compulsory, immediate and exclusive use of that language in all areas of public activity," would "impede large sections of the population who use Berber or French" in their enjoyment of the rights to free expression, to exchange and receive information, and to participate in public affairs.
The committee commended Algeria for several steps the government had taken, including the establishment of the semi-official National Observatory for Human Rights and the National Commission for the Preservation and Promotion of Women. It welcomed the Algerian delegation's undertaking to submit additional written information in response to the committee's questions, and requested that Algeria's next periodic report "should contain material which responds to all the present concluding observations." The committee also requested that this second periodic report and the committee's concluding observations "be widely disseminated among the public at large in all parts of Algeria."
An Algerian Foreign Ministry spokesperson characterized the committee's concluding observations as "offensive," and based on "facts that the committee itself recognizes to be allegations and which it accepts without the slightest discernment."2 The head of the Algerian delegation, Mohamed Salah Dembri, declared that the delegation "has called into question and rejected in advance all of the assessments of the experts which are based on allegations generally originating from the four NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and a set of information which has not been cross checked or submitted to cross-examination....we have said in advance that we would consider [the committee's procedure] as null and void because it was not founded on documented proof."3
The eighteen independent experts on the committee are, in the words of the covenant, "persons of high moral character and recognized competence in the field of human rights" who are elected in their individual capacities to four year terms. As judges, lawyers, and human rights professionals, they are experienced in evaluating the reliability of sources and validity of allegations, and in examining situations such as that of Algeria, in which the government contributes substantially to the obstacles to comprehensive fact-finding and monitoring.
The committee's conclusions constitute the most severe indictment by any U.N. body of the Algerian government's human rights practices since the civil strife escalated in 1992. The series of massacres in Algeria that,especially since 1996, have claimed the lives of thousands of innocent women, men, and children, which the government and many outside observers attribute exclusively to armed Islamist insurgent groups, are part of a larger human rights crisis. This larger crisis is characterized by grave and systematic human rights violations by or seemingly with the collusion of the security forces as well as atrocities on a massive scale by armed opposition groups. It is also characterized by a serious deficit of information about what is taking place, who is responsible, and why, in the case of the massacres, the government has been unable to afford protection to Algeria's citizens and residents. This information deficit is the result of a number of factors: One is the terror and repression that have made many citizens afraid of speaking out. Other factors include the restrictive government policies that have severely curtailed access to international human rights observers and journalists, and the government's failure to conduct or allow any credible and transparent investigations.
In its successful campaign to preempt any critical resolution at the annual meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in March and April 1998, the Algerian authorities argued that the crisis was one of terrorism, not human rights, and that the government was nearing its goal of containing this crisis. The authorities adamantly rejected widespread calls for an international inquiry, insisting that the crisis was entirely an internal matter in which the international community had no useful or legitimate role to play. Algeria's obligation to the international community with regard to its human rights record, the government further argued, would be met in its forthcoming report to the Human Rights Committee.
Human Rights Watch, in welcoming the findings and recommendations of the U.N. Human Rights Committee, calls attention to the committee's stress on the importance of independent investigations in cases of massacres, arbitrary killings, extrajudicial executions, and "disappearances." The committee further recommends that Algeria allow access to the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international observers. Human Rights Watch also shares the concern of the committee with regard to the Algerian government's encouragement of the formation of local militia known as "legitimate defense groups." Given the questionable competence, training, and supervision of these groups, and frequent reports of killings that went beyond self-defense and the limits of the law, Human Rights Watch endorses the committee's recommendation that they be "brought under the strict and effective control of responsible State organs."
Human Rights Watch strongly urges Algeria to take steps to implement the committee's recommendations-most urgently those recommendations relating to clear violations of the right to life and the integrity of the person. In particular, Human Rights Watch calls on the Algerian authorities to:
· Establish a credible independent body to investigate massacres and other arbitrary killings and extrajudicial executions, to make public its findings, and to refer its findings to the appropriate judicial authorities so that those responsible may be brought to justice. This office or commission should have sufficient resources to carry out its mandate, and the public assurance of President Liamine Zeroual that it will have the power to question government officials and security forces at all levels.
· Release unconditionally all persons arbitrarily detained. Establish a public register listing the names, whereabouts, and pertinent details of detention for all persons detained by all branches of the security forces. Investigate allegations of unlawful or arbitrary detention, make the results public, and ensure that persons responsible are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished in accordance with the law.
· Establish a credible system for monitoring treatment of all detainees, particularly during the period of garde à vue detention, when torture and abuse of detainees is most common. Ensure that convictions at trials are not based solely on confessions made during garde à vue detention. Communicate to all military, intelligence and security forces, and judicial authorities, that torture will not be tolerated, and that officials who order or condone such actions will be prosecuted and, if convicted, punished in accordance with the gravity of these crimes.
1 Garde à vue refers to the period of pre-arraignment detention, limited to forty-eight hours generally but extended by a 1995 amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure to twelve days for crimes that are considered "terrorist or subversive acts." During this period the state prosecutor must be informed of the detention and the detainee is legally entitled to communicate directly with his or her family and receive their visits. In practice these rights are often not accorded by the arresting authorities, and the time limits are frequently exceeded.
2 Lyes Malki, "Algeria `Indignantly' Rejects the Human Rights Committee's Report," La Tribune, August 4, 1998, p.3. The spokesperson, Abdelaziz Sbaa, also said it was "unacceptable" that the committee failed to note steps the government had taken such as the closing of administrative detention centers, the moratorium on the death penalty, and the suppression of special courts.
3 Interviewed by Tayeb Belghiche, "M. Dembri: `Allegations,'" El Watan, August 2, 1998, p.2. "The four NGOs" are presumably Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and Reporters Sans Frontières. These organizations have separately issued reports on aspects of Algeria's human rights crisis and participated together in a number of public interventions to raise international concern about the situation. Reports by the four groups were published together in 1997 by Editions la Découverte in a collection entitled Algérie, Le Livre Noir.
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