Rampant political violence is only one of the factors standing in the way of a free and fair Algerian election on June 5, Human Rights Watch/Middle East charges in a report issued today. Media censorship, restrictions on categories of parties, the hasty promotion of a new pro-government party, and widespread repression against suspected Islamists, their families and sympathizers all weigh heavily on voters as they go to the polls.
In the thirty-five page report, "Algeria: Elections in the Shadow of Violence and Repression," which is based on a two-week mission to Algeria in April, Human Rights Watch condemns grave human rights abuses committed both by the security forces and by armed Islamist groups. The report describes how the terror and repression have intimidated Algerians of varying political persuasions from becoming politically involved.
Those in power in Algeria have proclaimed their hope that these elections will erase the taint they incurred when the last legislative elections were cancelled in 1992. They have claimed that the vote will culminate the restoration of democracy, and have invited foreign election observers to monitor the process.
Human Rights Watch cautions, however, against viewing the June 5 election as the capstone of the process of establishing democratic rule in Algeria. If these elections are to be a step toward ending the political stalemate, significant additional steps will be required for the Algerian people to be able, in a meaningful way, to exercise their human right to "take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives." This right is central to Algeria's political crisis, since it was the denial of that right during three decades of one-party rule and when authorities annulled the country's first multi-party legislative elections which led to the political violence becoming endemic, and which has diminished in the eyes of many Algerians the legitimacy of those who govern them.
Human Rights Watch calls on the international community to monitor not only the elections themselves, but conditions in Algeria after the elections, and to press the government to curtail human rights abuses and to respect fully the rights of freedom of expression, association and political participation. Aid and partnership agreements with the government of Algeria should be linked to measurable progress in these domains.
The report describes the following factors coloring the legislative elections, the first affecting what is at stake and the others detracting from the extent to which they should be considered free and fair.
A weakened National Assembly: The Assembly to be elected on June 5 is a far weaker body than the one that was to have been chosen in 1992. The new constitution, drafted by the authorities and approved in a controversial November 1996 referendum, has stripped the assembly of many of its lawmaking powers, while strengthening the office of the president and creating a second legislative chamber, one-third of whose members are appointed by the president and two-thirds of whom are elected by local officials who themselves will have been been elected by popular vote. While international human rights standards do not dictate how power should be divided among different branches of government, it is important to note the significantly reduced powers of the institution that is being elected through popular suffrage.
Ongoing political violence and repression: Although many Algerians have courageously and defiantly plunged into the campaign, the rampant violence, for which the security forces and armed Islamist groups are responsible, continues to claim scores of lives each week and has terrorized many Algerians who would wish to express their views or take part in political life. Political activists from a wide range of parties and tendencies have been assassinated since 1992, including at least five so far in the run-up to this legislative election. The report contains testimonies of Algerians who have been victimized by the security forces and by violent opposition groups.
Exclusion of parties: Certain provisions of the 1996 constitution and 1997 political parties law violate the right to freedom of association by not permitting parties based on religion, region, language or gender. The Islamist Salvation Front, the movement that was poised to win the last legislative elections, was outlawed in 1992 and remains barred from any political activity. Other parties have been required to change elements of their names and program in order to comply with the law. Restrictions and favoritism: Authorities have to some extent restricted the political activities and coverage on state-controlled radio and television of some legal parties, particularly those that criticize the interruption of the last legislative elections. By contrast, the authorities have facilitated the rapid rise of the National Democratic Rally (RND), a party formed in February to mobilize support for the President and his government and which is running candidates in all districts.
Media censorship: Although the Algerian print press is more free than many in the Middle East and North Africa, systematic censorship in the press of security-related news and, to a lesser extent, of criticism of government corruption and performance, deprives voters of information concerning some of the key issues in this campaign. The authorities have harrassed publications and journalists associated with independent print media, and have preserved state-controlled television as a government mouthpiece. The ability of journalists to gather and disseminate news and information has also been impeded by the unprecedented assassination campaign that has cost the lives of fifty-nine media workers since 1992. Armed opposition groups are believed responsible for most of these killings.
The Human Rights Watch report addresses a series of recommendations to the government of Algeria, the countries sending election observers, and to the European Union and its member states. Human Rights Watch also makes recommendations to the armed groups.
To the government of Algeria:
End censorship and pressures on the media that aim to enforce a state monopoly on information related to the internal security situation, including human rights violations, or that aim to restrict other coverage that displeases government officials.
End all measures designed to impede the peaceful activities and public expression of political parties and movements, including those that urge the inclusion of the FIS in negotiations with the government.
Bring domestic legislation on political parties into conformity with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by abolishing the prohibition on parties based on religion, gender, race or region. Such broad-based prohibitions violate the right of Algerians to freedom of association.
Take steps to halt human rights abuses perpetrated by the security forces, including arbitrary detention, "disappearances," extrajudicial executions, and torture, that target suspected Islamist activists, their relatives, and suspected sympathizers. Such abuses are presently praticed with virtual impunity.
To the armed groups:
Human Rights Watch urges all armed groups to:
Halt immediately deliberate attacks on civilians and noncombatants, and indiscriminate attacks that disregard the protection of civilians.
Cease all activities intended to threaten or intimidate persons because of their personal or political beliefs or activities.
Persons empowered to speak on behalf of the FIS, as a movement with aspirations to political power in Algeria, should clearly and unconditionally condemn attacks by armed Islamist groups against all civilians and other acts that violate basic human rights and humanitarian norms. These include all acts and threats of violence intended to intimidate Algerians who wish to exercise their right to political participation and association. Leaders of the FIS should utilize whatever influence they have over armed groups to end violence against and intimidation of civilians.
To the European Union and Member States:
The European Union is presently negotiating a Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement with Algeria similar to ones already signed between the E.U. and Morocco, Israel, and Tunisia. Algeria hopes to obtain financial aid or debt relief in the context of this accord. Article 2 of each association agreement states, "Respect for the democratic principles and fundamental human rights established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights inspires the domestic and external policies of the [European] Community and of [the other party] and constitutes an essential element of this Agreement." Human Rights Watch makes the following recommendations to the European Union and member states:
The European Commission and Council of Ministers, and E.U. member states, should scrutinize not only the June 5 elections but also human rights conditions in the months that follow the elections, and make clear to the Algerian government that improved relations depend on the government's making tangible progress in improving in human rights practices and in giving greater substance to the right of Algerian people to participate in self-governance.
In particular, the European Commission and Council of Ministers, and E.U. member states, should monitor the extent to which the elections represent a starting point for the government to redress some of the outstanding human rights issues for which authorities are responsible, such as the hundreds of cases of "disappearances." They should publicly acknowledge and condemn these practices by Algerian authorities, and submit lists of names of reportedly "disappeared" persons that come to their attention and request clarifications from Algiers.
The European Commission and Council of Ministers, and E.U. member states, should assess whether state broadcasting media remain open to opposition views, as they have to a degree during the election campaign, or revert to their rigid practices of recent years, and whether the print press is allowed real freedom. They should further monitor whether the policy of granting visas relatively freely in the run-up to elections to journalists and foreign observers, including human rights monitors, will revert to the more restrictive past policy on visas.
The European Parliament should adopt an urgent resolution, making reference to Article 2 of the draft Association Agreement with Algeria, requesting the European Commission and Council of Ministers to undertake the above recommendations and to report back to the Parliament with regard to these undertakings.
The European Parliament should itself undertake to document human rights developments in Algeria in the post-election period.
Countries Sending Election Observers:
Those countries participating in the multi-national election monitoring effort have a responsibility to provide a frank and public assessment of the atmosphere for free and fair voting, despite the difficult conditions on the ground faced by their observers. The lackluster and silent monitoring of the 1995 Algerian presidential elections by the Arab League, Organization of African Unity and the United Nations enabled the authorities to boast of the international presence without any having to face thorough monitoring or public reporting by the observers.
This time, governments and multilateral institutions sending election observers must not forfeit the leverage for improvements that their presence offers. They should take steps to ensure that their observers are able to have access to potential sources of pertinent information regarding the free character of the polling, including restrictions on basic civil and political rights for all Algerians. They should ensure that their observers are able to speak publicly and promptly concerning conditions. If the observers travel with armed escorts from the security forces, assigned for their protection, they have a duty to weigh the deterrent effect this will have on ordinary citizens and party activists who might otherwise approach them with complaints about irregularities, and should identify means of enabling these potential sources to meet with them in private in order to provide them with information pertinent to the elections. If the armed security personnel are assigned against their express wishes, or if other obstacles are placed on their access or activities, observers should publicly state that such constraints can impugn the freedom and fairness of the elections themselves.
In addition, foreign governments that maintain contact with representatives of the FIS should demand, as a condition of such relations, that the FIS take specific and visible steps to implement the above recommendations that are addressed to it.