The United Nations mission arriving tomorrow in Algiers must focus on human rights if it is to succeed in its objective of assessing the overall situation in that country, Human Rights Watch declared today.
The office of Secretary-General's Kofi Annan has indicated that the delegation is not on a human rights mission per se. However, the circumstances surrounding the visit dictate that the delegation's handling of human rights will be closely watched. It will be arriving at a time when the government continues to deny the existence of a human rights problem and refuses entry to U.N. special human rights rapporteurs and to international human rights organizations, and is granting visas only selectively to journalists and hampering their movements while in the country.
The delegation's attention to human rights will also be judged in light of its being the first U.N. mission that Algeria has permitted since the Secretary-General and U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson declared publicly last year that the international community had a legitimate interest in Algeria's human rights situation.
"With several thousand Algerians being assassinated each year, and hundreds of others being tortured or `disappeared,' the U.N. delegation must tackle human rights issues in a serious way if it wishes to be credible on the overall situation," said Hanny Megally, executive director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. "At the same time, the U.N. must make clear that this visit by eminent personalities can in no way substitute for more in-depth visits by the U.N. special rapporteurs on Torture and on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions. The Algerians should stop impeding their access."
Secretary-General Annan announced the six-member mission on July 2. Led by Mario Soares, a former president of Portugal, the delegation is scheduled to spend two weeks in Algeria. Their report to the Secretary-General is to be made public.
Human Rights Watch believes that all of the issues listed below deserve consideration in any overall assessment of the situation in Algeria:
Targeting of civilians by armed groups. The delegation should travel outside of the capital to hear the testimony of survivors of, and witnesses to, attacks on civilians, or to arrange to meet them in Algiers. The delegation should itself choose the men and women it wishes to interview, subject to the agreement of the persons to be interviewed. It should insist on the complete confidentiality of interviews when requested, and describe in its final report any impediments to its soliciting and conducting private interviews.
Government failure to intervene effectively to stop mass killings. The government of Algeria has much to answer for, regardless of whether one gives credence to allegations of security-force involvement in the killing of civilians. Authorities have not credibly explained the failure of security forces to intervene to stop and apprehend groups of armed attackers who invaded rural hamlets and suburban neighborhoods, slaying scores and sometimes hundreds of unarmed civilians. These attacks sometimes occurred in proximity to security force barracks or outposts.
The delegation, with the assurances of access it has received, should conduct private interviews with witnesses, health-care professionals and others who can help the world community to understand these horrific events and how the state has responded to them.
Women as victims of political violence and discrimination. Militant groups in Algeria have, since before 1992, engaged in a campaign of intimidation and terror to force women to comply to with their own interpretation of Islamic law regarding dress, work, and education. Since 1993, scores of women have been assassinated, abducted, mutilated and raped by the armed groups.