Algeria's commission on "disappearances" needs greater investigative powers and a broader mandate if it is to be credible and effective, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 32-page report, "Truth and Justice on Hold: The New State Commission on 'Disappearances," examines the "disappearances" commission announced in September by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. After years of stonewalling on the issue, the Algerian government established the commission to clarify the fate of the more than 7,000 persons who "disappeared"-mostly at the hands of security forces-during the civil conflict of the 1990s.

"President Bouteflika's initiative to address 'disappearances' is welcome, but it doesn't sufficiently address the need for justice," said Joe Stork, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "Verifying cases and offering families compensation, steps that are both long overdue, cannot substitute for thoroughly investigating these crimes against humanity and holding the perpetrators accountable."

Thousands of families have lived in agonizing uncertainty since the 1990s, when their relatives "disappeared" after being seized by security forces at the height of the political violence that ravaged Algeria. That violence became endemic in 1992, after a military-backed coup halted elections that the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, or FIS) was poised to win. In addition, there are hundreds-if not thousands-of cases of persons who remain missing after being abducted by armed Islamist groups fighting the government. According to its mandate, defined by a presidential decree made public in November, the new commission will focus on confirming cases of "disappearance," securing legal assistance for families, and drafting proposals for state compensation and assistance to the victims' relatives. The Human Rights Watch report reveals that the commission will have to push the limits of this mandate if it is to probe how each "disappearance" was carried out and who the perpetrators were.

New cases of "disappearances," though rare, demonstrate that authorities have not institutionalized legal safeguards to deter the practice, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, the Algerian authorities periodically break up public rallies by relatives of the "disappeared," and since 2000 have failed to approve a standing request for a visit by the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.

"Algeria must confront impunity if it is serious about stopping abuses like 'disappearances'," said Stork. "The commission needs stronger powers to investigate these crimes, to establish responsibility for them, to secure the release of any person found to be alive and in secret detention, and to provide Algerians with a full picture of how thousands of their compatriots could be made to 'disappear' without a trace."

Human Rights Watch urged the European Union and the United States to encourage Algeria's efforts toward addressing the issue of the "disappeared," and to insist on serious investigations that provide Algerians with a full picture of the truth surrounding "disappearances" and criminal liability for the perpetrators.