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Condemning the Halt of the Electoral Process: A Statement of Middle East Watch's Principles

In condemning the interruption of the electoral process in Algeria, Middle East Watch is guided by a set of principles employed by all of the divisions of Human Rights Watch in evaluating such interventions wherever they may occur.

Middle East Watch is aware that the regime that cancelled the electoral process in Algeria, and many of those who supported their move, justified the action by claiming that a government dominated by the FIS would trample democracy and human rights.  As a human rights organization, Middle East Watch endorses one principle underlying this argument, namely that no government may be permitted to violate fundamental rights, even if that government is freely chosen by a majority of the population. This principle is enshrined in Article 5 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which Algeria has ratified.

While the actions and pronouncements of the FIS to date give some grounds for such a concern, we nevertheless believe that the preponderance of evidence fails to justify so drastic an action as the cancellation of the elections and the crackdown that has ensued, with all its accompanying human rights abuses.

Below is a list of the seven principles employed by Human Rights Watch in assessing interruptions in the democratic process, and a summary of how they apply to the Algerian case.

1. The right of people to take part in self-government through free and fair elections is a fundamental human right, enshrined in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights.  Because of the importance of that right, its abrogation can be justified only in exceptional circumstances that meet the criteria set forth in the following six principles.

The December 26 elections were recognized by many observers as generally free and fair, both in the balloting itself and in the openness of the campaign process that preceded it.  Complaints of fraud and irregularities were filed in early January, but the staging of the coup preempted any ruling on the complaints, and they remain unproven.

2. The fundamental rights of citizens must be protected against infringement either by the election process itself or by the representatives of the people freely and fairly chosen by elections.

3. The electoral process may be suspended only in circumstances of a public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed and then only to the extent strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.

4.  Such circumstances would include an emergency that poses a clear, imminent and substantial threat to those fundamental rights of citizens that may never be suspended under international law.

5. In order to constitute such a threat, the violations of fundamental rights must be of great magnitude.  Isolated cases, by themselves, do not constitute so clear and imminent a threat as to warrant the suspension of electoral rights. 

In the Algerian context, principles two through five require an effort to predict the consequences of a FIS majority in parliament.  Without minimizing the possible dangers of a FIS victory to fundamental rights, the evidence of the danger remains largely speculative and therefore insufficient to justify such a blatant violation of the people's right to choose their representatives.

Certainly, statements made by FIS leaders on restricting the rights of women and questioning the value of multiparty democracy give cause for concern.  Nevertheless, allowing successful FIS candidates to be seated in parliament is not tantamount to the realization of their program; they would have had to contend with opposition from an executive branch that wields broad powers under the constitution, and powerful sectors of civil society.

6. The burden of demonstrating that there is an imminent threat to fundamental rights that warrants the suspension of electoral rights rests with those proposing suspension.  In proclaiming an emergency, the evidence demonstrating that this is strictly required by the exigencies of the situation should be publicly disclosed.

Government officials have repeated slogans that the FIS is anti-democratic and Iran-inspired but has not disclosed persuasive evidence to prove that its parliamentary victory posed an imminent threat to rights or to the life of the nation.  Given the speculative nature of the government's allegations, its burden of proof is particularly high and has not been met.

7. The suspension of rights in the face of an emergency that threatens the life of a nation may never be carried out by means that themselves violate those fundamental rights that may never be suspended.

As this report documents, the suspension of the elections has led to the massive violation of human rights, including the indiscriminate arrests of members of the FIS, the use of lethal force against unarmed demonstrators, and violations of the right to free expression.

<<previous  |  indexFebruary 1992