Can you call this ethical, Mr Cook?

Can you call this ethical, Mr Cook?

Algeria , not the bully of Baghdad, is the real test

By JOHN SWEENEY, The Observer, 18 Jan 1998

ROBIN COOK has the most forensic mind in the Cabinet. The Foreign Secretary cuts the mustard every which way. During the Labour conference he unpicked a confused question from a hapless interviewer thus: ‘There were two points muddled up in your question. Let’s try and disentangle them, shall we?’

All Cook’s titanium-plated intellectual self-confidence – some might call it arrogance – will be needed as not one but two crises loom from the deserts of the Maghreb and the Gulf: the threat from Saddam and the slaughter in Algeria .

Iraq is relatively easy – follow the Yanks. Our moral duty to bloody Saddam’s nose sits happily with our strategic and commercial concerns over the oil wells of the Middle East. Algeria is much harder. To safeguard Algeria ‘s oil and gas – piped to Europe by a planned pounds 2 billion British Petroleum pipeline – Cook cannot afford to offend its generals. But what price his ethical foreign policy as the massacres and the regime’s ‘strategic hamlet programme’ continue?

Cook has an added burden. As Britain is President of the European Union for the next six months, he has to cut deals in Brussels. He has to duff up the wimps, double-cross the do-nothings and – here’s the tricky bit – make it look as though Europe is acting in harmony. Iraq presents the much more traditional crisis – a desert strongman gone mad, threatening Britain’s vital interests: the supply of oil, the stability of Israel, our authority in the Middle East, oh, and, let’s not forget, the possibility of a little sprinkling of VX nerve gas which will cause the extinction of all life on earth.

British foreign policy on Saddam falls a little short of P. J. O’Rourke’s formulation – ‘Let’s nuke Baghdad and wipe it off with Windolene’, but not that far short. Such Palmerstonian gunboat – or rather Cruise missile/Stealth bomber – diplomacy may seem outdated, but this newspaper can never forget that one of its own reporters, Farzad Bazoft, was hanged by Saddam for simply doing his job. Saddam is a bully. At the end of the Gulf War, he signed a deal abjuring the use of weapons of mass destruction, in particular nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. With Iraq, Cook’s celebrated ‘ethical foreign policy’ is happily married to Britain and Europe’s strategic and economic interests. All Cook has to do is get the better of Saddam’s apologists at the UN. He must browbeat the French, buy off the Russians, sweet-talk the Chinese and ignore Arab rhetoric: routine stuff for a Foreign Secretary.

Algeria is a pricklier nettle. The fundamentals of that country’s dirty war since 1992 are simple. The sergeant majors who defected from the French colonial army in the dying days of the Algerian war of independence are now generals. They have ruled Algeria as a one-party state (with trimmings) since 1962. They are corrupt and hated by the people.

The country was crying out for democracy but popular will was crushed when the generals cancelled elections in 1992 just as the Islamists were poised for victory. The generals installed a military junta and Europe applauded. The people, deliberately divided and confused, lack any means of challenging le pouvoir – the power – and as a result the whole country is suffering a kind of collective nervous breakdown. Some of the killing has been carried out by groups of Muslim extremists, dedicated to the overthrow of the generals.

The question is: have all the 80,000 victims been killed by one side? The evidence that the generals use torture as an instrument of rule is overwhelming. The evidence that they use massacre to suppress the people is not so clear. Massacre victims don’t tell tales.

Last week, Cook told the European Parliament: ‘The latest massacres, and the scale of the savagery involved, have been appalling . . . We have seen no evidence to support allegations of involvement by the Algerian security authorities.’ Yet a substantial case against the generals on the massacres is on record and building. Before Cook spoke, last week’s Observer presented two former ninja – the dreaded paramilitary police – who said they routinely took part in massacres under orders. The killers were the regime’s secret death squads, masquerading in mufti as ‘Muslim fundamentalists’. Last year, Algeria ‘s former prime minister, Abdelhamid Brahimi, a ship’s officer, a former intelligence officer – Joseph – and a former senior diplomat, Mohammed Larbi Zitout, all of whom are now in London, came separately to the Observer to say the regime had ‘turned’ the most extreme Muslim terrorists, the GIA, and was effectively behind the massacres.

Yesterday, Captain ‘Joseph’ Haroun, the former Algerian spy, said: ‘If people on the streets of Algiers know that the military security are involved in at least some of the massacres then surely Mr Cook should know.’

Cook’s agnosticism on involvement of the regime in the massacres is a significant step away from the Quai d’Orsay’s position. In keeping with France’s cosy relationship with the rulers of its former colony, the French foreign ministry denies the possibility that at least some of the killings are the work of the government.

The Foreign Office line is that there are a number of conspiracy theories about the massacres, and hard evidence is in short supply. This mental confusion, argue the smooth-sayers in King Charles Street, means we should not condemn the generals. The same mandarins sat on their hands while the Serbs committed genocide in Srebrenica and elsewhere.

There is, at first glance, a logical defence of the Algiers regime. It has been badly damaged by the huge massacres of late summer and the 1,100 or more killed since the start of Ramadan. A modicum of violence serves the regime’s purposes, but not wholesale slaughter. But this view was challenged by a seventh Algerian source yesterday – ‘James’. (One of the problems of writing about Algeria is that virtually everyone has family back home. If the Observer prints their names, they fear their relatives might be tortured and killed.)

James explained that the generals have launched their own version of what the British in Malaya and the Americans in Vietnam called the ‘strategic hamlet programme’. He said: ‘My uncle lived in the Djijel area, which is heavily forested and has provided cover for the terrorists in the past. The army, under orders from the local commander, General Boughaba, came to his village and said everyone should take up arms and defend themselves against the terrorists. The problem is the moment they do that, then they side with the regime, which they do not want to do, and perhaps become a target to any terrorists.

‘My uncle said he would think about it, but eventually he declined the offer. For two weeks, the village was sealed off by the army. No food or vehicles were allowed in and their documents were confiscated. The pressure continued. The army told the people to choose. My uncle and the others tried to resist the pressure.

‘Then, one night, 14 people were massacred. The next morning everyone made a decision. They either took up arms or fled to the city. My uncle escaped to the city.’ So who massacred the 14 people? ‘The army. They did it to scare the people into supporting them. Now General Boughaba has been moved to Algiers itself, to do the same work.’

This ‘strategic hamlet programme’, and its bloody and secret underpinning, makes a hideous kind of sense. The policy may not have the blessing of President Liamine Zeroual and his Cabinet. But they are only the icing on the cake. The military security – the only effective centre of power in the country – is run by two shadowy generals, Mohammed Mediene Tewfik and Smain Lamarri. They know that the moment the people cease to be afraid of them, they will be ripped limb from limb. So the torture and the massacres will continue. The regime cannot keep the people at bay unless the state of fear continues. It is a mirror image of how Saddam rules Iraq.

Robin Cook has it in him to be a great Foreign Secretary. He could start today by questioning why we are standing up to one tyranny and cuddling up to another. And he might also care to ask why the European Union – that means us – is giving Algeria pounds 80 million in aid for restructuring and ‘democratisation’. It is one thing to do nothing while generals torture and murder their own people. It is another to pay them for their butchery.