EU links criticised because of Algerian state violence

EU links criticised because of Algerian state violence

Amnesty calls for end to secrecy on eve of Algiers visit

Ian Black in Brussels, The Guardian, June 4, 2002
http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,727161,00.html

European Union attempts to improve relations with north African countries criticised for poor human rights records have come under fire on the eve of a high-level visit to Algiers by top EU officials.

Amnesty International said yesterday that Brussels had a duty to to end the secrecy with which it was conducting dialogues with the regimes, especially where there were concerns about state violence and other abuses.

Chris Patten, the EU’s external relations commissioner, and its foreign policy chief Javier Solana, are visiting Algiers tomorrow. The foreign ministers of Spain and Denmark, the current and next holders of the EU’s rotating presidency, are also going.

The mission follows the signing of an EU-Algeria association agreement at the Euro-Med summit in Valencia in April – the sole concrete achievement of a meeting overshadowed by violence in the Middle East.

It also follows last week’s legislative election which confirmed the prime minister, Ali Benflis, in office. The polls were marred by violence and boycotts by opposition parties and Berbers.

Mr Benflis, a lawyer and former justice minister, is seen by the EU as a reformer who will have to fight hard to get his way with the opaque military-backed establishment which calls the shots behind the scenes.

The EU-Algeria agreement – one of several with Mediterranean countries – commits both sides to further trade liberalisation and provides for the gradual removal of import duties on EU industrial products.

Algeria exports most of its annual output of 60 billion cubic metres of natural gas to Europe and accounts for no less than one-third of Italy’s total gas purchases – one of the main reasons for a visit yesterday by the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

The EU and Algeria have also pledged to cooperate on education, culture, the fight against crime, money-laundering, drugs and terrorism. « Both parties are committed to upholding human rights and democratic principles, » their agreement says.

But the killing of demonstrators, disappearances, intimidation of human rights workers, a ban on international observers and the absence of investigations of abuses were listed by Amnesty as matters of concern.

« The fact that the human rights crisis in Algeria shows no signs of being resolved in spite of the signing of an association agreement suggests that the EU’s secret efforts have failed to impress change on the Algerian authorities, » it said. « We call for an end to the secrecy. We call for greater accountability from you, the representatives of the citizens of Europe. »

Similar concerns have been raised over EU relations with Tunisia, where President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali – in power for the past 15 years – was re-elected by 96% in a referendum last month.

Human rights activists in Tunisia and abroad have accused the government of the torture and harassment of dissidents and complain of a lack of press freedom. Tunisia and Algeria have benefited, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the US, from a sense that Arab regimes which crack down on Islamist dissidents are increasingly necessary partners in the « war on terrorism ».

Algeria has been racked by violence since early 1992 when the authorities cancelled an election that Islamists were poised to win. Between 100,000 and 150,000 people have been killed since then.