Interface Interviews: Hocine Zahouane

Interface Interviews: Hocine Zahouane

Algeria Interface, September 24, 2002

Algiers, 24/09/2002 – Hocine Zahouane is vice-president of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH). He speaks of the desperate rights situation in Algeria and, a Kabyle himself, he is deeply critical of the grassroots protest movement (the arouch).

How do you assess the human rights situation in Algeria?
It’s desperate and has been for a long time. In February 1989 before the Constitution was revised to introduced pluralism I warned against over-enthusiasm in the wake of October 1988 [when brutally repressed nationwide rioting prompted reform]. I argued that the conditions were not ripe for democracy – there was no agent of historical change. In European change came about through a social class or charismatic personality. Today I draw the same conclusion.

Farouk Ksentini, who chairs the National Consultative Commission for Human Rights, has promised the problem of the missing will be resolved by the end of the year. What’s your view?
Farouk Ksentini is a fine man who has been labelled an honest broker and feels as though he has to make public utterances on issues like the missing. But … it can only be settled in a court of law … responsibilities must be determined and the question, « What has become of the missing? » must be answered.

The government has asserted that the reform of the judicial system is « in progress ». What do you think?
Reform is said to entail changes to wording and procedures. Nothing else. Real reform is impossible in the currrent situation because it requires deep-seated political change. The guardian of the temple of the judiciary should be society at large with the means to ensure that the judicial system works and that it is independent. In Algeria society has no say and there is no independent watchdog. So how can the legal system be independent?

You say there is no such thing as an agent of democratic change in Algeria. Is that why you called for an international inquiry into human rights in Algeria?
In the wake of the mass killings in 1997 and 1998, the LADDH called for an international and national commission of inquiry. « National » to allay fears over a breach of domestic sovereignty and « international » to prevent the course of the inquiry being perverted. And of course there were protests that an international inquiry would jeopardise national sovereignty. But I say that a state that cannot stop its people being massacred and refuses any kind of investigation is unworthy of being called sovereign.

Why have none of the thousands of complaints over forced disappearances lodged with the UN come to anything?
Because UN bodies are dominated by the interests of a handful of states. France, for instance, is always hostile to any proper solution of the human rights problems in Algeria. And some dossiers have been blocked by sheer red tape.

Unrest and rioting have shaken Algeria for 17 months? Does that make you feel optimistic about democratic change?
Absolutely not … The riots of recent months have been violence for its own sake, the expression of a pathological condition. That said, there are vested interests manipulating the situation behind the scenes.

Which interests?
Ones which want to perpetuate the situation of endemic violence. They don’t want society to be in a fit state to pose and resolve the big political issues. Clashes of interests within the regime are reflected within society at large … In broad terms a stable Algeria doesn’t suit powerful vested interests. Algeria has immense oil and gas reserves and its geographical position is strategically sensitive. The country is experiencing fast-paced economic change … and each faction in the regime is scared of losing out to another.

The FFS will take part part in the upcoming local elections which are to be boycotted by the RCD and the interwilaya coordinating council [which coordinates the grassroots citizens’ protest movement across wilayas, or provinces]. Tension is acute in Kabylia. What do you believe is the solution there?
For there to be a solution, demands must not be stupid. Some demands made by the arouch movement in its El Kseur manifesto are frankly stupid. The withdrawal of the gendarmerie from Kabylia for one. That those who have committed criminal acts should be punished, yes, but the departure of the whole force, no. The demand is based on gendarmes doing nothing but acting as racketeers. Why is Kabylia any different? Do gendarmes there behave any differently from in the rest of the country? Second point, the Amazight language should of course be officially recognised. But whose duty first and foremost is it to promote the language, if not those who actually speak it? Yet those people who demanded the recognition of Amazight have not written or produced anything in the language. Third, instead of wrecking town and city halls, wouldn’t it make more sense to get elected so as to serve local people and denounce local political graft? Instead of pulling down power pylons, wouldn’t it make more sense to demand electricity for remote villages? … If there’s to be a solution, violence must be absolutely ruled out. The arouch should be seek to be an example for the rest of the country rather than a foil.

How do you explain the emergence of the interwilaya coordinating council as representative of the people of Kabylia?
On one hand there is talk of a so-called « citizens’ movement », which suggests that ordinary individuals control their own fate. On the other hand there are the « arouch » [tribes in Amazight], a term which negates the individual. A citizen’s movement can’t be built on the exclusion of women, trade unions and everybody else. Citizenship supposes involvement in the problems of local communities, but I ask you, has the arouch movement built on people’s problems, like housing, poor roads, drugs and prostitution? The answer is no. Since the beginning of the unrest the situation has got worse and violence has grown. I wonder how the arouch have managed to keep going so long, where they gets their resources from, why they have had so much media exposure, and who really controls them.

Isn’t it the distress of tens of thousands of marginalised young people that is the driving force?
There is the same distress elsewhere, in Oran and Constantine. Apart from a being an escape valve, what outlook does the current situation hold for radicalised youth?

The Arouch regularly state that the regime is « moribund ». Do you agree?
That kind of language is unrealistic stereotyping. The events in Kabylia have not affected the regime, but they have affected Kabylia. It has enough fuel for three days and enough food for seven. I’ve had enough of hearing all this stupidity.

A UN delegation on religious freedom was recently on mission to Algeria. In what terms does Algeria address the question of religious freedom?
The issue is never addressed because the issue of freedom is never addressed. Religious freedom presupposes that there are conflicting religious interests or beliefs. Which isn’t the case in Algeria. I think that the regime asked for the UN mission to come in order to give its international partners a good impression … If the issue of religious freedom is to investigated, it should be done so properly. Officially the state is secular and the law guarantees freedom of worship. At the same time, the constitution states that Islam is the state religion, that the president must be Muslim and that he must give oath on the Coran. The law bans Algerian women from marrying non-Muslims. It draws on sharia to consider women as legal minors.

In 1993 you founded a group to protest free-market economic policy. Why do you think social rights are the poor relation of human right?
Because they are more important! Rights like the right to housing and work are demeaned because they call into question the whole way the country’s economy is managed.

What social rights can human rights campaigners demand as a priority?
Not a lot. A basic livelihood? Tighter tax policy to curb scandalous wealth. A clearer picture of the extent to which national assets have been pillaged? But it will take a revolution before any of these demands are met.