Interview with Eric Goldstein of Human Rights Watch


Eric Goldstein of Human Rights Watch

Algeria Interface, 5 march 2003

Paris, 05/03/03 – Eric Goldstein is North Africa and Middle East Research Director for US-based rights watchdog, Human Rights Watch. He believes that 2003 could bring the beginnings of a solution to the burning issue of Algeria’s thousands of forced disappearances. He says why.

Why is HRW’s most recent report devoted entirely to forced disappearances?
We feel that 2003 could be the year the issue is resolved. There’s been a change in the way the government looks at it. It used to deny there was a problem and now it’s started to acknowledge and put in place mechanisms to address it. Even though, admittedly, the moves haven’t led to anything, the mechanisms were just a way of playing for time, and nothing has been promised to the relations of missing persons and none of them has ever reappeared.

The issue might no longer be taboo, buy the authorities don’t seem to want to go any further.
Yes, it’s now commonplace for the media to talk about disappearances. Nobody says any more that only terrorists are behind forced disappearances. It’s acknowledged that Algerians of all backgrounds from all over the country were victims of this horrific practice. The government’s going to try to put disappearances behind it. Using the aftermath of September 11, the election of Jacques Chirac in France, the thawing of relations with the EU and the US, Algeria is seeking to rebuild its international image. But there’s still one terrible blot on the landscape: forced disappearances. I think Algeria is now trying to turn the page. That’s the feeling we get from General Touati [aide to President Bouteflika] who stated that the problem of forced disappearances was painful and the government had to address it. And there’s Algeria’s human rights commissioner, Mr Ksentini, who has said that relatives had to be told the truth and the state should make apologies when it was responsible. I get the impression that the government has used such statements as sounding boards.

Since September 11, as you were saying, the government is less sensitive to pressure from outside.
Yes it has tried to take advantage of its experience in fighting against terrorism. And it’s true that there’s been a rapprochement with European nations. They are aware of what Algeria has been through, but at the same time they’re uncomfortable with Algeria’s rights records. There is international cooperation between security forces, but there’s also the image of a country and a government which stands in the way Algeria’s rehabilitation.

What about pressure from the European Union and, more specifically, France?
The French Foreign Ministry has told us that Jacques Chirac’s visit to Algeria is designed to normalise Franco-Algerian relations after 40 years of tension. In that light France could conceivably want to talk about human rights. For better relations Algeria has to make progress in that area.

Isn’t there also a rapprochement with the US and doesn’t Washington have an important role to play?
Absolutely. The US has agreed to sell night vision equipment to Algeria [for use in counterinsurgency]. There are also plans to train the Algerian military which are before Congress, with a sizeable budget…The Department of State has told us that the US has made this gesture as an expression of their determination to improve their relations. But that will come about if there is real, tangible progress towards democracy and respect for human rights. Which is somewhat like the EU approach.

Rights don’t exactly seem a priority for Washington.
Hitherto Washington has always refused to sell lethal material to Algeria partly out of a concern to stay neutral and partly out of worries over human rights. What’s changed is symbolic. Washington has asserted that no change on arms sales was not on the agenda. There is no aid to Algeria and relations have never been close. If you look at countries like Egypt, Israel and Morocco where aid is large, the rapprochement between Algiers and Washington is minimal

For the first time you have addressed disappearances ascribed to Islamist guerrillas.
In earlier reports we published testimonies from victims of armed groups. I actually gathered those accounts and we drew on support from organisations in Algeria that had gathered data. It’s work we are continuing to do, it’s not the first time.

But your report does treat Islamist abductions at greater length.
Not many people know much about them and the NGOs working on them in Algeria aren’t very well known. And there are people affected who live in dangerous parts of the country who are scared to speak out and harbour the hope that one day their loved-ones will return. Meanwhile, they keep quiet.

You stress that the Algerian authorities have abducted very few people since 1999. Yet it’s been established that the relatives of those who disappear are frightened people who take years to contact rights groups.
Yes, we’ve been struck by the fact that some families report the disappearance of loved one seven or eight years later. We’ve seen that happen especially in the Algiers and Constantine regions. Still, we have enough outlets out to be able to say that forced disappearances have dropped significantly. New, more efficient watchdogs have set up, like « SOS Disparus », which are better known to ordinary Algerians through the media. I must say that the press has made strides in its attitude to the issue of forced disappearances. I’ve looked through archives and seen articles from four years ago that were irresponsible and biased. It is now routinely treated with balance and considered a national issue. The blackout of relatives’ organisations has stopped.

What were working conditions like in Algeria?
We went where we wanted and nobody tried to stop us. We never felt we were being tailed except in Relizane where a car followed us everywhere we went. But nobody every bothered us or, apparently, the relatives of missing persons who spoke to us. Since then we’ve made representations to the Algerian government and asked to meet officials, but we’ve had no response. This time we’ve also made an appeal to Jacques Chirac…We always approach third parties who have a say in matters, not just France.

In 2000 Amnesty International asked to meet senior army officers, which caused a storm. What’s your view?
NGOs always seek to meet people who can help them make headway over human rights. In Israel the military are involved in serious human rights violations. They’ve got spokespeople, a legal department and they agree to talk to outsiders. There’s nothing untoward about it. We just want to meet those who are involved.

Do you believe that any of your recommendations to the Algerian government will be put into practice?
Serious investigation of human rights problems can sometimes only really take place when a political regime comes to an end. I’m thinking about countries like South African or Argentina. Once the officials who were responsible for abuses fell, the government that succeeded them started investigations. In Algeria the same political power structure and people are still there. At the same time there’s political will to address the problem of forced disappearances. There are things the government can do publicise its desire to deal with the problem. Like ask UN bodies to conduct investigations in Algeria for the first time. It could also set up a commission of enquiry, like Mexico did, with freely accessible records and summons those suspected of being accomplices. It could prosecute people suspected of being behind forced disappearances. There are families who know the names of those who abducted their loved ones. There are eye-witnesses too. No-one can claim that disappearances were clouded in mystery and that nobody knows who did what. The relatives of people taken away by government agents, terrorists and armed groups all know who the perpetrators were.

Nevertheless the language coming out Algiers is doublespeak. The authorities make the right noises for international consumption, while positions within the country, like in the army, are very different.
Looking for and at the truth means high-ranking officials will be accused. They are scared of the truth, that’s only normal. But Algeria suffers from both amnesty and amnesia. The abuses of the nationalist movement were swept under the carpet in 1962. In 1988 no-one was prosecuted [for the violent security force repression of nationwide unrest during the so-called Black Spring]. After elections were cancelled in 1992, torture resumed immediately. Nothing has ever been done to prevent such behaviour. If Algeria is to learn a lesson from the 1990s, it is that the institutions should take on board the problems of the disappeared. If the situation got worse again, disappearances would resume. And I believe that one of the most effective ways of fighting against them would be an investigation with truth and justice.

Interviewed by: Djamel Benramdane