New rights watchdog has little bark, less bite

New rights watchdog has little bark, less bite

Algeria Interface, January 29, 2003

Algeria’s former human rights watchdog was seen as a lapdog of the authorities. Its successor, the CPPDH, raised hopes among the campaigning relatives of Algeria’s missing thousands, particularly as its president was respected as a man of integrity. Fifteen months on, disillusion has set.

Algiers, 29/01/2003 – In October 2001 Algeria’s official human rights watchdog, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (CPPDH), saw a surprise appointee become its president – Farouk Ksentini, a lawyer with a reputation for integrity. On taking up his duties he met the relatives of Algeria’s missing and promised them a solution by the end of 2002. The wives and mothers who emerged from the meeting brimmed with fresh hope.

Today, however, disillusion has set in and Farouk Ksentini has lost his bite.

The CPPDH is due to submit a rights report to President Bouteflika in March. Ksentini had said that “the lion’s share” would go to the issue of the thousands reported missing during the civil strife of the 1990s. He also asserted that those state institutions allegedly implicated in forced disappearances that had refused to answer questions would be deemed to be responsible. He has now changed his tune. Both he and the CPPDH general secretary, Nacer Boucetta, have admitted the report will not produce anything substantially new.

The CCPDH came into being in place of the National Observatory for Human Rights (ONDH) that came to be seen as little more than an echo box for the security forces, ritually refuting their involvement in forced disappearances. It eventually become so discredited that Bouteflika decided to disband it. The new body would not be headed by a president tainted by a reputation as rights activists in the service of the state of emergency – the way ONDH president, Kamel Rezzag-Bara, was perceived.

Yet change has not gone beyond a new acronym and president. Farouk Ksentini’s fine resolve has failed resonate within the state or government The CPPDH’s estimate of 4,623 cases of people reported missing was handed down by the ONDH and contrasts sharply with the figure of 7,200 put forward by campaigners. Further ONDH legacies are investigations into the circumstances and perpetrators of forced disappearances, angrily rejected by the families of the missing as hollow rigmaroles. Ksentini confirms: “We haven’t restarted any investigations from scratch. I don’t know any more about the missing than their families do. I have no proof that secret detention centers do not exist.”

Buying silence
Against this background will the report serve any purpose? Yes, says Ksentini, it will “suggest ways of addressing the problem of the missing”. He adds that it advocates that relatives should be able to collectively take their grievances before the courts by filing cases against the institutions it accuses of abduction.

“We also wanted to offer financial compensation but relatives said no,” says Ksentini, “ so we’ll be advising the authorities to give financial help within the framework of the policy of aid to the poor.” He argues that such benefits would not be designed to buy the silence of campaigning families or prevent them from undertaking legal action against the state. “I want to help them, not trap them,” he pleas. “Many really live in terrible poverty because the family’s breadwinner has vanished.”

CPPDH general secretary, Nacer Boucetta, confirms, saying that many families have come to him to ask for help from the state. “We ask them to register their names in a file that we will send to the president with the report,” he explains, adding the 200 families have registered. Should the president agree to giving the relatives financial support, a bill will have to be drawn up and parliament will have to vote, Boucetta enlarges.

Relatives of the missing will, of course, have to agree and neither Ksentini and Boucetta can do any more than hope they will.

True, the families the missing have left behind them do suffer from grinding poverty. Worse than their poverty, though, is their mistrust of the authorities. Proposals to compensate them financially are nothing new. Since 1998 the authorities have regularly endeavored to offer them money if they agree to drop any legal action. Some allege that some local officials have used blackmail, telling families to describe themselves as victims of terrorism if they want to be entitled to state benefit.

Daikha Dridi