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“[...] reaffirms its permanent attachment to the principles and values as laid down in the universal declaration of human rights”. In case you’re wondering, these are the words of the Algerian president in a speech to mark the anniversary, and the square brackets contain the name of the country, Algeria. Quotes like this indicate that the political class do realise the importance of human rights. To regain the trust on the elusive values has been a political goal for the authorities since the introduction of the reconciliation laws. But the history of the country and its complicated power structure make any advances on this issue quite slow and easily reversible.
Indeed, attaining the trust and initiative on human rights proves to be a difficult task for many countries with a dark human rights record. These countries can be divided into three main groups: group one could not care less about the issue; it includes regimes such as Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and the current Burmese government. Group two gives some lip service but do very little to champion the rights in practice. Russia and some of the Middle East countries are examples. Group three are countries that have made significant advances in securing the rights for their citizens, and this includes countries in Eastern Europe and the Asian tigers.
Short of a complete political overhaul, such as possibly a bloody revolution, countries in group one seldom change their stance. Countries in group three will continue their progress: advancing human rights causes a positive feedback loop (except some, ahem, notable exceptions). Very few countries make it from group two to group three successfully and irreversibly.
Algeria has been painfully wobbling in group two for a few years. Sometimes coming close to making the leap, other times doing enough damage to go back to the frontiers of group one. What’s undoubted is that the Algerian authorities do give the impression that they passionately believe in the values and try some baby steps. Bouteflika, in the previous speech, also boldly envisioned the country as playing a “major role in championing human rights in the African and Arab dimensions”. The government sponsors a “National Human Rights Commission”. State newspapers, such as Elmoudjahid, from which these quotes are taken, routinely praise the government’s human rights “advances”. Government participating parties such as the Islamic MSP hold rallies on the issue. The country’s head of police says that the police are barred from even lifting their hands or shouting at a citizen. There has been a number of judicial reforms aimed at improving sentence waiting times.
That was talk, and probably a limping walk, but the real walk is yet to come. Independent newspapers are scared into submission using some phony anti libel laws and the state’s near complete control of the printing and advertising companies. The resources that the Army has provide easy money for generals to launch vindictive lawsuits against authors and journalists. Demonstrations are banned in the capital and practically in most of the country since the events of Black Spring. Many photographers and authors have been rounded up – a recent tourist photographer recounted his encounter with an Algerian policeman. In criminal cases, prison waiting times can be absurdly high, sometimes running into the years, especially in cases that deal with terrorism charges.
If you read the above paragraph without the surrounding context, you would realise that the scenes that it describes can be found in any country of group two. The problems seem to be shared – it’s the same tape everywhere. So what is the problem, and how can the state make the leap?
Algeria inherited a nasty double legacy of two periods that did much damage to the country’s human rights stance. The totalitarian socialist state of the 60s-80s introduced a one party rule, state land tenure, dubious assassinations and a powerful intelligence gathering force, althought it had many economic and diplomatic successes. The period of the civil war of the 90s did the most damage. Assassinations against policemen, judges, politicians and other civil servants pitted the government against the whole population in its eyes. Torture ran ripe to get as much intelligence as possible from first hand, second and even long distance contacts of suspected terrorists. Many believe that certain factions of the army orchestrated a number of massacres to paint the opposition fighters in a worse light. The government in the 90s was effectively under an international embargo and was extremely paranoid of outside pressure. It painfully made it through the late 90s and into the reconciliation plan of the current President. For some time, it seemed that the country is making some breakthroughs.
Yet the country seems to be reversing its progress. The parliament speed passed a law that allowed the president to run for life. We thought we were lucky that the president has no children. Yet now it is widely believed that the president’s brother is being groomed for the job. Demonstrations continue to be outlawed. The right to assembly is severely limited. Newspapers continue to be sued and scared. In short, the country’s independent human rights organisation paint a very bleak picture today.
In the absence of a full understanding of human rights and its benefits to the country’s economic and political well being, countries like Algeria will continue to wobble. The country needs to understand that free speech makes better citizens, more vibrant economies, world-class universities – all goals declared by the state. All citizens must be equal behind the law, nobody should be beyond reproach. How is a president or a minister harmed if a journalist paints a caricature of them or an author criticises them? their legal venue should be the venue of public opinion, not that of the courts or the prison cells. Free assembly makes better informed and motivated citizens. Let them march on the capital and demand what they want. In the end, the equilibrium that will be formed will ensure long lasting growth and development, instead of the limping wreck of an economy that exists today.
Lose your grip on the people, and let them fix the country themselves, for a government’s goal is to enable its citizens to develop and move the country forward, not to draw up ever failing bureaucratic plans from the ivory towers of ElMouradia and the various ministries in the capital.