Opening remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at a press conference during her mission to Algeria

Algiers, 19 September 2012

Good afternoon, and thank you for coming.

Although Algeria is about to celebrate its 50th year as a Member State of the United Nations, my visit is the first ever by a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. I would like to thank the Government for inviting me, for giving me a very warm welcome and for a series of constructive and substantive discussions at the highest levels of the Government, Parliament and Judiciary.

Since arriving on Monday, I have met with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika as well as with the Prime Minister, Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Justice and Interior, the Presidents of both the upper and lower houses of parliament and of the Supreme Court and Council of State, as well as with other parliamentarians and members of the judiciary. I also held detailed talks with a range of civil society organizations engaged in human rights work, and with the President of Algeria’s national human rights institution, the National Consultative Commission for the Promotion of Human Rights.

I believe that this visit has taken place at a particularly opportune moment, when both Algeria itself and the wider North African region are undergoing significant evolutions. This involves both new opportunities to improve the human rights of the country’s population, as well as tensions and possible threats arising out of the upheavals in neighbouring countries.

Algeria has indisputably made huge strides in its efforts to recover from the disastrous decade in the 1990s, when many thousands of Algerian men, women and children were killed in a brutal war of attrition between extremist groups and state security forces, and many thousands more were wounded, bereaved, displaced or disappeared. Nevertheless, some violent incidents continue to occur, fuelled most recently by the rebel take-over of large swathes of northern Mali.

The continuing security problems are both of concern in themselves and for their continuing negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights of some sectors of Algerian society. There is a danger that the entirely understandable preoccupation with protecting the population from both foreign and home-grown extremists is to some extent also acting as a brake on the reform efforts being undertaken by the government, most notably in its impact on civil society organizations and human rights defenders. Much of my discussions over the past two days have focused on how to capitalize on the progress already made, as well as how to rectify certain gaps and problems of implementation.

I welcome the fact that Algeria has ratified almost all the main international human rights treaties, and during my visit the Government has shown some interest in ratifying two of the main treaties which it has not yet ratified, namely the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

OPCAT is a mechanism which enables regular unannounced inspections by international and national bodies of places of detention. These act as a powerful deterrent to state employees who might otherwise be tempted to resume torture or other forms of cruel and degrading treatment. By ratifying this protocol in addition to the parent Convention against Torture, which it ratified in 1989, Algeria would significantly strengthen its defences against any future return to the days when torture was commonplace. Similarly, ratifying the Convention on Enforced Disappearances would signal that the State is equally determined never to see a repetition of the terrible situation in the 1990s when several thousand people were forcibly disappeared by both the rebel forces and state security apparatus.

The issue of the disappeared is still highly sensitive in Algeria. I congratulate the Government on its system of reparations to relatives of victims, based on the National Charter for Reconciliation, and urge it to also take further steps to provide them with more information about what happened to their family members and if possible where they, or their remains, are located. The feeling that information which could be made available is being withheld rubs salt in a very deep wound. For a mother not to know what happened to her son, or a daughter to be deprived of information about her missing father is a cruel perpetuator of grief.

In this respect, I have been encouraged to hear that the Government has decided to accept the long-standing request of the independent UN body of experts, known as the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, to visit the country to provide advice on how to deal with this difficult and deeply tragic issue. I hope this visit takes place soon and without any pre-conditions on the part of the Government.

I have also suggested that another relevant independent UN expert, the newly created Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-recurrence, be invited to visit the country to help settle some of the outstanding issues relating to Algeria’s decade of massive violence. Similarly, the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism could provide valuable insights on how to balance these two vital imperatives so that one does not undermine or negate the other.

Over the past few years, Algeria has opened its doors to several Special Procedures (the generic term for the Rapporteurs and Working Groups), and I believe that this – along with the invitation to myself – is a clear indication that the country genuinely wishes to draw on the available international expertise designed to support States in their efforts to improve the human rights situation of their inhabitants. Ideally, it would join the select group of countries that have issued a standing open invitation to all Special Procedures to visit as and when they choose. While their conclusions can sometimes be uncomfortable, they can also offer the stimulus and expertise that is needed to promote real beneficial change.

While on the subject of constructive criticism, I would like to return to one of the major human rights issues in Algeria today, namely the restrictions and impediments being placed in the way of civil society organizations.

Freedom of expression in relation to the media has improved considerably in recent years, leading to a feisty, probing and relatively fearless local press. Similarly, emerging new political freedoms are clearly illustrated by the large number of political parties represented in Parliament since the ground-breaking elections in May. However, the rights to freedom of association and freedom of assembly for various other important sectors of society such as civil society organizations, human rights defenders and trade unions is cause for concern and may even have deteriorated over the past year, partly as a result of an apparent clampdown by security forces drawing on the controversial Article 100 of the Penal Code, and partly because of the widely criticized restrictions contained in the new Law on Associations adopted last December.

Civil society organizations are part of the life-blood of a free, democratic society where the human rights of all individuals are upheld in accordance with international standards set by States, including Algeria – which, as I said earlier, has a commendable record of signing up to international human rights treaties. It is NGOs who fight for the rights of the most vulnerable sections of society – for the poor, the marginalized, and minorities suffering from discrimination. It is NGOs that play a vital role in upholding the rule of law by exposing corruption and other abuses. Their persistence and exuberance doesn’t always make them popular with the authorities, but – like the media and opposition political parties – they provide one of the essential checks and balances that helps create a better human rights environment.

To fulfil their potential, they must be allowed to operate without undue impediments. I have therefore been very concerned to hear that not only are they facing legal and bureaucratic restraints in Algeria, but some of their members are also being frequently harassed, intimidated and arbitrarily arrested by the security forces, and are not being offered sufficient protection against these abusive practices by the existing legal framework.

While recognizing that the driving force behind this state of affairs is rooted in security concerns, I encourage the Government to review the laws and practices relating to civil society organizations and freedom of assembly, and also to order all security forces to refrain from violating internationally recognized instruments guaranteeing the right to freedom of association, such as Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is a binding treaty that has been ratified by 167 States, including Algeria.

Algeria has much to be proud of in terms of the reforms initiated in recent years. The fixing of a minimum 30 percent quota for female Members of Parliament, resulting in the election of 146 women in May, is a courageous and highly commendable achievement. Similar advances have been made in several leading professions such as law and medicine, and Algeria is well on the way to becoming a major pioneer of women’s rights in North Africa and the Middle East. The elections themselves were judged a major success by the large number of international observers who were present. Other important positives on the human rights front include the focus on improving social and economic rights by increasing the capacity of schools and universities, the huge projects designed to bring water and power to impoverished and under-resourced regions in the south of the country, and the plan to build 1.5 million new housing units over a period of five years.

If it succeeds in these endeavours, continues to advance women’s rights, makes a serious effort to tackle the dispiriting and potentially very damaging phenomenon of youth unemployment, and rectifies some of the other problems outlined earlier, Algeria is well positioned to play an inspiring leadership role on human rights in the region and beyond.

With so much of the region in turmoil over the past two years, I truly hope it can fulfil this potential, and have offered the Government and other state institutions all the support and technical cooperation mechanisms at my disposal. I sincerely believe this brief, unprecedented visit has created space for a much closer and more productive relationship between the various branches of the UN human rights system and the Government and people of Algeria.

Thank you.

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