Algeria's past needs opening, not closing

About the authors
Hanny Megally is director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the International Center for Transitional Justice.
Veerle Opgenhaffen is program assistant in the Middle East and North Africa Program at the International Center for Transitional Justice.

Algeria’s “dirty war” of the 1990s reads in many ways like a description of Latin American politics in the 1970s: a fledgling democracy is overturned by a military dictatorship, followed by years of brutal civil war between state forces and “insurgent rebel” factions. Tens of thousands are tortured, murdered, and disappeared, the vast majority of them civilians whose lives are fed into the machinery of fear and power.

Given the parallels, it is not surprising that Algeria would close its own bloody chapter in the same manner as its Latin American counterparts, by pursuing a blanket amnesty that absolves perpetrators in the name of peace and reconciliation.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika recently announced his plan for helping the nation “turn the page once and for all” on the past. In a public referendum to be held on Thursday 29 September, Algerians will be asked to approve his Charter for Peace and Reconciliation; if passed, this will grant the president unlimited powers to pursue his vision through whatever means necessary, while criminalising further opposition. This is likely to lead to legislation that will grant amnesty to former armed rebels and entrench the impunity enjoyed by security forces for their role in the conflict.

This measure is the last in a series of steps that Bouteflika has taken to “resolve the problems of the past”. In 1999, he urged parliament to pass the civil harmony law, which offered amnesty or reduced sentences to members of armed groups if they laid down their weapons and turned themselves in. In 2003, the president established an “ad hoc mechanism” under the sole direction of one man, Farouk Ksentini, the head of the state human-rights body, to investigate and resolve the issue of the disappeared.

In March 2005, Ksentini issued his private conclusions to the president while publicly admitting that agents of the state had been responsible for 6,146 of approximately 7,000 disappearances and that the civil war had cost Algeria close to 200,000 lives. The report itself was never publicly released and Ksentini has since watered down his comments to imply that a handful of agents acted against official state policy by taking matters into their own hands. Since then, a range of state-appointed bodies has been hard at work to tilt public opinion in favour of an amnesty that promises to resolve any “remaining concerns”.

The newest proposal, couched in the politically seductive rhetoric of reconciliation and presented in ambiguous terms with no mention of alternative options, appeals to reasonable impulses. Who would not agree that the nation must take steps toward a new era of peace? Yet behind the political slogans lies the flawed presumption that reconciliation can simply be declared, without anything approaching a conscientious process. In its current state, the proposal risks wholly denying the needs of victims and impeding, rather than contributing to, the reconstruction of a society struggling to rebuild itself.

An untenable marriage of peace and impunity is embedded in Bouteflika’s vision. The experience of history suggests that peace and reconciliation are advanced by a full, open accounting – legal, historical, moral – of a country’s violent past; whereas enforced amnesia and closure imposed from above (even where sanctioned by referendum) tends to engender future conflict by frustrating victims' demands for justice and truth and allowing their wounds to fester.

The president insists that he will provide reparations to victims and exclude perpetrators who have “raped, committed massacres, or placed bombs in public places” from amnesty provisions. But the absence of truth-seeking mechanisms from his charter makes both of these promises hollow at best.

Reparations without some form of accountability will make victims feel that their silence has been bought in the name of peace. Sacrificing their demands for truth in favour of monetary compensation will not lead to reconciliation but will rather ensure that victims continue to suffer anguished uncertainty over the fates of their loved ones. Further, it is unlikely that excluding the perpetrators of certain crimes will protect the need for justice. Without the transparent, thorough investigations necessary to determine culpability, Bouteflika's plan will give him unrestricted power to arbitrarily decide who will benefit from clemency and who will be excluded.

Many human-rights groups have further noted that the proposed charter violates core principles of international law by safeguarding impunity for serious crimes such as torture and enforced disappearance. Such crimes are widely considered ineligible for amnesty provisions; moreover, states are obligated to investigate them.

The price of forgetting

The experience of other countries shows that blanket amnesties undermine public confidence in justice and entrench impunity at the precise moment in a nation’s history when the rule of law needs strengthening. Such experience offers a guide to the options the Algerian government should be exploring:

  • holding accountable those who have committed serious human-rights abuses
  • truth-telling, to give voice to victims and foster public dialogue
  • institutional reforms, to help ensure that past abuses are not repeated
  • broadening the government’s conception of reparations beyond mere monetary compensation, by including measures such as mental and physical health benefits, public memorials, and land restitution

As the leader of one Algerian victims' group put it: “We are being asked to turn the page, but before we can do that we must first be able to read it.”

It is crucial to resist the kind of institutionalised impunity currently being proposed in Algeria because it constitutes a complete denial of the rights of victims. Such an approach only serves to reinforce the sense that “anything goes” during an internal conflict but that once the slaughter has subsided, a rhetoric of reconciliation can be invoked.

The implementation of a sweeping amnesty in post-conflict societies like Algeria, by denying responsibility for past crimes and thus embedding injustice, passes a difficult legacy to the future. It also sends dangerous, contradictory messages to human-rights violators worldwide. How can the international community promote standards of accountability while accepting the official suppression of atrocities it promised “never again” to let happen?

Entrenching impunity for shocking crimes is a grave injustice that can never serve the aims of peace. Algeria needs reconciliation, but the way to accomplish it is by acknowledging the past, fostering accountability and providing real justice for victims.