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Change in Algeria Fundamental for Human Rights and Security

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Amidst the demands for democratic change across the Middle East and North Africa, the United States is now confronted with important questions demanding both introspection and foresight. Where our relationships with each of these nations facing revolution vary to great degrees, there is one particular relationship that I wish to draw attention to from the human rights perspective. The relationship between the US and Algeria is one heavily entrenched in trade relations, oil deals, and geopolitical positioning. However, for the United States, as a nation that so staunchly asserts its ideals on human rights and strives so ardently to protect them, this relationship is one worth questioning. The abysmal human rights record of Algeria quickly illuminates the discrepancies in ideological foundations of both nations and should bring sharp condemnation from the United States, rather than quiet consent.

The government of Algeria has, for many years now, demonstrated its lack of respect for internationally recognized human rights as well as for the international covenants and treaties to which it is party. Over the past 12 years, the Algerian state has systematically and knowingly violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, The Convention on the Rights of the Child, the OAU's (African Union) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, and the African Union's African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

The international humanitarian community has also documented countless human rights abuses by the Algerian authorities. Among these ongoing violations has been the treatment of refugees from the Western Sahara residing in Algeria. Algeria is bound by multiple iterations of International Law to provide basic services for these refugees, including allowing a census, providing the refugees with travel documents, allowing them freedom of movement, freedom of association and the right to return home. However, the Algerian regime has instead denied these refugees their basic and legally guaranteed rights.

Furthermore, the increasingly desperate humanitarian situation in Tindouf, Algeria -- a direct result of the oppressive policies of the Algerian state -- has contributed to a recent expansion of international crime and transnational terrorism in the Maghreb. It has been widely reported that the denial of basic Human Rights to the refugees in Tindouf, as well as to the citizens of Algeria, has led many young men to join the ranks of regional drug runners and terrorist groups, prominently including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AMQI).

The growing relationship between Algeria and Iran should also be of concern to the United States Government. On Tuesday, February 8th, the Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi met to reaffirm their commitment to expanding bilateral relations and further bolster their nations' ties. Bouteflika emphasized that plans had been drawn up to expand relations and praised Iran's international and national policies. The Iranian foreign minister went as far as to state that Algeria's views on international and national issues were identical to those of Iran's. Currently, the US maintains heavy sanctions against Iran with specific regards to their nuclear program, and holds a strong stance in opposition to many of Tehran's policies. Thus, it seems inconceivable to provide support to one of Iran's closest allies, staunchest supporters, and a known public defender of their nuclear program.

The government in Algiers has also repeatedly denied its own citizens basic rights outlined not only under International Law, but within its own constitution. In May of last year, Human Rights Watch reiterated that Algeria denies the rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, and freedom of association to all peoples within Algeria. This is a violation not only of Algeria's own constitution (Article 41), but also of Article 11 of the African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, as well as the ICCPR's outlines on the restriction of the right to freedom of assembly.

The United States Department of State has also documented these abuses in Algeria. It acknowledges in its own report on "International Religious Freedom Report 2009 - Algeria" that Algerian authorities and legal statutes discriminate heavily against non-Muslims. These policies violate the religious freedoms of all Algerians and foreign visitors to Algeria, and should not be encouraged by the government of the United States.

The United States Department of State also declares that Algerian law restricts the rights of women. These discriminatory practices are clear violations of multiple articles of the African Union's Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, as well as the ICCPR and The Convention on the Rights of the Child -- all of which are legally binding institutions of international law. Further acknowledged by the US Department of State in the "2009 Human Rights Report: Algeria," is the Algerian regime's continuing history of official "disappearances," torture, arbitrary arrests, impunity of government officials, denial of fair trials and an impartial judiciary, violation of the right to privacy, a lack of a free press, non-criminalized spousal abuse and rape, human trafficking, and widespread corruption.

Today, the cries of Algerians for a free and democratic Algeria are being met with baton and shield as Algerian security forces obstruct protests criticizing government corruption, massive unemployment, housing issues and poverty. The Algerian security forces have confronted the assemblies with violent and repressive methods, which have fueled brutal confrontations and clashes between demonstrators and security forces in several areas of Algeria. As a result of the violent tactics, it was reported that five citizens were killed and at least 100 injured in the initial clashes. Further, the government has implemented a blanket ban on peaceful protest and triggered a further surge of disquiet amongst Algerian protestors. In an effort to stymie any defiance to this ban, the government has shut down social media websites, blocked Facebook pages, and altogether banned access to the Internet in many parts of the country. Despite these challenges, the opposition's plans for a mass peaceful protest came to fruition on February 12th when between two to three thousand protesters assembled in Algiers, and were met by a counter insurrection of 30,000 armed police officers. Reportedly, around 350 were arrested while hundreds were beaten when these peaceful protests were met with the impetuous violence of the security forces.

It is important to condemn the use of such violence against the Algerian citizens who have emerged to express their discontent with their current living conditions. Certainly the United States would wish to avoid furthering a relationship with a regime that condones such criminality and gruesome crimes against humanity. To support such a regime would greatly diminish the standing of the United States of America before the international community and before all nations that seek the betterment of the human condition.

The tyrannical regime of Algeria is one whose record has made it clear to analysts that Algiers is prepared to massacre thousands of its citizens for the plain purpose of making a statement. The fact is, Algeria's modern history is one filled with bloodshed, and given that at least 30,000 security forces were deployed to confront only two to three thousand civilian peaceful protesters in Algiers, its almost certain that this trend is not one of the past. Is the United States to do anything less than condemn the stronghold of the Algerian authority, they will be shamed by their blatant hypocrisy and endorsement of a tyrannical regime that is likely to go on to slaughter masses of innocent civilians in the interest of maintaining the status quo. Furthermore, the implicit consent to these ongoing abuses that would accompany the silence of the Obama administration on Algeria is irreconcilable with the aims and goals of those fighting for human rights in the Maghreb, and will directly work against the progress, which this community has made in the region over years of concerted efforts. Some experts even go as far to argue that the endorsement of the Algerian regime would be a decision that would prove worse than the Iraqi invasion for the international reputation of the United States.

Wisely, the statements released by the US thus far express solidarity with the Algerian citizens, declaring that the rights of the Algerian citizens "must be respected", and encourage restraint on the part of the Algerian security forces. One can only hope that they stand by these principles and do not waver in response to the allure of ongoing or improving deals with Algerian oil companies at the sacrifice of democratic ideals. The reality is, the Algerian people have promised to march every Saturday until democratic change is introduced; the question is, on which side of the line will the United States stand when the chaos is unleashed?