IMEACHTAÍ AN CHOMHCHOISTE
PROCEEDINGS OF THE JOINT COMMITTEE
Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs
Dé Céadaoin, 17 Nollaig 1997.
Wednesday, 17 December 1997.
The Committee met at 9.45 a.m.
Also present Senator J. Connor.
Chairman: I welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Andrews, and his officials, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Carroll to the meeting. I know the Minister is busy and I thank him for agreeing to attend at short notice. The committee has made it clear that it has a particular interest in human rights and on a few occasions in its short existence to date it has expressed its concern for human rights in Algeria. We hope the Minister can give us up to date information on the situation following his recent visit there. As his time is limited and he must leave by 11 a.m. I propose that his presentation would open the discussion and that this would be followed by a question and answer session.
Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Andrews): It is a pleasure to come before the committee for the first time since my appointment and I hope it will be the first of a series of appearances in relation to matters of concern to the committee. I welcome the opportunity to brief the committee on the situation in Algeria. I thank the Chairman and the members for convening a meeting on the matter.
The shocking situation in Algeria, as revealed in numerous reports over the past several months, has filled all of us with a deep sense of horror and forboding. The massacre of innocent civilians, particularly of women and children, has evoked a strong sense of outrage amongst the Irish people. Both Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Deputy O’Donnell, and myself have received very large numbers of expressions of concern from people all around the country. The Government fully shares his sense of outrage.
A turning point in the Algerian tragedy was the cancellation, under pressure from military leaders, of the second round of the general election in January 1992 which Islamic fundamentalists were set to win. Since then a vicious conflict has been fought, resulting in an estimated 80,000 deaths. The scale and nature of the carnage have attracted world wide attention. Together with our partners in the European Union, we have been monitoring the situation very closely. On 12 September, the Presidency issued a statement which expressed the deep shock of the Union at the wave of killings and other atrocities, reaffirmed our outright condemnation of all acts of terrorism and indiscriminate violence, and reiterated our encouragement of the political and economic reform process in Algeria.
At the informal meeting in Mondorf in late October, the Foreign Ministers of the Union decided that the Presidency should meet with the Algerian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Ahmed Attaf. At this meeting, which took place in Luxembourg on 26 November, the President of the Council, Foreign Minister Jacques Poos of Luxembourg, conveyed, on behalf of the Union, our profound concern at reports on the situation, our solidarity with the people of Algeria and our utter condemnation of terror and extreme violence. He confirmed that the Union would continue to encourage a process of national reconciliation with democratic parties who renounce violence and reiterated the Union’s intention to continue to support the process of reform, notably through the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. He stressed the vital importance of fundamental freedoms and human rights and went on to signal the Union’s readiness to facilitate a political solution, if desired by the Algerian Government. I have set out the Government’s position in replies to parliamentary questions in the Dáil, most recently on Wednesday last. I made it clear that I was deeply shocked at the reports of massacres, that I could not accept the assertion that what was happening was an internal affair and that with my colleagues, I was at the disposal of the protagonists should the Union be requested to help facilitate a political solution.
On 19 November, Minister of State, Deputy O’Donnell and I met with the Algerian Ambassador to Ireland, Mr. Ahmed Benyamina, to discuss recent events in his country. I outlined the profound revulsion felt at the large-scale killings of so many innocent Algerians, including women and children, and made it clear that our interest in Algeria and our desire to assist should in no way be seen as interference. We stressed the importance we attached to making an approach in a spirit of co-operation, holding out the hand of friendship to an emerging democracy which had to cope with the trauma of killings on this scale.
During our discussion, I made it clear that I was keen to explore ways in which Ireland, either bilaterally or through the EU, could help relieve the unacceptable situation in Algeria. I asked the ambassador to convey to Foreign Minister Attaf, my interest in meeting him, the President and members of the assembly in Algeria. My proposal was based on the priority accorded to human rights issues in our foreign policy.
I visited Algiers from the night of 8 December to midday on 10 December. During three and a half hours of detailed discussions with Foreign Minister Attaf, with whom I established a good working rapport, I explained the reasons for my visit - the first by an Irish Foreign Minister - in terms of the grave concern which was being expressed about developments in Algeria. Foreign Minister Attaf made several key points which I will outline for the background information of the committee.
On coming to office in January 1994, the Algerian Government faced a political, economic and security crisis. There was no elected President, Parliament or local councils. In short, there was an institutional vacuum. The Exchequer was bankrupt with annual debt servicing exceeding national earnings by US $1 billion. There was significant insurgency and a campaign of terror. Foreign Minister Attaf spelled out his Government’s response. The first was institution building. Four candidates contested the Presidential election in November 1995. Mr. Zeroual, an army general, won 61 per cent of the vote in a 75 per cent turnout, which was judged to be fair by international monitors. In November 1996, a set of constitutional amendments to reshape the legislative assembly was carried. Government figures showed that 85 per cent of Algerians were in favour. However, mainly due to security issues, there were no monitors to challenge or confirm the result. The Assembly was directly elected last June. Local councils were elected amid considerable controversy in October. The final stage, the opening of the National Council (Upper House), takes place on 25 December.
On the economic front, the new Government negotiated a structural adjustment programme with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Economic growth resumed in 1995. Inflation had been brought down from 39 per cent in 1994 to 4.7 per cent at present. The then budget deficit of 7 per cent is now a surplus of 3 per cent. However, severe social costs were involved. Unemployment had risen to over 20 per cent with more than 2 million unemployed. Population growth was over 3 per cent per annum. The country needed to add 250,000 new jobs each year to make an impact on unemployment. The Government’s response has been to identify some micro-economic priorities with social impact. Its goal is to create 1.2 million jobs by the year 2000 and build a similar number of housing units to address the housing crisis, 800,000 of them also by the year 2000.
On the security front, the level of protection provided to the public in 1994 was clearly inadequate to the insurgency threat. There was a police force of 31,000 for a population of over 27 million. Some 750 of the country’s 1,540 municipalities had no police. In 1992 and 1993, a very significant number of intellectuals - professors, doctors and journalists - were targeted by assassins. This was unprecedented. From 1993 to 1996 foreign residents, economic installations and the social infrastructure were also targeted. Schools, factories, hospitals, roads, bridges and railways were attacked. All of these have since been guarded, at high cost, by 1997. Then fragmented groups of insurgents attacked villages and entire communities.
Foreign Minister Attaf argued that the Algerian Government sees itself as having been abandoned to face these threats on its own and is very critical of the lack of international solidarity, including of the asylum offered to certain exiles whom they regard as being actively involved in insurgency. When I asked how Europe could help, he immediately called for the elimination of insurgency networks in Europe. This, of course, raises a great number of other questions.
For my part, I expressed grave concern arising from the perception in Europe that gross violations of human rights had been, and possibly were still being, committed in Algeria. I went on to convey the perception that the press was less than free in Algeria and asked if the authorities could confirm and explain the estimated figure of 80,000 deaths since 1992 - an enormous number.
The Foreign Minister’s response was that combating terrorism was a complex matter. He did not hide the fact that abuses of human rights had occurred. He said that Algeria had ratified 23 international agreements on human rights, including optional protocols such as that on civil, economic and political rights. It had made annual reports to the specialised United Nations bodies, which had not attracted significant criticism. In its 1996 report under the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 73 cases were detailed. Its next report, expected at the end of January, will disclose more cases. The perpetrators are to be tried before tribunals and punished. He added that they would welcome visitors from abroad, including NGOs, and would facilitate their work with organisations in Algerian civil society. I acknowledged that these were the stated intent.
In a frank and substantive hour long meeting, President Liamene Zeroual acknowledged that his Government had to take control of the problem of the abuse of human rights. In recent days the Algerian Government has taken the positive step of inviting a UN special rapporteur on extra judicial killings to visit the country. It has also given an initially favourable response to the proposal to appoint a special rapporteur on torture.
On balance, my overall impression is that while they remain highly sensitive to criticism made in public and are very conscious of their image at international level, they are receptive to constructive messages made in private. One area in which they need improvement is greater familiarity with parliamentary procedures and the role of the Opposition. Inter-Parliamentary contacts, focused on the young representatives from all parties, could be constructive in this area.
I took the opportunity to discuss matters of bilateral interest, especially on the trade front. Members of the committee may be aware that over recent years we have exported some agriculture products, especially beef, to Algeria. This trade has been in the region of £12 million per annum and could be significantly increased if Ireland were to be successful in the current tender for beef, a matter I raised on a number of occasions. This tender, for 10,000 tons of beef from this country, may represent a positive outcome to the visit.
Nobody should be under any illusion that the situation in Algeria is susceptible to a quick fix. It remains a complex and highly dangerous amalgam of tensions and strife, based not only on an ideological struggle but fed by economic and social alienation. The result is a catastrophic cycle of violence, destruction and counter violence. Outside involvement, if wisely handled, can help bring this cycle to and end, but if mishandled, could prove counterproductive. All our efforts must therefore be directed towards ensuring that the outcome is one which meets the objectives of respect for human rights and for democracy.
One conclusion I have derived from all my discussions is the extent to which Algeria needs and seeks a closer relationship with the EU and its member states. Despite its relative isolation, and perhaps also a feeling of desperation, this is a positive factor on which we can and should build. My visit will have helped to play a positive role. For the added information of the committee I gave a full report of my meetings while I was in Algeria to representatives of the ambassadors of the EU countries in addition to speaking to the Speaker of the House and a number of members of the Opposition. Regardless of whether they were true members of the Opposition, I made a genuine effort to get an independent view, which was not made fully available to me.
I will be glad to advance the knowledge of the committee if I can do so. I was there for only 24 hours and in that time do not pretend to be an expert on the conditions or the problems relating to any country. However, my visit was helpful in that I reflected the views of EU partners. It was strongly supported by the presidency of the EU and by the people of Ireland. It was necessary in the circumstances and successful in so far as a meeting can be successful in the time available for such a visit.
Chairman: Thank you Minister. Were the views of the members of the Opposition whom you met dramatically different from the views expressed to you be members of the Government or are they members of an official, permitted Opposition as opposed to the real Opposition?
Deputy Andrews: These were members of what you would describe as the official Opposition. Before my visit a Swedish Minister of State and old friend of mine, Jan Eliasson, had the opportunity to meet with members of the real Opposition, which was not made available to me. Perhaps I did not meet them because I had so many meetings over a short period of time and the opportunity did not present itself. I did not meet members of the Opposition I would like to have met.
Chairman: There appears to be a growing feeling that the Government side, if one could call it that, is perhaps as responsible as the Islamic militant side for many of the deaths and other atrocities in Algeria, especially given the apparent evidence that Government troops and police are often nearby when some of these atrocities occur and make no effort to intervene. Did you raise that aspect of the matter with either the President or the Foreign Minister?
Deputy Andrews: I raised it with the Foreign Minister and with the President. I expressed strong solidarity with the people of Algeria on behalf of the people of this country and our EU partners. The people of Algeria find themselves between a rock and a hard place in that they have a Government with a small army looking after a large population. The army is made up of young people who, in the nature of the situation, would not be motivated to go to places of serious danger given the kind of terror involved. In that sense the Government is neglecting to look after the people.
However, some of the atrocities were committed by the Islamists, who are the fundamentalist, and who seek to destabilise the Government. Some of the deaths were committed in the most horrible circumstances. At one stage diplomats were targeted, then journalists and politicians. It now appears that the people are being targeted in the interests of terror.
I must draw a distinction between human rights and terror. Bearing in mind my short visit, my impression is that the Government is not quite strong with regard to the protection of the human rights of the people, but the terror could be effectively blamed on the Islamists and fundamentalists. I spoke with the Foreign Minister in a bilateral for two hours. We then spent another hour and a half over a business lunch. We had an interesting interchange and nothing was left unsaid. I raised the fears expressed to me in the strongest fashion. He took the criticism but he defended it and gave the impression that the Government was doing all it could to stabilise the country according to its fashion, which we may not find acceptable.
Chairman: The two special rapporteurs on extra judicial killings and on torture were originally proposed by Mrs. Robinson in her capacity as the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights. They appear to have been agreed to in principle by the Algerian Government. When do you anticipate they will go to Algeria and report?
Deputy Andrews: The term “in principle” must be borne in mind here. The former President of this country who is now the Commissioner came in for considerable criticism from the Algerian authorities. I faced that criticism, which came particularly from the Speaker of the House. Naturally I defended the reputation of the former President in as robust a fashion as possible and in diplomatic language, as the exigencies of the time demanded. I pointed out that perhaps the Speaker should direct his criticism at the Commissioner rather than me because I did not intend conveying the message to her.
Mrs. Robinson acknowledged the complexity of the human rights problem but hoped that special rapporteurs on extrajudicial killings and torture would visit Algeria in time to report to the next session of the Commission on Human Rights which convenes next March.
Deputy Gay Mitchell: I congratulate the Minister on taking the initiative in going to Algeria. It is important that EU member states get involved in a more proactive way and I am glad the Minister participated in this official visit.
The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial and summary execution was invited to visit Algeria in 1993 but has been unable to do so. Pressure should be exerted by us, as an independent State and in our capacity as a member of the EU, to allow that visit to go ahead.
In its report on Algeria, Amnesty International said the EU’s role has tended to avoid dealing with the situation in Algeria in concrete terms. The union does not have the capacity to deal with some of these situations with the certainty some of us would like. I sat through many General Affairs Council meetings where we had difficulty in framing declarations. Does the Minister agree that when there is such a serious situation on our doorstep, the Union needs to deal with it in a greater capacity? Does he also agree there are grounds to proceed with the modest proposals in the Amsterdam Treaty to improve the CFSP on an informal basis before ratification? Has the General Affairs Council given any consideration to the appointment of a special envoy to deal with the situation in Algeria? Can it place the Algerian issue higher on its agenda so we can bring pressure to bear to restore normality there so UN rapporteurs can properly monitor human rights?
Mr. Andrews: The EU’s involvement in this issue is ongoing. Sideline involvement is easy in a situation where many hundreds are killed in terrible circumstances. I wonder whether organisations in the EU, including the General Affairs Council, of which I am a member, are performing sufficiently and whether calling Ambassadors to remonstrate with and indict the Algerian régime from a distance rather than going there is the answer.
At their informal meeting in Mondorf in Luxembourg on 26 October last, EU Foreign Ministers agreed that a message should be sent to President Zeroual in view of the meeting between Foreign Ministers Jacques Poos and Ahmed Attaf on 25 November. That was helpful, but like Deputy Gay Mitchell, I wonder if it provides a solution to the problem, which is to ensure that the people of Algeria live in peace and harmony. It was stated that on security grounds, member states should not go beyond a number of guidelines; that profound concern should be expressed at reports of the situation; there should be solidarity with the people of Algeria; condemnation of terror and violence and that the vital importance of fundamental freedom of human rights should be recognised. There should be encouragement of a process of reconciliation with democratic parties who renounce violence and confirmation of the EU intention to continue to support the process of reform, notably through the Euro-Mediterranean partnership. In answer to one of the Deputy’s questions, EU readiness to facilitate a political solution, for example by sending a special envoy to study the crisis and compare concerns, was also highlighted. This is another plank in a platform of necessary directions to solve the problem.
Deputy Gay Mitchell: Is the appointment of a special envoy under consideration?
Mr. Andrews: Yes. It is a matter I will pursue. I addressed a number of areas under various principles. I spoke to a number of people, including the Foreign Minister, Ahmed Attaf, President Zeroual and the Speaker of the House, under the headings of terror, human rights, transparency, dialogue and what Europe can do to assist Algeria.
Proinsias De Rossa: The Minister said there was 20 per cent unemployment in Algeria. Is there information on how this is measured?
About 50 per cent of the Algerian population is under 15 years old, which is an extraordinary demographic in a country which has been effectively destroyed by fundamentalism, fed by the restructuring forced on Algeria by the World Bank. We participate in agencies such as the World Bank and the United Nations and impose economic solutions on countries like Algeria as if they were developed Western countries. The net effect of this is a breakdown in society. What steps will be taken to ensure that these economic solutions are not imposed elsewhere and that where we have contributed to this type of breakdown through the operations of the World Bank we assist these countries financially? There is no point in Algeria having a budget surplus if there is unemployment in the region of 20 per cent - a figure which seems to have been massaged by the Algerian authorities - and apparently no real democracy.
Deputy Andrews: I disagree with the views of the Deputy to some extent. On the question of the measurement of the percentage figures of unemployed, they are the figures which were given to me and I must accept them at face value.
On the question of population, the figure of 29.2 million to 30 million was mentioned to me. It is difficult to deny that or give the Deputy an idea of how that figure was measured.
The Deputy is correct in saying that 50 per cent of the population is under 15 years of age. I think the Deputy is correct; that is an accurate assessment of the situation. Finding employment for those young people is one of the problems.
There are two other matters which I might mention while we are on the subject of education. The education system, as I understand it, is not bad and the Algerian Government is making a genuine effort to make the issue of literacy as prominent as possible among the population.
On the economic front the Deputy raised the point that the new Algerian Government negotiated a structural adjustment programme with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Economic growth resumed in 1995. To the credit of the Algerian Government, the rate of inflation has been reduced from about 38-40 per cent to the current level of some 4.7 per cent. The then budget deficit of 7 per cent is now a surplus of 3 per cent. However, the Deputy quite properly points out this will be done at severe social cost. Unemployment has risen to over 20 per cent with more than 2 million people unemployed. Population growth has been 3 per cent per year. The country needs to create an additional 250,000 jobs each year to make an impact on unemployment. I did not have information on whether or not they are doing that. I am not a 24 hour expert on other countries’ problems and I do not pretend to be. The Algerian Government’s goal is to create 1.2 million jobs by the year 2000.
On the journey from the airport, Foreign Minister Attaf pointed to a number of social housing schemes. I asked him the number of units which would be required to at least put a dent in the housing problem and he said 1.2 million housing units would be required to deal with the serious housing problem. He informed me that at present there are about nine people per unit of accommodation in Algeria, so the committee can see the problems which exist on that front.
All in all, the régime has enormous problems. On the one hand it has this terror/human rights problem and on the other it has enormous social problems. Anything we can do for them in the context of dialogue and visits will be done. It is the first time an Irish Foreign Minister visited the country. It was a worthwhile visit. I reported to EU colleagues during the Council meeting last weekend an they were pleased to receive my report. I also will send a report to each of their capitals.
I understand there will be a further discussion within the GAC at some time in the near future on Algeria. Arising out of my visit and, indeed, the visit of other Ministers in the recent past, I have an inkling of hope. This is not to say or to suggest that the ongoing terror will not continue; I am afraid it will.
Senator Lanigan: I thank the Minister for going to Algeria. It was a significant and important visit. There are many problems associated with the huge excesses which are taking place in Algeria at present. One of the problems I, and many people, have is with the claim that this is an Islamic fundamentalist problem. If we take that to its logical conclusion, this would mean that any Christian who believes in their principles would be considered to be excessive in the attitude towards their religion. There is nothing wrong with fundamentalism. that basically means one abides by the religion to which one aspires. However, there is a difference between that and extreme militant excesses, such as those which are claimed to be Islamic excesses. I do not think the followers of Islam or Christianity are alone in excesses which have taken place in the name of the religion to which they aspired, but it appears as if there is a phobia about Islam around the world at present which would claim that it is responsible for excesses in a country in which Moslems per se are involved.
The problem in Algeria is a complex one. The Minister mentioned the economic difficulties and deprivation. If one looks at countries in which there is extreme deprivation and extreme economic difficulties, one will find there are people who will rise up and claim to be Islamic militants, for example, but the root of the problem can often be deprivation and economic difficulties. If one looks at the situation in Iran, one would have to say that the difficulties there were caused to a large degree by the excesses of the rulers of Iran at a particular stage. If the rulers of Iran had not misused their power, the problems would not have existed and we would not have seen the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
How do we get over the problems? The Minister’s visit is an important element in, first, attempting to understand the problem and, second, extending the knowledge he gained in the EU.
Has any thought been given to the reorganisation of EU-Arab dialogue? It must be said that at an unofficial level there has been a good deal of dialogue between Europe and Middle East countries, but the last time official EU-Arab dialogue took place was during the Irish Presidency of 1989 under the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Collins. I ask the Minister, in an extension of the role which he has started, to attempt to have the official EU-Arab dialogue reinstated on a regular basis. With that dialogue, it would be possible to address the present situation in Algeria without recrimination or blaming specific groups.
I liked the Minister’s phrase “sideline involvement”. That has not been helpful in any conflict in the past and it will not be helpful in the future. If we can get down to meaningful official dialogue between the EU and Arab countries, the problem of Algeria could best be addressed there. There is a human rights——
Chairman: Let the Minister deal with that, Senator.
Deputy Andrews: Fundamentalism is inclined to be an exclusive philosophy and it certainly would not sit well with me, personally. It is a joyless type of philosophy.
Senator Norris: Hear, hear.
Deputy Andrews: As far as Islamic excesses are concerned, Islam has its own transnational focus. There is no question about that. It has organised itself over the past number of years. The Algerians argue that the Islamic fundamentalist movement is the prime mover in terrorism because it is anxious to replace the Algerian Government. There is conflict between the Government, presided over by Zeroual, Attaf and others, and the Islamists. I understand the Euro-Arab dialogue has been replaced by the Euro-Mediterranean partnership, in which Mediterranean countries operate with EU countries, and that new format, which is part of the Barcelona process, is ongoing.
I accept the Senator’s points; he made a worthwhile intervention. I cannot tell him the precise nature of the conflict between the Islamists and the Algerian Government, the Algerian people, who are in between, are suffering in the most horrendous and terrible manner. I agree with the Senator that hands-off diplomacy is no substitute for the hands-on kind, the sort in which we as a small country should engage. I do not want to put us on the moral high ground; we know how politically dangerous a place that is. Neither do I wish to go down the road of political correctness which I also view as an obscene philosophy. I like to think we, as a small country, have a moral authority in foreign affairs but we must keep it in context. We are a small country on the world stage, but having regard to our size, we have played an enormous role in the United Nations, the EU and the OSCE and have made an enormous contribution. These are the areas on which we should focus our foreign policy as best we can and within our competence.
Deputy Deasy: I congratulate the Minister for visiting Algeria. How seriously does the European Union view the situation there? How many other foreign ministers have visited the country to see the situation at first hand, as the Minister has done? What priority is the situation given at meetings of the council of foreign ministers? Is it major or peripheral? On the last occasion it met, this committee deemed the issue very important because of its proximity to Europe.
I would not worry about our size. A country such as Ireland is famous for pricking the consciences of larger countries, as Shakespeare might say. We may not have great influence, but we can embarrass people into doing something.
I am interested in what the Minister said about the 1995 general election vis-á-vis the 1992 election, because there was an amazing swing in the electorate. I can only deduce that, while the fundamentalists won the 1992 election, there must have been mass abstentions or intimidation in the 1995 one. I could be wrong but I would like the Minister to enlighten us on that.
The general who was elected president received 61 per cent of the vote and he was one of four candidates. It is amazing that the army supported candidate lost the election in 1992 but received 61 per cent of the vote in 1995. Was it a properly constituted election or just a showcase?
Is Algeria a true democracy or is it just a totalitarian state as are many parts of the Arab world and the Middle East and as was the case in eastern Europe? If the Minister did not meet the opposition, where are they? Are they dead, in prison or on the run? Are they free to speak? Do they exist? I would like the Minister to elaborate on that.
Deputy Andrews: The presidential election, in which there were four candidates, was monitored, and it was considered acceptable by the monitors. The garnering of 61 per cent of the vote for one candidate raises questions, many of which go unanswered. I visited thecountry and met the President elected under that system. In the hour I was with him, I found him to be a man of principles and dignity. He is an austere individual who lives in relative poverty and who does not want any external trappings. In many ways, he struck me as a man dedicated to his country.
The second half of the 1992 election was not postponed but abandoned by the regime on the basis that the Islamists would win in the second round. The sudden transformation three or four years later would raise questions in anyone’s mind. I was there as a guest of the authorities and was in their hands. One has to be careful about how one manages one’s presence on the first visit, not from any sense of fear but rather as a confidence building measure with a view to visiting the country again and pursuing the points raised here with more accuracy.
The General Affairs Council of the EU takes the situations in Algeria seriously. France takes it especially seriously as it has a special interest in the country, having been the colonist there for more than 150 years. Discussions take account of that interest; the issue is raised on a regular basis and concern is expressed about it by the foreign ministers. It has a high priority. Taking account of what Deputy Mitchell stated about EU monitors or someone similar going to the country, it is an indication of the council’s concern and the seriousness with which it views the problem.
I would not like to call the régime totalitarian. It is under siege because of its own feeling of isolation within the international community on one hand and from what it perceives as a terror campaign within its own country on the other. That campaign might be described as a civil war. It is pushing as far as it can given the atmosphere in which it operates within and without the country. We must take account of that. If we have a dialogue with the régime, so much the better.
The Greek Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Pangalos, and the Dutch Foreign Minister, Mr. Van Mierlo went to Algeria in 1997, and I met Mr. Eliasson in the official residence when he was coming out of Algeria. He gave a wonderful resumé of his visit which was very helpful to me. I expressed my appreciation both then and afterwards for his help. The German Junior Minister, Mr. Hoyer, also went there, so there were five visits by either senior or junior Ministers and that should continue apace in 1998.
Senator Norris: I commend the Minister for his initiative in going and his attitude is, by and large, correct in being modest and low key. That does not mean that we cannot examine the situation here, particularly the words concerned. We should also congratulate Mrs. Robinson, as without her intervention attention would not have been focused so clearly on this problem. I hope she continues to take this kind of action. We would not be as aware of the situation if it were not for the wonderful reports of Lara Marlowe in The Irish Times which disclosed the involvement of the Algerian Government in these atrocities. It is far too easy to see them merely as the result of Islamic fanaticism, which is not the case. We now know the situation is far more complex than that. I am concerned by newspaper comments arising out of the Minister’s visit.
First, he quotes Mr. Attaf as saying that religious fundamentalists were the cause of most, if not all, the problems in Algeria. That is not true and is a classic abrogation of democracy in which the incoming military authorities were aided and abetted by France for its own reasons. Once democracy is abrogated one is in trouble. If phrases such as “destabilising the Algerian Government” are used, it should be remembered that it is not a particularly stable government because it is on such an insecure and undemocratic foundation. The Algerian Foreign Minister went on to say that the hands of the Algerian Government were clean, and anything it did would be in the interests of its people. That is a highly dangerous and sinister carte blanche. Does this include torture and the establishment of militia? Massacres laid at the door of the fundamentalists were clearly done by the Government. Amnesty International have pointed out that most of these massacres have taken place next door to military barracks without intervention. Why? There has been no impartial, independent investigation of these incidents.
We should pass a resolution which strongly supports the Government in urging the implementation of the wishes of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner or whatever appropriate authority to send in two investigators to look into the question of extrajudicial execution and torture. That is one practical thing we could accomplish. The context of these killings is highly significant as it raises doubts as to whether they are carried out by fundamentalists. Amnesty states that in at least two cases several survivors described how people who tried to escape from villages where massacres took place were turned back by a cordon of security forces who stood by while villagers were being slaughtered. They did not come into the villages until after the attackers left.
Whether one accepts these accounts or not, there is no doubt that such attacks regularly occur next to military barracks with no intervention. We need to know the level of implication of the Government. In January 1997 the Algerian Prime Minister signed an executive decree which made the existence of the militias official, which set out a framework for their activities. That is a cause of concern.
There is a problem when it is said that one needs to make a distinction between human rights and terror. What is that distinction? It is dangerous when a charismatic Government figure says one must balance human rights and terror. It is never excusable to engage in the kind of torture and murder going on in Algeria. I am worried by the introduction of the beef deal. That should be separate, and one should not trade human rights for beef.
Chairman: There is no suggestion that human rights were being traded for beef.
Senator Norris: If left unexplained, that implication could be drawn. Given that France has a policy of returning asylum seekers to Algeria on the basis that, if killed, they are not killed by agents of the Government, should we not examine this situation? Does the Minister agree that this should be examined, particularly the notion of returning asylum seekers to the point of first entry to the EU, where they may be placed in danger? The Department of Foreign Affairs should have a significant say in this area rather than apparently leaving it all to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, which claims that the Department of Foreign Affairs is not qualified in this area.
Mr. Andrews: I do not wish to comment on the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform as it is doing its best in the circumstances. It has come in for a lot of criticism. Asylum seekers from Algeria would not be returned.
Senator Norris: Would they be returned to France?
Mr. Andrews: I imagine that each case would be adjudicated individually. I take the Senator’s point and it was something I was unhappy about when in Opposition, but I must be more careful as a Minister, as I have discovered. I find the concept of landing in Paris, coming to Ireland and then returning to Paris unusual. It is a matter I would need to go into in greater depth as a Minister.
Chairman: It is called the Dublin Convention. All the implications of it were understood when it was signed.
Deputy Andrews: That is right.
Senator Norris: The regulations were laid out for people but they did not want to understand them.
Deputy Andrews: I must conclude on the Senator’s first point. Forgive me if I do so briefly as I must leave at 11 O’clock.
I was repeating what Attaf and Zeroual were telling me. I was not acting as an apologist for the régime. There is no doubt the régime were, and still are, engaging in hairy practices as far as its population is concerned. The population are victims of the fundamentalists on one hand and the government on the other.
I also pay tribute to Laura Marlowe of The Irish Times who raised awareness in this State of what is happening in that country. She was an extremely brave woman to go there and write the articles she did. On the question of expressions used in the article describing my visit, I was repeating for the sake of the journalists who asked me a number of questions what it is that Foreign Ministers say. Foreign Minister Attaf did use the expression “hands are clean as far as human rights are concerned”.
I had a three and a half hour discussion with them last on Tuesday, 9 December. It was a very strong exchange. He defended his position and I was suggested to him the perceived position of his government. I used the principles as outlined by the EU presidency at Mondorf in discussions with Attaf. I raised the issues of terror and human rights. The Senator asked what is the distinction. It was explained to me at length and I could give the manner of that explanation but this is not the time to do it. I raised matters concerning dialogue, transparency and assistance from EU countries. I argued vehemently as the devil’s advocate in relation to expressions such as “hands are clean” and the other expressions used to explain rather than justify. He was not in the business of justification, he was in the business of explanation and there is a subtle distinction. That is where I found myself. I could not argue more strongly than I did, in a very courteous fashion.
Senator Mooney: I appreciate the Minister’s time is at a time premium. I commend him. He has enhanced the already internationally respected reputation of Ireland with this initiative. Does the Minister have any other initiative in mind concerning Algeria? The deaths of ordinary people in Algeria are foremost in our minds. I am pleased he has paid public tribute to the journalist who covered these atrocities. Did the Minister raise the sinister development of the murder of journalists in Algeria? Usually repressive régimes will attack journalists first in an attempt to ensure the atrocities do not enter the public arena. There has been a high mortality rate among journalists in Algeria. Was there any explanation at government level why this is happening?
Does he believe the involvement of France is malign in the overall EU approach? It is significant that the Minister of a post colonial state visited the country in such a high profile manner. It seems murky this issue does not have a common EU position. Are things happening behind closed doors at European level which we should know about?
Deputy Andrews: France has been involved with Algeria for more than 150 years. Naturally it would have concerns on the trade front and on other fronts, particularly the enormous number of Algerians living in France. That is a problem they have on their own doorstep. They would be concerned about that and the ongoing problems in Algeria moving to their own homeland. It is not for me to decide if they are malign or benign. They are our European partners and it would be incorrect for me to comment on that area.
Journalists were murdered in a very structured way to heighten the level of terror. I did not specifically mention journalists, but in the totality of my efforts to condemn all murders they would be included.
Chairman: I thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs for coming here and speaking at such length to us about the situation as he saw. As he said his view has to be a limited one as his visit was only thirty six hours and presumably did not go beyond the city of Algiers which is limiting in such a large country.
It is disappointing the European Union is not more active in regard to this problem. Their statements tend to say exactly what one would expect, they are clichéd and meaningless. I am of the opinion that they are influenced by the interests of a major member state. That is often the case in EU external policy. If a major member state has an economic or other interest, the policy of the European Union tends to be diluted to take account of that interest. We have seen this to an extent in the Balkans and we see it here. Both regions are very close to the European Union.
They could have a very considerable influence and effect on what happens in the EU. That is why this is a very important issue.
I urge the Minister to convey to his colleagues the fact that a greater sense of urgency is required in regard to this issue. The fact that he is one of very few people who visited Algeria is indicative of the lack of urgency being accorded to the problem. One need only look at the lack of visits to Algeria by those who are much closer to the country than we are for evidence of this.
The biggest tragedy of all is the fact that 80,000 people have died in Algeria in the past five years. For the Algerian Government to cite the importance of an improvement in the economy and a fall in inflation levels is very little consolation to someone who is having his or her throat cut. It will not console anyone to know they are having their throat cut at 4 rather than 39 per cent inflation.
I thank the Minister for coming before the Committee and answering the questions asked of him. It is the view of Committee Members that he should redouble his efforts to make the EU more active and, if necessary, more interventionist in relation to one of the huge human rights tragedies of this decade, if not of the century.
Senator Norris: I propose the following motion supporting the sending of two rapporteurs to Algeria.
“The Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs strongly urges the Government, along with its EU Partners, to actively support and encourage the proposed appointment by the United Nations Commission for Human Rights of Special Rapporteurs on a) extrajudicial killings and b) torture in Algeria with a view to their conducting a comprehensive investigation of the situation on these issues in that country and with a view to reporting back to the next session of the Commission on Human Rights which convenes in March 1998.”
Chairman: Is that agreed? Agreed.
The Joint Committee adjourned at 11.05 a.m.