State of acquiescence

22 November 2005
On 29 September, the Charter for Peace & National Reconciliation was endorsed by 97.4 per cent of voters, with a turnout of 79.5 per cent, according to official figures. But the charter, which seeks to consign a decade of violence to history, also helps to strengthen the hand of the president.

The Peace & National Reconciliation charter seeks to draw a line under a period of terrorism and violence known as the 'black decade', which began in 1992 after the military cancelled elections that the country's main Islamic party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), was poised to win. The ensuing conflict has been responsible for the deaths of at least 150,000 people, and is estimated to have cost Algeria more than $30,000 million.

'We are pleased that a public consultation was organised on the charter, because this is the democratic option,' says a spokesperson for the European Commission. 'We hope that the result will pave the way for stability and renewed prosperity in the country.' Adds a spokesperson for the UK's Foreign & Commonwealth Office: 'We are hoping that it will be the start of a move towards a return to normality. It is a good sign that Algeria will get back to being a stable society.'

The 16-page charter provides for proceedings to be dropped against those not yet brought to trial, those who have been sentenced in their absence, and those involved in support of terrorism, providing they turn themselves in to the authorities. The plan also provides for sentences to be commuted for those who have been tried and found guilty of terrorism, and drops all charges against rebels who gave up their arms after an earlier amnesty in 1999. Those found responsible for massacres, rapes and bombings in public places are excluded from the amnesty, and the charter bans from politics those who were responsible for the 'mobilisation of religion' and its 'odious consequences'. Compensation is offered for the victims of the violence.

But despite the warmth of the response from the international community, the charter has critics both inside and outside Algeria. The extent of opposition within the country has led some to question the legitimacy of the official results. 'People were quite positive - they want to put the past behind them, so there was a tendency towards voting in favour of the charter,' says one European source. 'I think there would have been a majority in favour, but not 97 per cent. Many people who suffered would not be able to say 'yes'. And the participation level is too high.'


George Joffe, Professor of International Studies at Cambridge University, goes further: 'The turnout and the vote in favour are simply incredible. Of course everyone wants peace, but the terms of the charter were not very popular. Those known as 'eradicateurs' didn't want to give anyone an amnesty. And the 'conciliateurs' wanted eitheran amnesty for both sides or a truth and reconciliation commission to hold the army to account. Prior to the referendum, 25 per cent of the population were expected to abstain. The turnout was probably 50 per cent at best.'

The terms of the charter have been much criticised, in particular for failing to bring to justice the security forces, who are widely believed to have played a part in the 'disappearance' of thousands of Algerians from 1992-98. The official number of disappeared is 6,146, but human rights organisations have put the figure at more than 20,000. 'In theory, the referendum is to draw a line under a decade of violence,' says Joffe. 'But the problem is that it only applies to one side. The army has made it clear to the president that it wants no part in the process.'

The charter has been heavily criticised by human rights organisations. '[The amnesty] may permanently deprive victims or their families of their right to truth, justice and reparation,' said a group of organisa

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