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Energy versus rights

Tamsin WalkerMarch 13, 2014

A UK oil and gas watchdog has accused the British government of putting its own economic stability and energy needs ahead of Algeria's human rights record. Britain says Algeria has made progress on civil liberties

Sign post for In Amenas
Image: picture alliance / dpa

When British Gas signed its first deal with Algeria back in 1964, it marked the start of lasting energy ties that have seen BP become a leading investor in the North African country. The Algerian state and oil gas enterprise, Sonatrach, has been contracted to supply the UK with five billion cubic meters of gas by the mid 2000s.

Such lucrative deals form the backbone of a new report by London-based oil and gas campaign group, Platform together with the Algeria Solidarity Campaign(ASC). Entitled "Reinforcing Dictatorships - Britain’s Gas Grab and Human Rights Abuses in Algeria," the publication argues that UK eagerness to tap into Algeria’s natural resources during the civil war of the 1990s highlighted its priorities. Priorities, it claims have not changed since.

The activists say David Cameron’s government is now looking to increase Algerian imports of liquid natural gas, and is pushing for closer bilateral ties through trade visits, top-level dialogue and the establishment of a parliamentary group on Algeria. All with a flagrant disregard for human rights.

"Britain puts its economic, energy and strategic interests first," Hamza Hamouchene, author of the report told DW. "If one claims to care about democracy and the right to self-determination, one cannot go on dealing with a mafia-like regime that is suppressing the democratic aspirations of the Algerian people."

Restrictions on freedom

British Prime Minister David Cameron
Activists say Cameron should push for human rights improvementsImage: Reuters

He refers to the Algerian authorities barring a delegation of civil society activists from attending last year’s World Social Forum; to the press restrictions which prevent journalists from writing about the civil war and the disappearances that were so much a part of it; to the caricaturists who have been put on trial for "defamatory" cartoons; and to the corruption which he says is becoming the norm across the board.

"Algeria gives the facade of being a democracy, but it is a dictatorship and human rights are being abused," the activist said, adding that the British government should learn the lessons of the Arab Spring and stop backing autocratic and corrupt regimes in order to safeguard its own interests.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), however, says bilateral relations with Algeria have "developed considerably" and that dialogue does touch on human rights. "We are encouraged by the improvement Algeria has made in this area in recent years, including lifting the state of emergency in 2011 that restricted freedom of expression and protest," an FCO spokesperson told DW.

But the removal of the state of emergency, imposed during the civil war, has not been felt on the ground. Three years on, the threshold for peaceful dissent remains low and public protest often results in arrest. More recently, activists have reported police breaking up numerous demonstrations staged in response to the announcement that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika - who suffered a stroke last year and has not been seen in public for many months - would be running for a fourth term in April’s presidential elections.

Ending "the farce"

The FCO cited Algeria’s signing of the "UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) Charter and taking a seat on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for 2014-2016" as further signs that Algiers is working toward improving civil liberties.

Anti government demonstrations
Demonstrators are not welcome on the streets of AlgeriaImage: FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/Getty Images

A UN General Assembly Resolution on UNHRC membership states that successful candidate countries must "uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights." Last month, Amnesty International and four other international human rights groups issued a joint public statement accusing the North African country of double standards.

"The Algerian authorities have not agreed to visits by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, despite their repeated requests," Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International said in the statement.

Karim Lahidji, president of the Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) called on Algeria to "end the farce of refusing any scrutiny of its own human rights record while sitting on the Human Rights Council."

Controversial association law

Besides being critical of Algeria’s failure to issue visas for international human rights observers, the groups criticize the country’s law on associations, as adopted in 2012. In prohibiting the use of foreign funds or working with international NGOs without government consent, the legislation makes the establishment of a working civil society all but impossible.

Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is seeking a fourth termImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

"The tragedy is that we, in civil society and the opposition, are unable to formulate a credible project that will mobilize the masses," Hamouchene said.

He would like to see Britain "wed action to words," and use its position in Algeria to the good not only of the British, but of the Algerian people.

"I believe a balance between human rights and interests can be found if we start listening to people. Otherwise, people will associate the British behavior with a selfish imperial agenda."