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Algeria Wooed With Weapons

The United States has agreed to sell arms to Algeria to help it put down the Islamic rebellion that has cost more than 100,000 lives in the past 10 years.

Announcing the agreement as he ended a visit to Algiers on Monday, the US assistant secretary of state William Burns said: "Washington has much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism."

Learning about how to more effectively fight terrorism is good. But what kind of lessons will the US be learning from Algeria (and what kind of lessons will we be supporting with the arms sales)? The article gives some indications, which are confirmed by Amnesty International:

Human rights violations in Algeria have become institutionalized. In the last year alone, more than 80 civilians were unlawfully killed by the security forces and dozens more tortured or held for varying periods of time in secret detention. Some 200 people continue to die every month as a result of the continuing decade-long armed conflict. The level of killing has remained largely unchanged since early 1999. Many are civilians, including women and children, killed in targeted and indiscriminate attacks by armed groups.

"Reported cases of human rights abuses may represent only the tip of the iceberg," the organization said, as it is extremely difficult to obtain information about violations due to widespread fear among victims and their families that reporting violations will only exacerbate their predicament. An official commission of inquiry, set up by the authorities to look into the killing of dozens of unarmed demonstrators in the region of Kabylia last year, reported in December 2001 that it was unable to complete its mission because many witnesses were too afraid to speak to them.

The authorities have also taken some measures to ensure that the continuing human rights crisis goes largely unnoticed within the international community. These include recently passed legislation further curbing freedom of expression and severe restrictions on access to foreign observers.

Ideally, the lesson the US would take away from the Algerian situation would be "here's how to mess things up." Faced with a growing Islamic movement, Algeria threw democracy and freedom out the window, hoping brutal repression could end the threat. Ten years later, they seem to have demonstrated that "kill off your enemies and make your populace afraid to oppose you" is not a terribly good strategy, either morally or pragmatically. The US, however, seems to be thinking "hmm, maybe if they had bigger guns..." (Though I'm not surprised, given how "successful" the US has been with the parallel situation in Colombia.)


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