Indigenous World 2019: Algeria
The Amazigh are the indigenous people of Algeria and other countries of North Africa and have been present in these territories since ancient times.
The Algerian government, however, does not recognise the indigenous status of the Amazigh and refuses to publish statistics on their population. Because of this, there is no official data on the number of Amazigh in Algeria. On the basis of demographic data drawn from the territories in which Tamazight-speaking populations live, associations defending and promoting the Amazigh people estimate the Tamazight-speaking population to be around 12 million people, or 1/3 of Algeria’s total population. The Amazigh of Algeria are concentrated in five broad regions of the country: Kabylia in the north-east (Kabyls represent around 50% of Algeria’s Amazigh population), Aurès in the east, Chenoua, a mountainous region on the Mediterranean coast to the west of Algiers, M’zab in the south (Taghardayt), and Tuareg territory in the Sahara (Tamanrasset, Adrar, Djanet). Many small Amazigh communities also exist in the south-west (Tlemcen, Bechar, etc.) and in other places scattered throughout the country. It is also important to note that large cities such as Algiers, Oran, Constantine, etc., are home to several hundred thousand people who are historically and culturally Amazigh but who have been partly Arabised over the years, succumbing to a gradual process of acculturation.
The indigenous populations can primarily be distinguished from other inhabitants by their language (Tamazight) but also by their way of life and their culture (clothes, food, songs and dances, beliefs, etc.). After decades of demands and popular struggles, the Amazigh language was finally recognised as a “national and official language” in Algeria’s Constitution in 2016. The Constitution does, however, specify that the official nature of this language will need to be set out in an act of parliament. Meanwhile, the Amazigh identity continues to be marginalised and folklorised by state institutions. Officially, Algeria is still presented as an “Arab country” and anti-Amazigh laws are still in force (such as the 1992 Law of Arabisation).
Internationally, Algeria has ratified the main international standards, and it voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. These texts remain unknown to the vast majority of citizens, however, and thus not applied, which has led to the UN treaty-monitoring bodies making numerous observations and recommendations to Algeria urging it to meet its international commitments.
The Amazigh language
The constitutional reform adopted in 2016 enabled Tamazight to be established as a national and official language (Article 4) and anticipated that “implementing regulations governing this article will be set out in an act of parliament”.1 Amazigh organisations have since then been repeatedly calling for the adoption of a law that would formalise Tamazight’s status as an official language and, finally, such a law was passed on 2 September 2018. It does not, however, focus on implementing the official nature of the language, as anticipated, but merely on creating the “Algerian Academy of the Amazigh Language” (Act No. 18-17 of 02/09/2018). There are therefore serious questions as to the aims of this act of parliament.
There was no consultation regarding the bill to create this body, nor its aims, membership and governance, nor was there any free, prior and informed consent of the Amazigh themselves. Moreover, none of the recitals set out in the preamble to the law refer to any such consultation or consent. It was the head of state who called on the government to establish “a draft bill of law to create an Algerian Academy of the Amazigh Language”2 and the government simply implemented these instructions. It should also be noted that the president and members of this academy have been chosen by the government in a process totally lacking in any transparency and that it is also the government that can remove them from office. This institution is thus not independent of the executive power.
Amazigh civil society organisations (CSOs) have complained that this law does not address the urgent need to formalise the official nature of Tamazight and, in October, high school students from the Amazigh regions, particularly Kabylia, went on strike to protest at the politicoadministrative obstructions to providing an education in the Amazigh language.3
Violations of the rights and freedoms of assembly and expression
Amazigh rights defenders, members of associations promoting the Amazigh culture and language and members of movements working for the right to self-determination in their territories (particularly the Movement for Self-Determination in Kabylia (Mouvement pour l’Autodétermination de la Kabylie) and the Movement for Mzab Autonomy (Mouvement pour l’Autonomie du Mzab)) are being closely monitored and suffering intimidation, arbitrary arrests and threats, with their activities banned or violently suppressed by the police. Some associations are finding that their administrative authorisation is not being renewed, which leads to a de facto halt to their activities. The Tiawinin association publicly complained that the state authorities had “cancelled conferences and were trying to reduce their culture to silence and to stifle freedom of speech”.4
Public conferences, literary cafes, discussion fora and peaceful marches have all been banned or prevented by the police in Vgayet, Aokas, Bouzguène, Tizi-Wezzu, Iwadiyen, Sidi-Aich and Hizer. Dozens of peaceful meetings have been prevented from being held, not to mention all those that have been cancelled by their organisers for fear of being banned.
On 10 March 2018, the Kabyl people were planning to celebrate the 38th anniversary of the “Amazigh Spring”. Popular gatherings organised for that day in several towns around Kabylia (Tizi-Wezzu, Vgayet, Tuvirett, etc.) were violently dispersed by the police. Several dozen people were unjustifiably arrested and taken to different police stations for identification and questioning.
In July 2018, 12 students from Tuvirett (Bouira) University in Kabylia, members of the National Collective to Defend the Amazigh Identity (Collectif national pour la défense de l’identité amazighe), were sentenced to two years in prison and a fine for having participated in a people’s march on 11 December 2017.
In June, the Kabyl blogger Merzoug Touati was sentenced to seven years in prison by the Vgayet Court of Appeal for having published an interview on his blog with an Israeli citizen. Merzoug Touati is accused of having links to the agents of a foreign power and for calling people to disobey the state authorities.5 On the day of the trial, 40 people (including human rights defenders and elected representatives) who turned up to the hearing were arrested by police and prevented from attending the trial. According to the defence lawyers, there was no reason to convict Merzoug Touati as he had merely been exercising his freedom of opinion and expression, as protected by the country’s Constitution. It was therefore a wrongful conviction.
Salim Yezza, one of the main organisers of the people’s movement in the Aurès region (Tamazight-speaking region in the east of Algeria), was forced to flee persecution by the Algerian police in 2011 and seek refuge in France. On 5 July 2018, on returning home to the village of Tkukt, near Batna (400 km east of Algiers) to attend the funeral of his recently-departed father, he was arrested by the border police at Biskra airport. He was then prosecuted by the Taghardayt (Ghardaya) Court for “incitement to violence” and sentenced to one year in prison and a 100,000 dinar fine. His lawyers, Noureddine Ahmine and Koceila Zerguine, believe this to be an arbitrary conviction because there was no evidence that Salim Yezza had incited anyone to commit an act of violence. They said that “he had simply exercised his freedom of opinion and expression”.6
On his return from Tunis on 14 November, where he had been participating in the 8th General Assembly of the Amazigh World Congress, Hamou Chekebkeb, a member of the Federal Council of this NGO, representing the Mzab people, was arrested by the police at the Algerian/ Tunisian border and held for two days without reason.
Despite the release of some 30 detainees in 2017, there remain an unknown number of local people held following unfair trials in the Mzab region (600 km south of Algiers). The region remains subject to close police surveillance, including monitoring of telephone and internet communications. Several Mozabites have had to flee Algeria in secret because they are being sought for having expressed their political opinions.
Naima Salhi, a member of the Algerian parliament, regularly expresses her hatred of the Amazigh in Algerian newspapers and on social media and suffers no consequences due to her parliamentary immunity. CSOs have repeatedly called in vain for her immunity to be removed.7
Marginalisation of the Tuareg
According to the Amazigh cultural movement in Aurès, historic Amazigh remains (the Medghassen tombs, the grave of Dihya, the Massinissa site, Ghoufi, etc.) in the Aurès region to the east of Algeria are being neglected and are now in a worrying state of disrepair.
At the start of 2018, the Amenokal (Tuareg tribal chief) of Hoggar (Tuareg territory in the south of Algeria), Ahmed Edabir, publicly denounced “the exclusion, marginalisation and disdain to which the Tuareg of Hoggar are being subjected”.8 The Tuareg representative deplored the discrimination suffered with regard to jobs and social benefits, and the closure of Algeria’s southern borders, which prevents Tuareg from Tamanrasset and Djanet, in particular, from maintaining their traditional relationships (family, socio-cultural and trade) with Tuareg communities in the Azawad (northern Mali) and Fezzan (southern Libya) regions.
Examination by UN Human Rights Committee
At the international level, Algeria submitted its report to the UN Human Rights Committee on 4 and 5 July 2018, in application of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR/C/SR.3494 and 3495). Having examined this report and the shadow reports submitted by NGOs, the Human Rights Committee published its concluding observations, including the following:
- The Committee takes note that, pursuant to article 150 of the Constitution, treaties take precedence over laws. However, it is concerned that, in practice, the Covenant does not always take precedence over national […] the Committee reiterates its concern and finds it regrettable that few examples were provided of cases in which the Covenant has been invoked […] The State party should take measures to ensure the precedence of the Covenant over national laws and thus give full effect to the rights enshrined in the Covenant. It should also take measures to raise awareness of the Covenant and the Optional Protocol thereto among judges, prosecutors and lawyers in order to ensure that their provisions are more fully considered and applied by national courts. […]
- […] the Committee remains concerned that the definition of discrimination does not include such grounds of discrimination as language, religious belief, sexual orientation and gender identity, and finds it regrettable that current legislation does not offer victims effective civil and administrative The Committee is also concerned by allegations of acts of discrimination, stigmatisation and hate speech against migrants, asylum seekers and Amazigh communities. […]
- […] The State party should undertake to combat hate speech by public or private persons, including on social media and the internet, in accordance with articles 19 and 20 of the Covenant and general comment No. 34 (2011) on freedoms of opinion and expression. […]
- […] It further reiterates its concern regarding articles 96, 144, 144 bis, 144 bis 2, 146, 296 and 298 of the Criminal Code, pursuant to which activities linked to exercise of the freedom of expression, such as defamation or insults against civil servants or State institutions, continue to be crimes and are subject to fines. The Committee expresses its concern at claims that these criminal provisions are being used to impede the work of journalists and human rights defenders, including Hassan Bouras, Mohamed Tamalt and Merzoug Touati (arts. 6 and 19 of the Covenant).
- The State party should align the relevant provisions of Organic Act No. 12-05 of 12 January 2012 and of the Criminal Code with article 19 of the Covenant and release from prison all persons whose conviction has stemmed from their having exercised their right to freedom of expression under article 19 of the Covenant and grant those persons full compensation for the harm suffered. […]
- […] The Committee expresses concern at Act 12-06 of 12 January 2012 (the Associations Act), inasmuch as its provisions are restrictive and subject an association’s stated objective to vague, imprecise general criteria, such as the public interest and respect for national values and principles. It is also concerned that, under that legislation, (a) the founding of an association is subject to an authorisation procedure; (b) cooperation with foreign organisations and the receipt of funds from abroad are subject to prior clearance by the authorities; and (c) associations may be dissolved by simple administrative decision for reasons of “interference with the domestic affairs of the country or affront to national sovereignty”. In addition, it is concerned by numerous credible reports of the Government having rejected the by-laws of existing organisations that had been updated to align them with the new legislation, as that practice limits the freedoms of associations and exposes their members to hefty penalties for unauthorised activity (art. 22). The State party should amend Act No. 12-06 of 12 January 2012 onassociations to make it fully consistent with the provisions of article 22 of the Covenant and ensure that the updated by-laws of existing associations are legally recognised, and refrain from using the provisions of Act No. 12-06 as a means to suspend de facto the activities of specific associations. […]
Notes and references
- Constitution of the Algerian Republic, Official Journal, at http://bit.ly/2IFXO07
- Official press release of the Presidency of the Algerian Republic at http://bit.ly/2IDF7ug
- “Les élèves exigent la généralisation de l’enseignement de Tamazight”, in the newspaper Liberté, 24 October 2018, http://bit.ly/2IDG2uI
- See Press release published by Tiawinin association, “Le chef de daïra de Bouzeguène refuse de renouveler l’agrément de l’association Tiawinin”
- See “Algérie: un blogueur condamné en appel à sept ans de prison”, 22 June 2018, in http://bit.ly/2II1vm6
- See “Affaire selim Yezza: le tribunal de Ghardaya a rendu son verdict”, 7 August 2018, in Algérie Focus, http://bit.ly/2IFRk1v
- See “Algérie: Naïma Salhi s’attaque de nouveau à Tamazight”, 6 September 2018, in ObservAlgérie, http://bit.ly/2IF90KG
- “La patience des Touaregs a des limites”, interview published on 25/02/2018, at http://bit.ly/2IH4pra
Belkacem Lounes holds a doctorate in economics, and is a university teacher (Grenoble University), expert member of the Working Group on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and author of numerous reports and articles on Amazigh rights.