By Shubra Ohri

Families of the disappeared in Jijel, Algeria are calling on the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) to address the nearly 300 cases that occurred between 1994 and 1997 and to provide some means of reconciliation. Abductions and subsequent disappearances of civilians, especially supporters of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), were very common during that time.

The FIS, which was banned in 1992, was a key actor in Algeria’s descent into civil war from 1991 to 2002. It was one of the first parties to apply for recognition when Algeria decided to adopt a multi-party political system in 1989. Characterized by its free-market and Islamic agendas, the party quickly gained popularity. After the FIS won 55 percent of the vote in Algeria’s first round of parliamentary elections in 1990, the government responded quickly and redrew district lines to prevent FIS from winning the second round of elections. FIS’s protests of gerrymandering triggered a shockingly violent eleven-year civil war. During this time, there were many disappearances in the Jijel governorate, near the Benni Khettab mountains where the FIS’s Islamic Salvation Army was based, allegedly conducted by secret service operations and militias dispatched by the government to quell opposition.

Groups like the Mich’al Association for the Missing Children of Jijel, Association of the Families of Disappeared of Jijel (AFDJ), and the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights assert that the Algerian government was responsible for this program of systematic disappearances and executions.

Victims and families of the disappeared have been unable to solicit substantive assistance from the domestic government or the international community. With a few exceptions, the Algerian government has yet to reply to calls for investigation or for compensation for the victim’s families, and refuses to acknowledge responsibility. Although Algeria signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, it has yet to ratify the instrument to make it legally binding on the state. Article 24 of the Convention would require that the government provide reparations to victims of disappearances and any individual who has suffered harm as a direct result of the disappearances. Moreover, while Algeria it not a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, it demonstrates a consensus in the international community as to the gravity of forced disappearances, as they are listed as a crime against humanity under Article 7.

After exhausting efforts to compel a governmental response, Algerian human rights NGOs turned to the United Nations. The AFDJ, which has been reporting the Jijel disappearances to the WGEID for years, made its latest appeal together with Mich’al Association, reporting 104 additional cases on December 31, 2009. Despite their efforts, these NGOs still have not received any response from the WGEID.

The story of the Jijel governorate is indicative of a problem that plagues most Algerians. While Algeria has yet to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforce Disappearances, alternative mechanisms should be made available to the victims from Jijel. In 2007, the International Center for Transitional Justice went Algiers to participate in a national conference on creating a truth commission in Algeria, but Algerian authorities prevented the meeting from taking place. Though the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights could provide an appropriate venue for victims to express their grievances, it did not respond to complaints brought by the Collective of Families of the Disappeared in Algeria in 2007, which focused on the consequences of the Algerian Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation on families of the disappeared.

Some Algerians have received monetary compensation through the Algerian Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, but victims say that it is not enough and demand to be told what happened to their loved ones. Further, the Charter granted amnesty to individuals who fought in the National Popular Army, security forces, and state sponsored groups — individuals against whom families of the disappeared will want to seek action when give the opportunity. In order to ensure a stable and democratic future Algeria, the government and the international community need to ensure that the perpetrators of these grave human rights violations are held accountable to ensure justice for the families of the disappeared and broader societal reconciliation.