The plight of British hostages caught up in a violent siege at a gas facility in the Algerian desert has drawn attention not just to the activities of the terror group AQIM, or 'al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb', but also to Britain's long-standing relationship with Algeria itself.
Earlier today, as the Huffington Post UK's Ned Simons reports, despite expressing disappointment at being kept in the dark over the country's military moves, prime minister David Cameron "offered support to Algeria and.. gave his backing to a country that had 'paid a heavy price' over many years in its fight against terror".
And, as the UK's ambassador in Algiers, Martyn Roper, writes on the British embassy's website: "The UK’s relationship with Algeria is [a] long established one.. This is a relationship that very much matters to us."
Indeed it does. Like most countries in the West, the UK government considers Algeria to be a key partner in the fight against Islamist extremism and, in particular, against terrorist networks such as al Qaeda that have gained a foothold in north Africa in recent years. Although the UK does not provide direct, bilateral aid to Algeria, via the department for international development (DfID), it does provide financial support for the country via the European Union - the EU agreed to provide Algeria with approximately £140m in aid between 2011 and 2013.
Critics say Western governments such as our own have turned a blind eye to Algeria's human rights abuses for far too long. The country emerged from a 'dirty', decade-long civil war in 2002, in which more than 100,000 Algerians were killed and in which the country's security forces were implicated in a series of horrific massacres and vicious torture. The state of emergency decree introduced in 1992, under which many civil liberties and constitutional rights were restricted, was only lifted in February 2011 with the onset of the 'Arab Spring' - yet Algerian protesters, unlike their Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts, were confined to much smaller public spaces and rapidly dispersed by the police.
Few informed observers believe that Algeria's security forces have cleaned up their act. Amnesty International, in its 2012 country report, documented Algeria's "tight restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly, and on practising religious beliefs", the use of "excessive force" by security forces against peaceful protesters and the "risk of torture" to detainees.
"Security forces and armed groups continued to enjoy broad impunity for atrocities committed during the civil war of the 1990s," reported Human Rights Watch (HRW), also in 2012. And HRW's North Africa researcher Amna Guellali told HuffPost UK: "While it is legitimate for the Algerian government to protect its territory from terrorist attacks and to attempt to neutralize harmful actions of the armed groups, it has to put the safety and lives of the hostages at the top of its priorities."
It isn't just the 'usual suspects' in the human rights community making such observations. In "doing business" with regimes like Algeria, wrote retired general and ex-Ministry of Defence official Jonathan Shaw in the Independent on Friday, "the UK held its human rights nose, as the [counter-terror] methods.. employed owed more to local than Western standards".
British governments - both Labour and Conservative - haven't just ignored human rights abuses in Algeria, in the name of the 'War on Terror', but have also been keen to promote arms sales to the country's authoritarian and torture-tainted government.
As an article in Jane's Defence Weekly noted in October 2009: "The UK is working to make up for lost time since lifting an arms embargo against Algeria in 2005, signing a military co-operation accord that the Ministry of Defence hopes will spur further sales of helicopters and ships to the North African country."
Defence ministers, in fact, succeeded in making up "for lost time" - of the £292 million worth of UK export licences to Algeria approved between 2008 and June 2012 all but £5 million worth were classified as "military", according to research carried out by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). Weapons approved for sale to the Algerians included "small arms", "grenades", "bombs" and "missiles" - as well as "aircraft, helicopters, drones". There was only one arms licence refused during this entire period - for 'improvised explosive device disposal equipment', in June 2008 - on the grounds that such equipment might threaten the "national security of the UK" or its allies.
"The UK has been keen to pursue arms sales to Algeria over the past years, so much so that Algeria was listed as a 'priority market' by UKTI [UK Trade and Investment] Defence and Security Organisation in 2010/11," CAAT's Kaye Stearman told HuffPost UK. "Yet Algeria is an authoritarian state with a poor human rights record." She added that her organisation has "long urged that such arms sales promotion should be subject to greater public and parliamentary scrutiny".
Perhaps the allegedly trigger-happy behaviour of the Algerian government over the past 24 hours will force MPs and peers to now, belatedly, provide such scrutiny.
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