Britain’s special envoy to Algeria, Lord Risby, this week led a powerful business delegation to the north African nation, raising fears that the UK could be seeking new arms deals with ailing President Abdulaziz Bouteflika’s dictatorial regime in Algiers.
Lord Risby’s visit coincided with the controversial DSEi 2013 (Defence & Security Equipment International) arms fair in London (10-13th September). DSEi says on its website that it “brings together the entire defence and security industry to source the latest equipment and systems, develop international relationships, and generate new business opportunities.” Algeria has participated in this fair before.
Ahead of Lord Risby’s visit, a coalition of human rights NGOs wrote to Baroness Warsi at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, raising concerns about potential arms sales to the regime. With new revelations about sales of chemicals that are components of nerve gas to Syria, there are fears that weapons sold to Algeria will also be used against the domestic population who are “fighting for freedom, dignity and democracy in their everyday life,” the organisations said in their letter.
According to The Economist Intelligence Unit, Algeria is in the top 50 most authoritarian regimes in the world, with damning reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Yet Algeria was listed as a “priority market” by UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation in 2010/2011. Research by the Campaign Against Arms Trade, shows nearly £300 million worth of weapons were sold to Algeria since 2008.
British oil giant BP is among the largest foreign investors in Algeria, and Britain has identified Algerian natural gas as a strategic interest. This, combined with militarisation and tension in the region, has created a dangerous gas-arms nexus.
A post, titled ‘Algeria, our surprising new best friend’, by Lord Risby on a blog in January last year reveals the hypocrisy and hidden imperialist agendas of the UK in its dealings with repressive regimes in Africa. He paints the picture of a stable, emerging African democracy, when in reality Algeria is a brutal dictatorship.
Overall, he writes, the country has been remarkably stable since the Arab spring erupted in 2011. “Algeria has a massive $178 billion in reserves, low inflation and is a major energy exporter. A political reform process is underway, the state of emergency has been lifted, and a measure of media liberalisation is being undertaken. In the past twelve months, state spending has soared with substantial salary increases and huge subsidies introduced on essential foodstuffs and oil. With nearly 70% of the population under the age of thirty, the government initiated a $286 billion programme of infrastructure upgrading to create jobs.”
But that is not the entire story about Algeria. President Bouteflika, 76, who suffered a stroke in June and was flown to Paris for treatment is currently serving his third five-year mandate since first being elected in 1999. In 2008 he orchestrated the removal of presidential terms limits from the constitution, and could run again in elections scheduled for May 2014. Analysts say the president, along with the Department of Intelligence and Security, better known by its French initials, DRS, are known as ‘le pouvoir’ (‘the power’).
Bouteflika introduced a few governance reforms as a clever move to evade the Arab Spring protests sweeping North Africa from 2011. But still the interior ministry has the overall say about elections and there are many restrictions on basic freedoms.
Hamza Hamouchene of the Algeria Solidarity Campaign said: “UK arms sales to Algeria are just as scandalous as recent revelations about sales to the Syrian regime. Lord Risby shouldn’t be promoting UK self-interest in Algeria if it means enabling the regime to brutally repress local struggles for democracy and dignity.”
Emma Hughes of Platform said: “While salivating over Algeria’s natural gas reserves, the UK is conveniently turning a blind eye to repression and human rights abuses. We should be promoting democratically-controlled renewable energy rather than arms sales to authoritarian regimes.”
Yacine Zaid, an Algerian trade-unionist and human rights activist, said: “Our society is suffocated by significant restrictions on basic rights such as freedom of assembly and the recognition of independent trade unions, especially in the private sector. There is an ongoing and systematic repression and judicial harassment of trade-unionists and human right activists.“
Kaye Stearman from Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “The UK has licensed weapons which are used in internal repression despite Algeria’s closed political system and terrible human rights record. Just one arms licence has been refused – and that was back in 2008. We should not be promoting or selling weapons to this regime – and the government should not be inviting them to weapons fairs like DSEi.“