Algeria, 1960: Decolonization and the Uses of Human Rights

On April 6, 1960, the Council of Ministers of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Algeria (GPRA) voted to ratify the Geneva Conventions, agreeing to be bound by international humanitarian law and the laws of war in their ongoing fight for independence from France. This was in one way a surprise move: a guerrilla force, one known to include fighters disguised as civilians, voluntarily agreeing to respect the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants. But in other ways, it was consistent with the oppositional strategy the GPRA had been taking with France for the previous several years, through its denouncement of the French use of torture, summary executions, and disappearances as violations of human rights, international humanitarian law, and of alleged French values. The GPRA’s use of human rights was part of a decolonizing strategy that relied not only on guerrilla fighting but also on diplomatic battles to such a degree that Matthew Connolly, in his history of the conflict, described it as a “diplomatic revolution.”

The decision to ratify the Conventions was conveyed to Geneva in the “Memorandum on the Algerian Republic’s Compliance with the Geneva Conventions of 1949” sent via the government of the United Kingdom of Libya. It contained an official announcement, “Instruments of Accession of the Algerian Republic to the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949”, signed by Ferhat Abbas, president of the GPRA, in Tunis on April 11, 1960. The full memorandum was reproduced in the Algerian lawyer Mohammed Bedjaoui’s Law and the Algerian Revolution, published in 1961. In later telegrams to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), preserved in their archives, Abbas would repeatedly affirm that Algeria had ratified the conventions, and that it was France’s compliance that should be at issue.

The GPRA’s adoption of the Geneva Conventions was part of a broader argumentative strategy: to insist that the Conventions applied to the conflict, and to show that France was violating them. The GPRA’s ratification of the Geneva Conventions came on the heels of the January 1960 leak of an ICRC report on French internment centers in Algeria, in which excerpts of the supposedly confidential report were published in Le Monde. That report was based on ICRC visits conducted with France’s permission; while the French government denied that the ICRC had a right to conduct inspections, insisting that Algerian prisoners were not prisoners of war, it also allowed the ICRC to do so. In the French government’s view, Algeria was part of France, and France’s suppression of the rebellion was an internal disturbance, not a war. In 1956, France had conceded the applicability of Common Article 3, which provides protections for civilians in both international and non-international settings. But it continued to contest the applicability of protections for combatants in an international armed conflict under the third Geneva Convention. While France eventually agreed to treat certain captured soldiers as though they were prisoners of war, it did not concede that that they in fact held such legal status.

The Algerian War (1954-1962). By Madame Grinderche [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The leaked report was hardly the first source of scandal for France on this front. Several cases of torture by the French military had been widely publicized in the late 1950s, both in newspaper articles and in published pamphlets. Among the most prominent pamphlets were Georges Arnaud’s and Jacques Vergès’s 1957 Pour Djamila Bouhired, telling the story of the arrest and torture of Bouhired, who had planted bombs for the FLN; Henri Alleg’s 1958 La Question, recounting his own torture, which ran with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre; and the 1959 La Gangrène, containing accounts of torture by the French police by Béchir Boumaza, Mustapha Francis, Benaïssa Souami, Abd el Kader Belhadj, Moussa Khebaili, Ali Hadj, and Khider Seghir. The French government unsuccessfully attempted to supress the publication and circulation of the pamphlets. They nevertheless circulated both in France and internationally. As discussed by Klose, La Gangrène was translated into English and expanded to include condemnations of British violence in Kenya; the English edition appeared in London in 1959 with an introduction by Peter Benenson, who would later found Amnesty International.

From 1957 onward, the GPRA had tried to denounce France’s actions in Algeria at the United Nations, often with the help of newly independent governments, whose delegates were growing in number in the General Assembly. In 1961, the GPRA extended these arguments in its “White Paper on the Application of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 to the French-Algerian Conflict”, published in New York and submitted to the UN Secretariat. In that document, the provisional government argued that France should be bound by the conventions, and not only that Article 3 protections for civilians should apply, but also Article 4’s protections for prisoners. The conflict, it claimed, was an external one, an extension of the initial 1830 invasion; Algeria had never been a true part of France.

In looking to France’s actions in Algeria, critics – including those pamphleteers – often described it as hypocritical. At the very least, as Klose highlights, France’s actions in Algeria appear out of sync with its claims to stand as a historical origin of ideas of les droits de l’homme. On Klose’s account, that hypocrisy was prefigured in negotiations over the 1949 Conventions, when France had argued for weaker standards of protection for “internal conflicts” than for others – a compromise that represented a stronger set of protections than Britain advocated, but still looser than what others sought and what its own declared principles might imply.

Where Klose highlights hypocrisy on France’s behalf, others debate the consistency of the Algerian provisional government’s position, reading the move to adopt the Geneva Conventions as largely strategic, and at odds with the actions of the GPRA’s armed wings, the ALN and FLN. On Raphaëlle Branche’s telling, the principal point of ratifying the Conventions was to affirm the right to do so. The GPRA, she argues, was seeking to affirm its own sovereignty: its ability to sign on to treaties, as well as the status of the conflict as an international one. In contrast, Jennifer Johnson argues that while the FLN’s bombings and tactics blurred any supposed civilian-combatant distinction, the GPRA also showed itself meaningfully committed to humanitarian efforts in ways that were connected to claims of sovereignty but not reducible to the status of political ploy. She stresses the role of the Algerian Red Crescent in mediating in the release of soldiers, rallying support from other national Red Cross and Red Crescent, and denouncing the French use of torture.

These differing accounts nevertheless do agree that adoption of the Geneva Conventions, and whatever degree of real compliance one might impute to them, worked to advance the provisional government’s claims to sovereignty. It served the GPRA’s case for diplomatic legitimacy, popular support, and competence to govern, with longer-term repercussions for the history of decolonization, international humanitarian law and human rights. When the Additional Protocols were adopted in 1977, new provisions would apply protections to anti-colonial conflicts, a change that can be understood in part as a response to the debates during Algerian Revolution.

Further Reading

Short Biographical Note on Contributor

Emma Stone Mackinnon is a Junior Research Fellow at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge. Her research concerns the mid-twentieth century politics of human rights, race, and empire, with a focus on the US and France, and has been published in Political Theory and Humanity. She holds a PhD from the University of Chicago’s Department of Political Science. She participated in the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy 2018.