Torture during the Algerian War/Summary

Torture during the Algerian War/Summary

The French Armed Forces made a systemic and indiscriminate use of torture during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62), creating a public controversy which continues to the present day. Although the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) also engaged in violent acts, including cases of torture, it was never systematic, as it was in the French military. At the time, the French military justified the use of torture on claims that it was leading a "pacification" operation against "FLN terrorism."

However, the armed struggle of the FLN and of its armed wing, the ALN, had been previously recognized by the United Nations Charter, which included the right to self-determination. The UN Charter had been signed on June 26 1945 at the San Francisco Conference and ratified by France, China, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States. Both the USSR and the US were opposed to the colonial war waged by France. On the other hand, the French state itself refused to see in the colonial conflict a war, as that would be recognizing the other party (the National Liberation Front, FLN) as a legitimate entity. Thus, until August 10 1999, the French Republic persisted in calling the Algerian War a simple "operation of public order" against the FLN "terrorism."

Therefore, the military did not consider itself tied by the Geneva Conventions, ratified by France in 1951. Beside prohibiting the use of torture, the Geneva Conventions dictated that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) be given access to the detainees. Detainees, which included not only FLN members but also old men, women and children, were thus not granted prisoner of war (POW) status. To the contrary, they were considered "terrorists" and deprived of any rights which are legally bestowed on belligerents during a conflict, including civil war.

Violence increased on both sides from 1954 to 1956. But in 1957, the Minister of Interior declared a state of emergency in Algeria, and the government granted extraordinary powers to General Jacques Massu, head of the armed forces in Algeria. The Battle of Algiers, from January to October 1957, remains to this day a textbook example of counter-insurgency operations — as demonstrated by the fact that "The Battle of Algiers", a film made by Italian communist Gillo Pontecorvo in 1966, has been successively screened over the years to policy-makers and students of military science. General Massu, who was assisted by General Paul Aussaresses and then-Colonel Marcel Bigeard, of the 10th D.P. (Paratrooper division) generalized methods he had first theorized during the Indochina War (1947-54): they included a systemic use of torture, including against civilians, in order to break the population's morale, a block warden system ("quadrillage"), illegal executions and forced disappearances, in particular through what would later become known as "death flights" (at the time, victims of such methods were known as "Bigeard's shrimps", or "crevettes Bigeard"). All these methods were theorized as standard counter-insurgency tactics by Colonel Trinquier in "Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency" (1961), a milestone in the literature of "counter-revolutionary war" and of psychological warfare.

Although the use of torture quickly became well-known and was opposed by the left-wing opposition, the French state repeatedly denied its employment, censoring more than 250 books, newspapers and films (in metropolitan France alone) which dealt with the subject (and 586 in Algeria). Henri Alleg's 1958 book, "La Question", Boris Vian's "The Deserter", and Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 film "Le Petit Soldat" (released in 1963) are famous examples of this censorship. A confidential report of the ICRC leaked to "Le Monde" newspaper confirmed the allegations of torture made by the opposition to the war, represented in particular by the French Communist Party (PCF) and other anti-militarist circles. The SFIO socialist party itself was divided on the issue. Although many left-wing activists, including famous existentialists writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, denounced without concession the use of torture, the French government was headed in 1957 by the general secretary of the SFIO, Guy Mollet. In general, the SFIO supported the colonial wars during the Fourth Republic (1947-54), starting with the crushing of the Madagascar revolt in 1947 by the socialist government of Paul Ramadier.

The controversy over the use of torture continues to have echoes today. In 1977, British historian Alistair Horne wrote in "A Savage War of Peace" that torture was a growing canker for France, leaving behind a poison that would linger in the French system long after the war itself had ended. At the time, Horne could not confirm that torture had been ordered by the highest ranks of the French military and civilian leadership. Despite France's reluctance to examine its past, which is made evident by the obstacles it continues to raise towards historical research, and the way the Algerian War is taught (or not) in French high schools, the fact that torture had not only been massively employed, but was also ordered by the French government, was confirmed by General Aussaresses in 2001.

These revelations followed testimonies from a former tortured ALN activist, Louisette Ighilahriz, published in "Le Monde" on July 20 2000, three days after the visit to France of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Ighilahriz declared that she had been tortured for three months, and accused General Massu of responsibility. Massu acknowledged her statements as true, and regretted the use of torture, declaring that it could have been avoided. On the other hand, General Bigeard violently denied it, leading the victim to criticize him. [ « Le témoignage de cette femme est un tissu de mensonges. Tout est faux, c'est une manoeuvre »] , "Le Monde", June 22, 2000 fr icon ] [ [ Louisette Ighilahriz : " Massu ne pouvait plus nier l’évidence "] , "L'Humanité", November 23, 2000 fr icon ]

Massu, Aussaresses and Bigeard were the military leaders in charge during the 1957 Battle of Algiers. The following year, General Aussaresses confessed in his book "Services spéciaux, Algérie 1955-1957" (2001) to having engaged in torture and illegal executions on direct orders from General Massu. Aussaresses declared that torture had been ordered by Guy Mollet's government. Paul Aussaresses was condemned for his "apology of war crimes," because he had justified the use of torture, claiming it had helped to save lives. [ condamnation du général Aussaresses pour "apologie de crimes de guerre"] , "Ligue des droits de l'homme (LDH, Human Rights League), February 2002. fr icon ] Although Aussaresses claimed that torture was an efficient way to combat "FLN terrorism," recent historical research demonstrates that, contrary to the popular "ticking time bomb scenario", torture was not used for short-term intelligence purposes — that is, to prevent the immediate explosion of a bomb. Instead, the aim of torture was not to make people talk, but to affect the group as a whole, and break the civilian population's morale. Torture was a full part of psychological warfare methods as theorized by Salan and others (Branche, 2004).

The 2004 Court of Cassation judgment condemning Aussaresses stated that "freedom to inform, which is the basis of freedom of expression" does not lead to "accompany the exposure of facts ... with commentaries justifying acts contrary to human dignity and universally reproved nor to glorify its author." [ French: "Sur la liberté d’expression revendiquée par le général et les deux éditeurs (Plon et Perrin), elle souligne que celui qui se réclame du droit à l’information n’a pas pour autant à accompagner l’exposé des faits qu’il rapporte "de commentaires propres à justifier des actes contraires à la dignité humaine universellement réprouvés, ni de glorifier l’auteur de tels actes"." [ La condamnation du général Aussaresses pour apologie de la torture est maintenant définitive] , LDH, December 11, 2004 (mirroring an Agence France-Presse news cable. fr icon]


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