CHRISTOPHER W.S. ROSS: Good morning, everyone. I’d like to welcome you to today’s meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations, and I would ask you please, at the very beginning, turn off the cell phones or put them on silent or vibrate, whatever you prefer. But we would like not to be interrupted by their clangor.
I’d like to remind you also that today’s session is on the record.
And it’s our great pleasure to have with us today the foreign minister of Algeria, His Excellency Mohammed Bedjaoui. This is someone who for most of you needs no introduction. You have ample details on his long and illustrious career before you.
I would simply add that they do not do justice to the very important role that he played during the negotiations to free our hostages in Tehran in the period 1980, ‘81, when he was permanent representative of Algeria at the United Nations and a member of the small Algerian negotiating team that mediated a successful outcome.
I would note that with the minister today are a number of colleagues, including Ambassador Amin Hervi (sp) of Algeria, whom I first met in 1977, when I was serving as DCM in Algiers, and a fantastic interpreter in the person of Hafi Vekeladi (sp), whom I’ve also known for as long a time.
So without further ado, I would like to welcome the minister and invite him to address us.
FOREIGN AFFAIRS MINISTER MOHAMMED BEDJAOUI: Thank you, Ambassador Ross.
Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, good morning. First of all, I would like to apologize for my very, very poor English. I have to read, probably badly, a few pages, and I ask you to put your questions, and I will try to answer.
I am grateful to the Council on Foreign Relations, one of the foremost institutions of academic excellence in the United States, for the opportunity to address before such a distinguished audience the current situation in Algeria and the increasingly close relationship between our two countries.
Today I would like to share with you some thoughts on Algeria’s bilateral, regional and international relations, with a particular emphasis on Algerian-American ties and cooperation in the global war on terrorism.
Algeria and the United States share a long history of friendly ties that dates back to 1795. They also share a love of justice and freedom that is the very foundation of the modern republics that they are today. Both our peoples have stood up to defend their sovereignty and liberty whenever they were threatened.
Algeria and the United States have also supported each other in the same—in the name of those very principles that guided their revolutions. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy spoke passionately in support of Algerian independence when my country was under the yoke of colonialism. Algeria lent the full force of its diplomacy and political influence to secure the freedom of the 52 Americans held hostage by Iran in 1979, as Ambassador Ross said a moment ago.
Today that spirit of friendship and cooperation is stronger than ever. Since the United States came under attack in September 2001, Algeria has worked very closely with them to help defeat the threat posed to freedom and progress by the scourge of terrorism.
The threat is still prevalent today. It is ill-defined, diffuse, transnational by nature, and bent on destruction and terror. Algeria has faced terrorism on its own for over a decade. It suffered countless loss of human lives and paid a heavy toll in economic damage. But despite those difficulties, Algeria did recover and is now engaged in a process of renovation and national reconciliation with the objective of building an at peace, tolerant and modern society.
The fight against terrorism, even remnants of terrorism, must continue, however. With peace and security covered, numerous challenges remain nonetheless. Our primary objective is national reconstruction. My government has been actively implementing an ambitious set of political, economic and social programs. Recent statistics are evidence of the very encouraging economic and financial performance of my country. The current economic growth stands at 5.1 percent and promises to reach 7 percent to 8 percent within the next couple of years. Close to $16 billion were invested in Algeria over the past year, including $2.8 billion by foreign investors.
All sectors of the economy are attracting an increasingly greater attention of foreign partners as Algeria moves to implement reforms and consolidate market economy and free enterprise. My country is now the center of an area of stability where American and other foreign investments can prosper.
Ranking second in the Arab region and in Africa as host to U.S. instruments—investments, Algeria is also an important supplier of naturally liquefied gas and petroleum products to the United States, and as such is involved in the security of America’s energy supply. To illustrate the significance of our trade relations with the United States, I would like to point out that the volume of our trade exchange reached a historic high last year; indeed, from $3.3 billion in 2002—that volume increased to 5.2 billion (dollars) in 2003, and 8.3 billion (dollars) in 2004 and reached almost $12 billion in 2005 last year. For the second year in a row, the United States has been Algeria’s first trading partner in the world. We are confident that with the recovery of peace and stability and the implementation of sound economic policies secured by strong legislative foundation, Algeria will definitely become an attractive investment destination.
Algeria’s efforts to promote democracy, good governance and the rule of law reflect its deep conviction that these are determining factors for a sustained economic and social development. Such an enterprise will enable all citizens to enjoy the benefits of growth, and favors their access to health services, education and training, while giving them the opportunity to play a greater role in society.
Algeria is also devoting great efforts to strengthening relations with its neighbors, partners and allies. It is actively involved in supporting the Maghreb Arab Union, the Arab League, the African Union, the NATO Mediterranean Dialogue and the United Nations. Algeria plays a pivotal role in the resolution of regional conflicts, as it did to secure peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea, for example.
We support the right of the Sahrawi people to self-determination in accordance with the U.N. settlement plan and relevant resolutions of the Security Council. And solving this conflict should be in keeping with the spirit of the U.N. decolonization doctrine and in conformity with international legality. We have strengthened our relationship with our partners around the Mediterranean Basin and have been actively promoting political integration and stability in the Maghreb sub-region.
Our fight to secure peace within our country also benefits not only our neighbors in our immediate region but also those of the Sahel region in Africa. In this regard, Algeria closely cooperates with the United States to help secure a region whose stability is essential to our mutual security. With the United States, we enjoy rich, diverse and friendly relations. The number, frequency and levels of representation of delegations visiting both countries are a reflection of the intensity and closeness of U.S.-Algerian relations. They are also an indication of the willingness of both governments to strengthen them even further.
Algeria and the United States share a great convergence of views on a wide range of issues of mutual interest. Our relationship enjoys a strong economic and political foundation that we wish to consolidate through increased security and military-to-military cooperation, increased dialogue and greater consultation with a view to establishing a mutually desired strong and long-term strategic partnership.
Thank you. (Applause.)
ROSS: Thank you very much, Mr. Minister.
I’d like to begin our question-and-answer session by asking you to elaborate a bit on the relationship between the struggle against violence and terrorism and the very ambitious reform program that President Bouteflika and your government have set in motion. As you’ll recall, the first steps toward democracy were taken in the late 1980s by the then-president, Chadli Bendjedid. It happened that I was ambassador there at the time.
And although the process was hijacked by extremists, it nonetheless led to the development of a very active and sometimes vocal civil society, which today I think yearns for as much freedom of expression, freedom of association, et cetera, as possible. And I’m just wondering whether there is any impact that the continuing struggle against domestic violence and terrorism has on this program.
BEDJAOUI: May I return to the—(laughs). (Pause.)
ROSS: It’s going to be a long answer.
BEDJAOUI: I have prepared something about it because I was guessing that you would put this question. (Laughter.)
ROSS: (Laughing) I warned you! I warned you earlier!
BEDJAOUI: Now, in the area of U.S.-Algerian relations, Algeria has worked hard at strengthening the already rich, diverse and friendly relations that tie it to the United States since 1795, as I said before. The number, frequency and levels of representation of delegations visiting both countries are a reflection of the intensity and closeness of U.S.-Algerian relations.
Algeria and the United States enjoy a multi-faceted relationship that involves political and economic, as well as military-to-military cooperation, as I said. Our bond is further strengthened by our close cooperation in counterterrorism. The closest of our ties in this area has been amply demonstrated over the past few years. When America suffered the deadly attack of September 11th, President Bouteflika emphatically reiterated to President Bush the sympathy, friendship and active support of Algeria. Since then, we have worked hand in glove with the United States, and contributed our extensive antiterrorist experience to help.
Multiple U.S. officials have attested to and lauded Algeria’s exemplary cooperation. Last February, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called Algeria, quote, a good partner in the struggle against extremism, and a thoughtful, constructive, moderate voice in our region, and emphasized that we have been for many, many years. End of quote.
The U.S. State Department noted in an official report—recognized Algeria’s continued support for United States counterterrorism efforts, and that she has—I am quoting—“she has demonstrated its overall support of the global war on terror.” End of State quotation.
Algeria has taken what U.S. officials term, I quote, “a very positive lead to address the issue of terrorism.” Because it really hit home for us. Today we are trying to share with our neighbors and allies the lessons we learned during our long struggle. Algeria is also an active participant in U.S.-led counterterrorism training exercise, such as the—(word inaudible)—Initiative, TSI, and the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative.
The deputy assistant secretary of Defense, Theresa Whelan, recently noted, “Algeria won the right to host the African Union’s Counterterrorism Center of Excellence.”
Last February, the African Union’s African Center for Studies and Research on Terrorism co-sponsored in Algiers an important week-long topical seminar on terrorism. Civilian and military counterterrorism experts met to discuss terrorist threats to the African continent and examine how best to respond to them. Representatives from Africa—from African states that are part of the Trans-Saharan Counter- Terrorism Initiative joined participants from European states, relevant organs of the United Nations, and concerned U.S. government agencies. The United States demonstrated its interest and support through the significant number of its delegates, including the coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department, Ambassador Henry Crumpton, and other officials from the Pentagon, as well as academics.
This seminar comes on the heels on a previous seminar held in Algiers in October 2005. Additionally, my country is participating in a NATO counterterrorism operation in Mediterranean.
Algeria is also grateful and highly appreciative of the commitment of the United States towards the fight against terrorism in Africa and its contribution to the economic and social development of the continent. U.S. support of the New Partnership on African Development, called NEPAD, is of critical importance.
(Through interpreter.) I realize that I haven’t been answering a question raised by Ambassador Ross. But let me just say that the big issue when you are fighting terrorism is to avoid completely losing your own conscience and mind. Whatever the price, one has always to make efforts and to endeavor not to apply the same methods or deed that are carried out by the terrorists.
As I was saying, while fighting terrorism, one should avoid to—or try indeed to keep his own morale and ethics and preserve his own soul. Because if we use the same methods and means as the terrorism, we ourselves become other terrorists. Indeed, it is very easy to say it; much more difficult to do it. Of course what we are all doing is fighting terrorism while preserving and keeping our own freedom and pride, and it’s not always very easy.
During the Black Decade, the decade where Algeria suffered most from terrorism, we also had to adopt new legislation. But we did that in a way so we can maintain our own rules and respect for dignity and freedom.
I know perfectly, and I’m perfectly aware that the United States are undergoing the same kind of situation, and special legislation and rules have been adopted here, like the Patriot Act. And I believe we should be vigilant. We should be keen and aware all the time, at any moment.
This is all what I can say to answer the question raised by Ambassador Ross. But in Algeria, we have not lost sight that at the same time that while fighting terrorism, we have to keep in mind that we have to build the country, and we have to do everything to prevent the terrorists from coming back.
Legislation is not enough to fight terrorism only by force. For that we also have to devise and to construe all sort of steps and measures and means that will applied alongside the fight, to prevent part of the population to be lured and enticed and join the ranks of terrorism.
So we have to give them something.
ROSS: Thank you very much, Mr. Minister. You have indeed answered my question, and you’ve also answered the question you wanted me to ask but didn’t. (Laughter.) So we got two for one in that.
I now wish to open the floor to questions. Keep them brief, to the extent that you can. Please stand and identify yourself in posing them. And if you have a current affiliation, please let the minister know what that is.
QUESTIONER: My name Mike Haltzel. I’m with the—excuse me. My name is Mike Haltzel. I’m with the law firm of DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary. Minister Bedjaoui, I’d like to hear what Algeria, as a member of the African Union, as an important player in regional stability and as a proponent of human rights, thinks is the appropriate role for the international community, including the United States, the European Union and NATO, in helping to solve the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur in Sudan.
BEDJAOUI: (Through interpreter.) I thank you so much, sir, for this question that underscores your own humanistic interests. What’s going on in the Darfur, amidst some or big indifference among the international community, it’s in fact a serious tragedy, if we can call it also a genocide.
If I may dare to use an expression, Sudan is today the encounter (or ?) several curses. As you know, it’s an underdeveloped country, with all the consequences in the economic, political, social fields.
In the Sudan you have several religions, too. It may in some instances be a blessing to have several religions. But in the case of the Sudan, it is a source of conflict. And moreover, in the Sudan you have conflict, problems between tribes.
So there is a series of interconnected complex problems in the Sudan. And when we realized that there was a crisis in the Sudan, it was just like a blast to us. It was something that suddenly exploded.
The Sudan tried for some years to solve by itself the problem. It didn’t succeed.
Then it has benefitted from the contribution of the African Union. And today the African Union has definitely the political willingness to bring about or to restore stability or peace, but it has unfortunately nor (sic) the financial nor the material means to do it.
And this is the reason why the United Nations would like to step in and to contribute with its own means, in a more determined manner, to solve the conflict.
And I am very pleased to say that if today we are seeing the big part of the international community and international public opinion have—are trying to intervene, are trying to do something for the Darfur issue, it’s indeed because your country has played an important role.
So during the transition phase, the United Nation troops will replace the African ones, progressively.
So to answer your question, in a nutshell, I think we have to mobilize international public opinion and the international community, so that the United Nation troops will replace as soon as possible the African ones. Otherwise, we will be facing a terrible tragedy.
In fact we have dealt with my colleague Dr. Rice yesterday, and I would like to seize this opportunity to pay tribute to all the efforts that your country is doing trying to solve this important international problem.
(In English.) Thank you.
ROSS: Here. Please wait for the microphone.
QUESTIONER: Allan Wendt, ex-Department of State and U.S. Foreign Service. Mr. Minister, given the apparent determination of the current Iranian government to develop the means to produce nuclear weapons, and given its ignoring the international community’s wishes and the U.N. Security Council’s wishes in this respect, how do you believe the international community should seek to deal with this issue, with the current Iranian government?
BEDJAOUI: (Through interpreter.) I believe we can talk plainly and frankly, since we are gathering here just like a family.
ROSS: On the record, however. (Laughter.)
BEDJAOUI: (Through interpreter.) The issue of nuclear arms proliferation is a very serious one. It may end one day that the whole humanity may disappear. This is the reason why the international community succeeded in passing and adopting the International Treaty on Non-Proliferation. So this is practically a universal legal instrument, given the huge number of countries that became signatories of the treaty.
But what we find in the treaty are two major conditions. But for the last 25 years, both conditions have not been met. They have not been fulfilled.
So the very first condition is to completely rule out or dismiss the idea that the planet, the Earth, may explode one day.
So this is the reason why nuclear powers committed themselves to abide by the legally binding condition of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in order to prevent any major explosion of the planet and proliferation of the nuclear armament. And the objective of that treaty to have a complete disarmament—unfortunately, we still have not reached that situation. There is still arms everywhere, and there is no disarmament.
And the second condition for nuclear countries was to assist non- nuclear countries to have nuclear energy for peaceful use. So both conditions were not met.
And the second conditions have not been met also, and the problem for non-nuclear states to benefit from technology for peaceful use of nuclear energy, they cannot do it. And when they can, they have very little or practically no technology transfer to use for themself or their peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
So to avoid the situation, when a non-nuclear state would like to have nuclear energy, nuclear power promised them a transfer of technology. But many of those countries looking for nuclear technology for peaceful use cannot obtain the necessary technology for themselves.
I know the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and according to international legal instrument, the right to countries to use nuclear energy for their own peaceful uses, this right is legally and duly stated and recognized.
So what can be done? What can we do with Iran today? The International Atomic Energy Agency referred the Iran case to the Security Council. But do we have here a solution? I’m afraid the solution is not there.
There is another example which illustrates the more or less the same situation. It’s North Korea. It was in 1993, 13 years ago, that the nuclear case of North Korea was also referred to the Security Council of the United Nations, and since then nothing has been done, practically.
I believe that we should exhaust all the possibilities given or offered by international fora. I believe we should use and exhaust all of the means offered by the United Nations, by the Security Council, by the International Atomic Energy—and other channels.
In these instances, dialogue is the most important, and we have learned the lessons of past experience. We can do nothing else.
But I believe we should be very keen in avoiding practicing or applying a double standard. We should not give weapons to our own adversaries.
ROSS: On the edge in the back here first.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Mr. Minister, I have two quick questions. You chose to focus your remarks on the global war on terror. To what extent do you believe there is serious link between al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism, on one hand, and the conflict in Algeria, which over the years—now much less of a conflict, if at all—was seen by many as a civil war within Algeria?
My second question, which is very different, is that during these years of conflict in Algeria, there was a tendency here in Washington to view this as a problem which, within the West, France should take a lead, because of the long-standing historical ties between France and Algeria. And I wondered to what extent you believe now that the relations between Algeria/the United States are such that they should be placed at least on equal footing as the relations between Algeria and France.
(Pause for off-mike conferral.)
BEDJAOUI: (Through interpreter.) Thank you for both questions.
I would like first of all to answer the last one. Maybe I’m mistaken, but frankly, I don’t see there is any kind of relationship—(pause for off-mike conferral).
You know, a relationship between human beings are just—and relationship between states are more or less the same. We expect evolution and changes in those relations.
Relations between France and Algeria was very strong, a very strong relation, but of course they were not on equal footing. And the same apply to a human being, to the relations between humans. It can—you may have a moment of splendor and later on disgrace.
Colonial time was a long night for colonized countries. We have been independent for 44 years only. But you know, we have not yet turned the page. A long historical relationship cannot be so easy to turn.
And I would like to seize this opportunity to pay tribute to President Chirac of France, that has decided or proposed to give another momentum to the relation between Algeria and France and to sign the treaty of peace and friendship.
And I have to add also that President Bouteflika did his best and with all his clout and influence in order to achieve the treaty that for the time being the treaty has not yet been signed. When I was saying that relation—we are independent for only 44 years, and that we have not yet turned the page of the past. I recall that only last year, in 2005, the French Parliament adopted a law which was, let’s say, presenting colonialism on a very positive and constrictive manner. This proves that public opinion on both sides are not yet ready.
Relationships are very good on the political, economic, cultural field, but there is still something remaining back at the mind of the population that could not let us definitely turn the page. So that doesn’t mean in any how that France is losing ground in Algeria. No. But if we compare with the United States, it’s a different story altogether. And this is the reason how now the United States has become the first client and customer long—far before the other economic partner from Europe.
To answer your first question about al Qaeda and the extremist fundamentalists, I have something to say about al Qaeda, which is something very difficult to define. It has blurred limits. There is no exact idea about it. We are, of course, examining that with a magnifying glass. Every one of us is trying to understand it to see how it is and what are its limits or its composition. And to tell you about the relationship with the Algerian extremist fundamentalists, it’s very difficult to say.
And in fact, about the bloodshed and the difficult experiences that we have undergone with terrorism, we should, I believe, draw the lessons from that. And what is important is that we have to make sure that there is a dialogue between civilizations. And more than a dialogue, I believe we should have an alliance, an alliance of civilization to fight terrorist violence.
In doing so, we should endeavor to respect the other. And if we were to closely examine and scrutinize history for the past two centuries, we may say that history has been very ungrateful vis-a-vis Islam, and it has been unduly treated—and it has unduly treated Islam. So I think all the work that needs to be done is try to restore the image of Islam in order to avoid future tensions or conflict. One thing for sure it has to avoid humiliating or degrading a human being, because humiliation and degrading a human being can be a fertile ground for terrorism.
ROSS: One last question. And I can’t favor the left side of the room, so in the back on the right.
QUESTIONER: Welcome to Washington. Joyce Karam from al-Hayat newspaper. I wanted actually to follow up on the Iranian question. Do you see yourself going 27 years back and perhaps mediating the nuclear crisis between the U.S. and Tehran? And since you’ve talked about dialogue, would you—did you relay that to the U.S. administration? And do you think a direct talk between the Americans and the Iranians would help in resolving this issue?
BEDJAOUI: (Through interpreter.) Thank you for the question, Madame. Algeria is not the prototype or the model for mediating. Of course we can do our best and contribute to improve the condition and the situation. For instance, we played and we were the mediator in different conflicts and situations in Africa, and we are satisfied by the result brought about by our mediation that has ended in more stability and peace in some regions of Africa.
And we don’t know if Algeria fulfills and meets the best and required conditions for mediation. And it is to the concerned parties, like the United States or Iran, to tell us; they are the one who are supposed to tell us if we do fulfill the conditions to be mediators.
ROSS: Mr. Minister, I think you’ve—
BEDJAOUI: It’s up to you.
ROSS: —you’ve given us a lot of your time, and I think you’ve covered a wide, wide range of subjects.
BEDJAOUI: Thank you.
ROSS: I think in the process you’ve given us an excellent demonstration of the subtlety, and the finesse, and I would say, the elegance of Algerian diplomacy. So for this, thank you very, very much. And we hope that your stay here is pleasant .
BEDJAOUI: Thank you. Thank you. (Applause.)
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