By Raphaelle Branche
If one believed the official French terminology, since Algeria was a French territory, the activities of the French army in Algeria from 1954 to 1962 were operations carried out “to maintain order.” Conversely, to admit the reality of the war would have entailed granting the Algerian nationalists the status of belligerents, which was out of the question. In the face of the many difficulties they encountered, the French government rapidly declared a state of emergency and voted in a law giving the government special powers in Algeria, in fact granting the executive a free hand in matters concerning this territory.
At that time, France had already become a party to the Geneva Conventions, but refused to consider their application to the case of Algeria. However the French government granted the International Red Cross the right to inspect the detention conditions of prisoners held by the French military – without noticing the inherent contradiction in this semi-acknowledgement of the rights of their adversary. In reality, the majority of war crimes escaped all oversight. Furthermore, some war crimes were even authorized by official decrees, as was the case with summary executions.
From the start of military operations in Algeria, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense issued guidelines regarding “the attitude to adopt vis-à-vis the rebels in Algeria” advocating a “more brutal, swifter, and more complete” military response, and asking “each soldier to use his imagination to apply the most appropriate means compatible with their soldier’s conscience.” Certain specific rules were spelled out to the soldiers, such as: “All rebels making use of a weapon or seen with a weapon in hand or in the process of committing acts of violence will be shot on the spot,” and more importantly: “One must open fire on all suspects that attempt to escape.” As a result of these orders, summary executions were legitimized a priori: the military units only had to declare the victims of these assassination “runaways” or “suspects attempting to escape” in order to receive immunity under this far-reaching authorization.
Crimes of war thus found an ideal breeding ground in the way in which the enemies of French troops were labeled: “outlaws,” “rebels,” or simply “suspects”. In contrast to armed enemies, the “suspects” were a vast group with no clear definition or boundaries. From a legal standpoint, Algerians should have been covered by the fourth Geneva Convention, which deals with the protection of civilians who have fallen into the hands of the enemy, regulates internment, and prohibits the taking of hostages and deportation. But since France refused to recognize the legitimacy of the application of this convention, international humanitarian law remained outside the border of Algeria.
In addition to the impotence of international law, national law was also distorted by the realities of the war. Although national law could have been applied to certain crimes of war committed by the French forces, instead, the national justice system became a part of a regime that allowed illegal activities to take place in Algeria from 1955 to 1962, under cover of “exceptional circumstances.”
Taking advantage of the extra-legal regime that was put in place in Algeria, the principle of collective responsibility was applied beginning in May 1955, through the use of a colonial law that France had renounced at the end of World War II. In the case of “terrorist acts,” responsibility was attributed to the nearest village. The application of this principle was left to the determination of the military and civilian authorities and could thus be translated into a simple fine or the performance of some routine labour, or else it could also become the pretext for destruction of houses and villages, the taking of hostages, and executions.
The application of the principle of collective responsibility was testimony to the particular sense of danger felt by the French military leaders as well as political officials who realized that the enemy was intermingled with or protected by the population. Indeed, Algerian civilians were the target of pressure from the nationalists, who relied on civilians for food, shelter, and financial support. Little by little, the general population became involved in the struggle for independence. Convinced of its collaboration, the French developed information-gathering systems and made intelligence work the priority of every soldier. The continual search for information and this war carried out among the population that could easily be transformed into a war against the population, became a seedbed of torture.
The French armed forces deliberately inflicted pain on individual detainees on a massive scale. The victims were sometimes Algerian combatants, but more often they were civilians suspected of providing rebels with food, lodging, or trying to politically organize the Algerian population. As the war escalated from 1959-1960, Algerian women as well as men were the victims of targeted violence. The torturers systematically began by stripping their victim, then would torture the victim using five techniques: beating, hanging the victim by their feet or hands, submerging their head in water, applying electrical shocks to the victim’s body, and rape.
The French troops also committed rape outside the context of torture. Contrary to the other crimes of war mentioned above, rape seemed to be more subject to disciplinary action. Rape was in fact much more difficult to justify as being a necessary part of the war effort. But rape was also seen as banal and soldiers were not particularly concerned for the fate of Algerian women, at a time when the representation of Algerians along with the social perception of rape promoted insensitivity to the violence, a fortiori to the crime.
The cease-fire signed in March 1962 was accompanied by a reciprocal amnesty agreed between the two parties. Following the cease-fire, crimes of war became referred to as “acts committed in the context of operations designed to maintain order in response to the Algerian insurrection” and were balanced with “acts relating to the participation in the insurrection and aid to the FLN.” While the acts committed by participants in the insurrection and the FLN were brought to trial, resulting in the execution of close to 200 men under the death penalty, the crimes committed by the French soldiers were covered by amnesty even before being detailed, let alone judged.
This article was first published in the French edition. It was translated into English by Virginie Ladisch.