Is Colonisation a Crime Against Humanity?

By SYBRAND BREKELMANS

In an interview with the Algerian TV channel Echorouk News, broadcast on Valentine’s Day, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron qualified the colonisation of Algeria by France as a crime against humanity. This led to a great upheaval in the French political class. Considered the worst of all crimes, Macron’s accusation holds a strong significance.

The history of France’s colonisation of Algeria started in 1830 and ended in 1962. It was marked by repression and the systematic undermining of the Algerians’ human rights. Called “indigènes”, the Algerians were considered second class citizens and did not have voting rights.  

It has become clear from testimonies that torture was employed during the Algerian War, creating an ongoing debate about the implication of this information, regarding the definition of crimes against humanity.

Colonisation is by legal definition not a crime against humanity. Article 212-1 of the French penal code defines what constitutes a crime against humanity; it includes terms such as deportation, slavery, torture, inhuman acts and systematic executions.  This definition, outlined during the 1990s by French lawmakers by choice excludes colonisation and the actions of the French army during the Algerian War of 1954-1962.

France never formally apologised for its deeds. This is something Emmanuel Macron wants to change by officially recognising France’s responsibility in the crimes committed in Algeria. It is a decision heavy in consequences, both as a friendly diplomatic gesture and as it would open the door for eventual reparations.

In the past, former President Sarkozy qualified the colonial system as “profoundly unjust, contrary to the three founding words of our republic: liberty, equality, fraternity.”

Hollande recognised the “suffering colonisation inflicted to the Algerian people.”  Yet, both denied offering a formal state apology.

By putting this question on the forefront, Macron probably made a political calculation in light of April’s presidential elections. This is something his adversaries on the right of the Assemblée Nationale have been criticising him for. But their critique also reflects the deep discomfort this topic puts them in. Macron was accused by leaders of the right wing of insulting France abroad and taking out old history to divide the French people, showing that some wounds are still open.

In a legal sense, recognition that France’s colonisation of Algeria was crime against humanity will be difficult to achieve. That article 212-1 was formulated in part with political motives, however, gives significance to his interpretation. At least from a moral point of view, he should have the discretion to decide for himself if colonisation constitutes a crime against humanity without being berated by his political opponents.

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