• Indigenous peoples in Algeria

    Indigenous peoples in Algeria

    The Amazigh are the Indigenous Peoples of Algeria that has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Still, the Indigenous status of the Amazigh is not recognised by the Algerian government, and they continue to face a number of challenges.

The Indigenous World 2024: Algeria

The Amazighs are the Indigenous people of Algeria and other countries of North Africa. However, the Algerian government does not recognize the Indigenous status of the Amazighs and refuses to publish statistics on their population. Because of this, there is no official data on the number of Amazighs in Algeria. On the basis of demographic data drawn from the territories in which Tamazight-speaking populations live, associations defending and promoting the rights of Amazigh people estimate the Tamazight-speaking population to be around 12 million people, a third of Algeria’s total population.

The Amazighs of Algeria are concentrated in five territories: Kabylia in the north-east (Kabyls represent around 50% of Algeria’s Amazigh population), Aurès in the east, Chenoua, a mountainous region on the Mediterranean coast to the west of Algiers, M'zab in the south (Taghardayt), and Tuareg territory in the Sahara (Tamanrasset, Adrar, Djanet). Many small Amazigh communities also exist in the south-west (Tlemcen, Bechar, etc.) and in other places scattered throughout the country. It is also important to note that large cities such as Algiers, Oran, Constantine, etc., are home to several hundred thousand people who are historically and culturally Amazigh but who have been partly Arabized over the years, succumbing to a gradual process of acculturation and assimilation.

The Indigenous populations can primarily be distinguished from Arab inhabitants by their language (Tamazight) but also by their way of life and their culture (clothes, food, songs and dances, beliefs, etc.). After decades of demands and popular struggles, the Amazigh language was finally recognized as a “national and official language” in Algeria’s Constitution in 2016. But, in reality, the Amazigh identity continues to be marginalized and folklorized by state institutions. Officially, Algeria is still presented as an “Arab country” and “land of Islam”, and anti-Amazigh laws are still in force (such as the 1992 Law of Arabization).

Internationally, Algeria has ratified the main international standards, and it voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007. However, these texts remain unknown to the vast majority of citizens, and thus not applied, which has led to the UN treaty-monitoring bodies making numerous observations and recommendations to Algeria urging it to meet its international commitments.

Algeria finally agrees to the visit of two UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights

Planned in 2011 but constantly postponed at the request of the Algerian government, the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association finally took place from 16-26 September 2023. In his preliminary report on the visit[1] the Special Rapporteur, Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, expressed concern that: 

  • Law 12-06 of 2012 on associations, which remains in force awaiting the adoption of the new law on associations, contains overly restrictive and vaguely formulated provisions, leaving wide discretion to authorities to reject requests for the creation of an association. Notably, associations cannot be contrary to “national values” (article 50) and are prohibited from engaging in cooperating with associations abroad (article 23) or receiving funding from such associations (article 30) without prior authorization. This contradicts the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) ratified by Algeria, which stipulates that any restriction imposed on the enjoyment of the right to association must be precise, prescribed by law and be necessary in democratic society as explained by the Human Rights Committee through General Comment No. 37 (2020) on the right of peaceful assembly and the African Commission Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly.
  • Although the 2020 Constitution recognized Tamazight as an official national language, assertions of regional identities are also presented as a threat to national unity and security, in particular in the Kabylie region where there have been calls for greater autonomy. In 2021, the Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylie (MAK) was classified as a terrorist organization for having called for the independence of the Kabylie region, and several persons and associations have faced charges related to their alleged association with MAK or other activities seen to undermine national unity under article 87bis of the Penal Code. I note the case of the co-president of the World Amazigh Congress (CMA), whose imprisonment, since August 2021, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention recently determined to be arbitrary, calling for her immediate release. In my meetings, I also learned that charges of undermining national unity had also been brought against several persons who had waved the flag of the Amazigh community.
  • It is essential for government authorities to loosen up current tight restrictions on associations, bringing laws into conformity with the Constitution and international human rights standards. 

Ms Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, also visited Algeria from 26 November to 5 December 2023. In her statement[2] issued at the end of her mission to Algeria, she noted: 

  • Despite the repeated assurances I heard from various government figures that Algeria is a country ruled by law, and that everyone is treated equally before that law, it is clear to me that human rights defenders who choose to operate outside of the government-designed civil society framework face serious difficulties, which also impact on their families.
  • There is a lack of transparency in relation to suppressive actions taken against human rights defenders, where little information is provided about who gives an order against them, on what authority and for what reason. Numerous individuals made reference to a political police force that exists in the shadows, and which would not seem accountable to any transparent oversight.
  • Some human rights defenders I intended to meet, refused or cancelled at the last minute, for fear of reprisals. My visit was also overshadowed by a number of human rights defenders, members of civil society organizations and victims of human rights violations being prevented from reaching Tizi Ouzou while I was there. As they travelled to the city, they were either stopped at checkpoints or detained in a police station for over 10 hours. Exemplifying the lack of transparency noted above, when the human rights defenders asked why they were being stopped, they were simply told, “You know why, orders have come from above”. I was further informed that those prevented from travelling were under routine surveillance and regularly stopped when attempting to attend meetings, events or on other significant occasions.
  • The definition of terrorism in this article, and throughout Algerian national legislation, is so broad and vaguely worded that it allows huge scope for the security services to arrest human rights defenders. Kamira Nait Sid, a woman human rights defender and co-president of the World Amazigh Congress (CMA) who promotes the cultural, economic and linguistic rights of the Amazigh people, was sentenced to three years in prison on such a charge. I visited Kamira in prison where I was told that the specific charge against her relates to her brief attendance at a conference in a university where she was scheduled to conduct a human rights event the following day. She was later arrested and tried on charges of “undermining national unity” and “belonging to a terrorist organization”. Her case is currently under appeal and I call for her release.
  • I call for the release of all human rights defenders imprisoned for exercising their freedom of expression, opinion and association, and for the articles of the Penal Code relating to terrorism and undermining national unity (including articles 79, 87bis, 95bis and 96) to be amended to bring them into line with international standards.

Attacks on freedoms and discrimination against Amazighs

The children's book fair organized by the Tagmatt cultural association in Ait-Saada, Yatafen commune in Kabylia, from 31 August to 2 September 2023, did not receive authorization from the Wilaya of Tizi-Wezzu and was cancelled. Other Amazigh cultural events also failed to receive authorization in Sidi-Aich, Tizi-N-Berber, Akbou, Tizi-Wezzu and Imcheddalen.

Koukou Editions, a small, young book publishing house founded and run by Kabyle journalist Arezki Ait-Larbi, was excluded from the Salon International du Livre d'Alger (Sila) held from 26 October to 4 November 2023. In a press release, its director denounced “the censorship fascists”.[3]

On 19 February 2023, the office of the private television channel “Berbère-TV” in Algiers was closed and placed under judicial seal by the Algerian police.[4] A few days later, the police removed the seal and the channel was able to resume its activities. The closure of Berbère-TV's office in Algeria is both an attack on press freedom and on the Amazigh people's right to promote and enjoy their culture. The temporary closure of the Amazigh television channel was also understood by the public as a warning to the media to strictly comply with government policy.

Every year on 20 April, Amazighs celebrate the Amazigh Spring (Tafsut Imazighen). In 2023, Algerian police violently prevented traditional ceremonies commemorating this event. Several dozen people were arrested to prevent them from organizing or taking part in the activities planned for that day. For the Amazigh, this is a serious infringement of their right to honour their memory and traditions.

During the 17th edition of the Vgayet (Béjaia) half-marathon in Kabylia, which took place on 1 December 2023, the Amazigh flag was banned from the entire course, as was the wearing of traditional Kabyle dress during the medal ceremony for the winners. The organizers did their utmost to conceal any reference to the Amazigh identity of the town of Vgayet and its region.

No respite from Amazigh human rights violations

Cherif Mellal, president of the “Jeunesse Sportive de Kabylie” (JSK) soccer club, was arrested and imprisoned on 19 January 2023 for “undermining the integrity of national territory”, under article 79 of the Algerian Penal Code. This baseless accusation is undoubtedly linked to the fact that the JSK president had his club's photos taken with the Amazigh flag.

Kamira Nait Sid, co-president of the Amazigh World Congress, detained since 24 August 2021 and charged with membership of a terrorist organization, apologist for terrorism and undermining national unity, was tried and sentenced on 5 December 2022, by the Sidi-Mhamed Court in Algiers, to five years' imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 Dinars (approx. EUR 9,200). During her appeal trial on 3 March 2023, her sentence was reduced to three years' imprisonment. Several UN mechanisms have called for her release, to no avail.

On 23 July 2023, the Algiers Court of Appeal confirmed Slimane Bouhafs’ conviction of three years' imprisonment for “receiving funds from abroad for the purposes of political propganda”, “hate speech and discrimination”, “using new technologies to spread false information” and “conspiracy”.[5] Slimane Bouhafs is president of the Coordination des chrétiens de Saint-Augustin en Algérie, which defends minority rights and religious freedom in the country.

On 26 November 2023, university teacher and Amazigh rights activist Mira Moknache and several other Amazigh cultural activists appeared in court in Amizour, Kabylia. They were charged with undermining national unity. Mira Moknache, who has been the target of judicial harassment since 2019, is being prosecuted in a number of cases across several courts (Vgayet, Amizour, Algiers, Oran) on the same grounds: “undermining national unity and membership of a terrorist group”.[6]

Fifty-four defendants were sentenced to death in connection with the fires in Kabylia in the summer of 2021 and the death of a young man, a further 26 were given sentences ranging from 2 to 10 years in prison and 17 others were acquitted at the trial held in November 2022 at the Algiers court[7]. During the appeal trial, which began on 15 October 2023, the Algiers Court of Appeal tried and sentenced 38 people to death, six more to 20 years in prison and 23 others to sentences ranging from 3 to 10 years, while 30 others were acquitted.

The defence lawyers noted serious breaches of the law and judicial procedure. Both trials were unfair, and the convictions are therefore tainted with arbitrariness. A fair trial is one that respects national and international law and legal procedures, and respects the rights of lawyers and defendants, who are innocent until proven guilty. This was not the case, according to the lawyers and human rights NGOs.[8]

During 2023, the inhabitants of Larvaa-Nat-Iraten in Kabylia, where the death row inmates come from, regularly observed a general strike to protest at what they considered to be unjust sentences handed down for unspoken “political” reasons.[9]

An unknown number of Amazighs, particularly human rights defenders, are being prevented from leaving the country without due process, and others are being actively sought by the police search and intervention brigades (BRI). Others leave the country by whatever means, including clandestinely, to reach Europe.

A land policy that ignores the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples

After Algerian independence in 1962, Algerian land policy consisted of nationalizing the former lands belonging to the French settlers, followed by those of the large Algerian landowners, and the Archs lands, i.e. the collective lands belonging to the Amazigh tribes. It should also be noted that all the former lands of the French settlers were originally lands that belonged mainly to the Amazigh tribes, stolen by the French administration.

As the new Algerian state administration was copied from the French Jacobin system, Algerian land policy has been a continuation of the former colonizer’s system: it has not returned the land stolen from the Amazigh tribes and, in the 1980s, began privatizing State-owned land (Law 83-18 of 13 August 1983), strongly encouraging access to private property. The 1989 and subsequent Constitutions stipulate that “public property is the property of the national community. It includes the subsoil, mines and quarries, natural sources of energy, the mineral, natural and living wealth of the various zones of the national maritime domain, waters and forests” (article 18 of the 2020 Constitution).

As the Amazigh are not recognized as an Indigenous people of this country, they are unable to benefit from the rights internationally recognized to Indigenous Peoples. The State consequently disposes of their lands, territories and natural resources as it sees fit, without consulting them or obtaining their free, prior and informed consent.

Belkacem Lounes is a doctor of Economics, university teacher (Grenoble University), expert member of the Working Group on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (2016-2021) member of the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2018-2020), author of numerous reports and articles on Amazigh and Indigenous rights.


This article is part of the 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here


Notes and references

[1] Preliminary remarks by Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. Visit to Algeria, 16-26 September 2023. https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/documents/issues/association/statements/20230926-EOM-SR-FOAA-Algeria-fr.pdf

[2] End of mission statement, Country visit to Algeria, 25 November - 5 December 2023, Ms Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/documents/issues/defenders/statements/20231205-eom-algeria-sr-defenders-fr.pdf

[3] Koukou Editions exclu du Sila, press release, 23 October 2023. https://www.koukou-editions.com/post/koukou-editions-porte-plainte-pour-abus-et-usurpation-de-fonction

[4] Mise sous scellés du siège de Berbère Télévision à Alger, Algérie360, 19 February 2023. https://www.algerie360.com/mise-sous-scelles-du-siege-de-berbere-television-a-alger/

[5] Kamira Nait Sid et Slimane Bouhafs condamnés en appel à trois ans de prison ferme, Algeria-Watch, 5 July 2023. https://www.https://algeria-watch.org/?p=87428

[6] L’universitaire Mira Mokhnache victime du harcèlement judiciaire et de pressions, Le Matin d’Algérie, 13 August 2023. https://www.https://lematindalgerie.com/luniversitaire-mira-mokhnache-victime-du-harcelement-judiciaire-et-de-pressions/

[7] IWGIA. 2023. The Indigenous World 2023: Algeria. https://www.iwgia.org/en/algeria/5037-iw-2023-algeria.html

[8] Amnesty International. Algeria : Les condamnations à mort collectives sont marquées par des procès iniques et des allégations de torture, 9 January 2023. https://www.amnesty.org/fr/latest/news/2023/01/algeria-mass-death-sentences-marred-by-unfair-trials-torture-claims/

[9] Semaine 4 de grève: Larbaa Nath Irathen, une ville figée dans le deuil, 30 November 2023. https://marevuedepressedz.com/2023/11/30/semaine-4-greve-lni/

Tags: Land rights, Human rights, Cultural Integrity , Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders



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