“It is with anguish that we watch [torture] resurface, more or less secretly, sometimes under the cover of exceptional laws aimed at repressing terrorism. It would be, it seems to us, a disastrous abdication of humanity to try and fight terrorism with its own weapons.” [1] ICRC Memorandum, October 1962 (ACICR, BAG 202 000-003.07)

The Algerian War was marked by a cycle of deadly attacks, violent repression, retaliation, and torture. As an asymmetrical war of national liberation, the conflict saw violent clashes between the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) – an insurrectionary movement – and the French regular army. In this context, the ICRC faced specific challenges that complicated its humanitarian action.

For the first two years of the war, the French government refused to acknowledge the presence of an armed conflict in Algeria, only reluctantly qualifying the situation as an internal armed conflict in June 1956. As Algeria was still part of France, and the conflict considered internal, the ICRC could only base its action on the parties’ obligation to respect the minimum provisions included in Article 3 Common to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 [2]. As an impartial humanitarian body, the ICRC could offer its services to both parties, but its action in Algeria was often dependent on special case by case authorizations, causing delays in its humanitarian response.

Berrouaghia, internment camp. An ICRC delegate and the doctor of the camp. 1956 ©ICRC

The ICRC first offered to send delegates to examine the conditions of detention in camps and prisons in Algeria in 1955 as the number of persons imprisoned on counts of subversion and terrorist activities had dramatically increased. The first mission landed in the country on 28 February 1955. From this date to the end of the conflict, nine other missions would follow to visit various detention facilities across the country.  The authorization to visit had been given by the French government in the form of an agreement to be renewed for each ICRC mission in Algeria. ICRC delegates were told to preoccupy themselves only with the conditions of detention in camps, and not with the reasons for imprisonment. At this period, the French government had yet to acknowledge the presence of an armed conflict in the country, but it was understood that by authorizing the ICRC to visit the detention camps, the French government had implicitly recognized the applicability of Article 3 Common to the Geneva Conventions.

From 1958 onwards, the above-mentioned agreement was extended to detention facilities in France where delegates also made visits and distributed relief supplies to detainees. At the beginning of 1956, the ICRC established communication with representatives of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) in Cairo, leading to ICRC delegates Jean de Preux and Georg Hoffmann’s visit [3] to four French prisoners held by the insurrectionists.


Torture and mistreatments in detention

During the conflict, detainees were not recognized as prisoners of war (POW) – they were referred to as “taken captive while in possession of weapons” instead – and therefore did not benefit from the legal protections the POW status would have afforded them. This lack of legal status allowed for arbitrary detention and gross violations of international humanitarian law. Indeed, from the moment ICRC delegates were allowed to visit detainees in French custody, there were no doubts that ill-treatment was the norm in certain camps, particularly during questioning. Reports submitted to the French authorities painted a clear picture: torture was used in French detention camps.

Following continuous ICRC action in favor of detainees, small improvements were reported. The French authorities claimed that political detainees had obtained the rights to practice their religion, read certain newspapers, receive sums of money through the ICRC and to have a spokesperson, among others. Military internment centers were set up, where detainees’ treatment was allegedly close to standards for POWs. These improvements in detention conditions remained small, compared to the scale of ill-treatments still being reported.

By 1960, the occurrence of torture in Algeria had already been broadly documented, but, on 5 January, the publication of confidential ICRC reports by the French newspaper Le Monde lent new legitimacy to those claims. The ICRC published press release n° 694 (8 January 1960) in reaction. Although it was clear that the ICRC had no part in the leak, it would take a year for the organization to be able to resume its activities in Algeria.

Relief distribution by the French Red Cross. 23/08/1961 ©ICRC

Detainees were not the only ones to suffer from the conflict. The ICRC – in partnership with Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies such as the Tunisian and Moroccan Red Crescent Societies –provided relief to refugees in Tunisia and Morocco as well as to displaced persons within Algeria. Later, the High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR) and the League of Red Cross Societies assisted in the repatriation of refugees to Algeria. In the country, relief action in favor of displaced populations consisted of the delivery of items such as medical supplies, soap, clothing, and foodstuffs.  The local committee of the French Red Cross in Algeria also dispatched mobile nursing teams.

Following the Évian Accords, a ceasefire was proclaimed on 19 March 1962, but the violence continued as the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) – a French organization opposing Algeria’s independence – coordinated multiple attacks throughout the country. The ICRC responded to this surge in violence with an emergency plan including medical care for civilians, relief for internees, and visits to prisoners as well as efforts to determine the fate of missing persons.

The Oran massacre of 1962

European expatriates living in Algeria were executed by the Algerian National Liberation Army (ALN, the armed branch of the FLN) in a wave of violence that started on 5 July 1962 and ended two days later. In this audio recording (in French), an ICRC delegate interviews a young girl who witnessed first-hand the violence that overtook Oran in July 1962.

The Évian Accords, signed on 18 March 1962, provided 20 days for the parties to inform the ICRC of their plans for the release of the prisoners they held and their whereabouts. As FLN fighters were released, revenge was exacted on harkis, Algerians loyal to France. Many harkis were arrested and, along with European expatriates that had remained in the country, many went missing. The ICRC endeavored to visit the people arrested after the ceasefire and managed to get some of them released. Visits to imprisoned harkis and tracing activities continued into 1963, as the ICRC searched for the remaining missing persons. Until the end of its mission in September 1963, the ICRC only ever obtained the right to visit harkis detained in prisons, and not those detained on military bases. After receiving many letters of families claiming harkis were still being detained in Algeria, ICRC received the authorization and sent a delegate in January 1964 to visit three military bases. The ICRC delegate did not note the presence of any harkis there and was told by officials that the Algerian government did not consider the harkis a problem anymore. Met with vague answers when pressing the Algerian government on the issue, the ICRC sent a letter to request access to the people still detained in relation to the conflict, but the reply never came, and the organization remained unable to act further.

SOS Algeria

This film, probably shot in the months following Algeria’s independence, presents the activities of the Red Cross in the country.

Conceived as an entry point to the ICRC’s Library and Archives’ rich collections, this page aims to provide an overview as comprehensive as possible of the main public documentary resources available on the activities of the ICRC during the Algerian War.[4]

Primary sources

Annual Reports 1954-1962 / ICRC

As general reports on the activities of the International Committee of the Red Cross, these volumes include information on ICRC activities in Algeria during the conflict.

ICRC News Releases 1954-1962

From news of POWs to ICRC public statements concerning its action in Algeria, the digitized ICRC news releases are all available for consultation online.

ICRC Memorandums

In May 1958, the ICRC sent a memorandum to the FLN and the French government urging them to respect the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law. The full text of this memorandum has been transcribed in the following article.

A notable document among many ICRC news releases, the note below is a transcription of a June 1962 radio appeal by the ICRC, prompted by the surge of violence following the 18 March 1962 Evian Agreements. It was transcribed and published in ICRC Topical News 1962.

On June 16, 1962, the ICRC transmitted the following radio appeal: “Profoundly moved by the distressful acts of cruelty taking place in Algeria and by the violence which accompanies them, the International Committee of the Red Cross inuGeneva [sic] makes a most serious and pressing appeal on behalf at least of the wounded and sick. These must at all costs be spared. The Geneva Conventions and even more than these, the elementary principles of humanity confer upon hospitals and all other similar establishments an inviolable and sacred character. To do harm to these is to condemn defenceless [sic] human beings to increased suffering and even to death. The International Committee of the Red Cross therefore solemnly calls upon those resorting to force in Algeria rigorously to refrain from making such attacks, for which there can be no excuse.”

Listen to ICRC’s radio appeal for the injured and sick on the ICRC Audiovisual Archives’ portal.

In another plea against wanton acts of violence, the ICRC published the following memorandum in October 1962:

ACICR, BAG 202 000-003.07 [5]

Although Algeria is not explicitly mentioned in the memorandum, this plea echoes the ICRC delegates’ reports of torture and ill-treatments in the detention facilities they were able to visit.

The ICRC and the Algerian Conflict / ICRC (1962)

This report on ICRC action in Algeria from 1955 to 1962 includes details on ICRC relief operations such as assistance to detainees and other victims of the conflict like refugees and displaced persons.

International Review of the Red Cross 1954-1963

Digitized and available for consultation online, the 1954-1963 editions of the Review include articles on the ICRC’s activities during the Algerian war.

Algerian War: Memoirs of an ICRC delegate

In this 2010 interview (in French here) for Al-Insani magazine, Pierre Gaillard recounts his experience as delegate during the Algerian War. He first explains how the ICRC came to obtain the right to visit prisons in Algeria as well as the struggles it faced due to administrative barriers. Pierre Gaillard then details the different categories of detention facilities and detainees, such as people “arrested following the events”, interned in regular prisons; detainees in “accommodation centers” (in French: centres d’hébergement) and those in local camps administered by the French army (“transit and screening centers”). He underlines that, given the “internal” character of the conflict and resulting lack of formal status for people detained in relation to the hostilities, there were as many categories of prisoners as types of detention facilities, and the ICRC made a point to try and cover them all.

Pierre Gaillard – as well as historian François Bugnion – are also interviewed about the Algerian war in this film available on the ICRC’s Audiovisual Archives portal.

More resources on Algeria between 1954 and 1962 from the ICRC Audiovisual Archives.

Secondary literature

L’action du Comité International de la Croix-Rouge pendant la Guerre d’Algérie / Françoise Perret (International Review of the Red Cross 2004)

This article by Françoise Perret summarizes ICRC action during the conflict.

Françoise Perret and François Bugnion also published the following book on ICRC action during the Algerian War. Both the above-cited article and book are, in substance, included in volume 4 of the History of the International Committee of the Red Cross (from Budapest to Saigon 1956-1965) [6]

Between insurgents and government: the International Committee of the Red Cross’s action in the Algerian War (1954-1962) / Françoise Perret and François Bugnion (International Review of the Red Cross, 2011)

Exploring the difficulties of providing humanitarian relief in asymmetric conflicts, this article details ICRC action in the face of a threefold challenge: offering its services to a government refusing to acknowledge the presence of an armed conflict, establishing contact with a liberation movement, and providing humanitarian assistance in the context of an insurrectionary war.

For further reading:

[1] See the translation of the memorandum below, in footnote 6.

[2] Common Article 3 contains the essential rules of the Geneva Conventions in a condensed format and makes them applicable to conflicts not of an international character. It sets a minimum standard of protection for persons taking no active part in hostilities, including members of armed forces in certain situations specifically stated in the article.

[3] Read more about this highly unconventional visit in Jean de Preux’s portrait on the blog CROSS-files.

[4] All the publications presented here are available for consultation in the ICRC Library. Some have also been digitized and are available online in full text (see the links provided for more details). Archival sources from 1863 to 1975 can be consulted upon appointment at the institution’s headquarters in Geneva; see the service’s page for more information. For any question concerning the ICRC General Public Archives (their content, working procedures, the reading room, etc.), please write to publicarchives@icrc.org. This page provides links to the photos and films available online on the ICRC Audiovisual Archives portal. Questions and suggestions on how to improve this page can be sent at library@icrc.org.

[5] English translation by the author of the article: The Red Cross speaks out against torture and the excessive use of violence

The International Committee of the Red Cross, in Geneva, as a result of its mission to assist the victims of armed conflicts, is very aware of the sufferings caused by wars, civil wars and internal disturbances. However, it must note, with very serious concern, that, throughout the world, torture, massacres and, in general, acts of violence committed outside of regular military operations or the normal exercise of justice, are becoming more and more widespread.

Yet these criminal practices are expressly condemned by international law. That is why Article 3 Common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 for the protection of war victims, applicable by both parties in the event of an internal conflict, is worded thus: “the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever…  violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture”… Today, these Conventions bind all Powers, large and small.

Torture is considered the most heinous and dangerous of these prohibited practices. It is the source of unspeakable suffering for the individual. It also constitutes a serious attack on the dignity of man, forcing him to perform acts or make declarations against his will, reducing him to the rank of a slave in barbaric times. Torture debases both the one who inflicts it and the one who suffers it.

But we are witnessing today an even more damaging tendency, that of framing torture as being in the alleged interest of society and compatible with legality.

However, this method has been universally rejected by civilized people since the abolition of judicial torture in the end of the XVIII century. It is with anguish that we watch it resurface, more or less secretly, sometimes under the cover of exceptional laws aimed at repressing terrorism.

It would be, it seems to us, a disastrous abdication of humanity to try and fight terrorism with its own weapons. States would thus give implicit approval to conducts fundamentally contrary to the principles of the law, which they have solemnly sanctioned by signing and ratifying the Geneva Conventions. We cannot hope to improve human society if we tolerate such degradation of individuals and public morals. It is therefore important that leaders do not turn a blind eye to the misconduct of their subordinates.

In the face of many abusive acts of violence committed across the world, we must fear that they will multiply and perpetuate themselves in a fatal chain of events. Cruel acts, by the hatred they arouse, beget vengeance, retaliation and, therefore, new acts of violence. Thus, one is drawn into a vicious cycle from which it is almost impossible to get out.

Finally, there is a considerable risk that the increase of abuse and ill-treatment, the organization of terrorism or counterterrorism, create tolerance for these odious methods, weakening the moral conscience and the very sensitivity of individuals and the public to their cruelty.

[6] History of the ICRC is a series of five volumes, compiled in the corresponding research guide on the blog CROSS-files.