Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Foreign Affairs Committee meets to discuss policy challenges in North Africa

The House Committee on Foreign Affairs met today to discuss U.S. policy challenges in North Africa. Assistant Secretary of State David Welch testified before committee members concerning current relations with North Africa, and specifically with the countries of Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia.

Many issues were discussed, but terrorism in the region dominated the committee’s agenda. The spread of radical Islam throughout the region was at the forefront of many committee members’ questions and was addressed repeatedly by Welch. The committee agreed that in order to combat terrorism from radical groups such as al-Qaeda, the Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative should be pursued. Under this initiative, the U.S. would work closely with governments in the region to enhance military protection and weed out terrorist groups.

On a country by country assessment, Welch detailed recent progress as well as setbacks. Libya, having recently been removed from the State Department’s list of terrorist regimes, is under consideration for full “normalization” – meaning they would open a U.S. embassy with an exchange of ambassadors. The focus on Algeria was a result of their ties with al-Qaeda, as well as their support of the Polisaro, a Sahrawi group pursuing independence in Western Sahara. The group has been based in and supported by Algeria, and the Algerian government plays a crucial role in mediating this conflict and seeing that it is settled properly. Intermixed with the Algerian-Polisario issue was the uncertainty about Morocco’s commitment to a resolution. Morocco and Polisario are in a stalemate over questions of land, rights, and autonomous government between the two. While Welch described Morocco-U.S. relations as traditionally “productive and friendly” he also emphasized the pressure the U.S. was putting on Morocco to agree to a joint proposal between the two sides that would finally settle their issues and allow each party to move past the economic and political woes that have accompanied this impasse. Finally, in regards to Tunisia, Welch had mostly praise for the country as he said it boasts low poverty and unemployment rates and serves as the region’s leader of social and economic reform.

It should also be noted that outside of individual country issues, Welch was also pressed on the inclusion of women’s issues in policy making. Welch responded that the advancement of women’s rights in the region was proceeding very slowly, but that it had been incorporated into the policy agenda. Welch said that through judicial reform, educational programs, and the empowerment of regional female leaders, the status of women’s rights in the region, as well as the Arab world, would improve.


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