Deputy Assistant Secretary Harris Interview in Algiers
9 December 2023
I am happy to consult with our Algerian partners on a vast range of challenges we are facing in the region. In particular, the U.S. is very focused on enabling a successful UN process in Western Sahara. We believe it is very urgent to enable Personal Envoy De Mistura to make progress without further delay. Escalation on the ground and intensification of the military conflict is quite alarming and will take us further from the political solution that is so desperately needed. Our position is clear and very well known to the Algerian government and others. At the same point there is not a shortcut, and peace cannot be imposed from outside. The only lasting solution is a UN process that enables the people who live in Western Sahara to reflect a meaningful choice about their future. Algeria’s voice is such a critical one in supporting the UN process, so I look forward to hearing from our Algerian friends about how they see the situation and how together we can create the circumstances for the UN process to move forward.
At the same time, this is a moment of incredible pressure across the Middle East region looking at the events in Israel and Gaza. It is urgent to address the humanitarian needs of Palestinians and ensure that civilians are protected. My government is making an intensive effort to prevent a broader regional conflict. Algeria has a critical voice in shaping that conversation. I look forward to hearing from our Algerian partners and hearing their perspective on the events in Gaza and the importance of creating a more durable post-conflict landscape
Question: What is the development in the position of the United States regarding the colonization of the Western Sahara by the Moroccans? Does the US recognize the self-determination of the Sahrawi people as the basis for a final political solution?
The United States wants to see a political solution for Western Sahara that is lasting and dignified. We are serious about using our influence to enable a successful UN political process. A UN-facilitated resolution is long overdue. Previous UN envoys tried many different paths forward, but unfortunately thus far those efforts have not been successful.
The UN Security Council is clear the process should reflect a spirit of realism and compromise about the circumstances on the ground right now.
In addition, military escalation is very dangerous, especially at this moment of great pressure across the region, with the events in Israel and Gaza and alarming attempts by Houthi groups to create a broader regional conflict. This only further underscores the danger of military escalation in Western Sahara.
So, we are focused on doing all we can including with our Algerian friends and partners to allow the UN process to succeed. As you also saw, Ambassador Aubin recently joined a United Nations donor visit to Tindouf to focus on the international humanitarian response. The United States is proud to be the largest contributor to the humanitarian response in Tindouf. The only solution to that humanitarian emergency is a political solution, and that is what we are trying to achieve.
Question: If the United States supports the Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary General Staffan de Mistura and his mission to organize a referendum, this contradicts supporting the Moroccan position, which the U.S. describes as credible and realistic. Has the United States changed its position?
I appreciate very much this important question. Let me explain with precision: the United States views Morocco’s Autonomy Proposal as serious, credible, and realistic, and one potential approach to satisfy the aspirations for the people of Western Sahara. Peace cannot be imposed by an outside actor. This is where the personal envoy Mr. De Mistura comes in, and how critically important the UN political process is to reach an enduring result. We need the personal envoy to succeed. So, I have returned to Algeria to have another round of consultations with our Algerian partners about practical steps for a successful UN political process.
Question: Algeria supports the Sahrawi people, but Algeria has been clear it is not part of the conflict and only self-determination can resolve the problem. Was the current return to armed conflict precipitated by a lack of support for the Sahrawi people’s self-determination?
Since the breakdown of the ceasefire in 2020, the return to military actions is extremely concerning and makes the environment even more complicated. My government is very concerned about military activities that take us further away from the political process.
Any targeting of civilians we consider to be completely unacceptable. So more than ever, there’s great urgency for a political process to prevent further unraveling. The United States is very focused on creating circumstances for the political process to finally yield movement.
Question: In effect there are two political solutions: independence or autonomy. Will you be speaking with Algerian partners about any possible third alternative solution?
Creativity, pragmatism, and realism are required. The same type of efforts that led to unsuccessful political processes in years past are not likely to yield results. That is why the Security Council has spoken very clearly about creating the spirit of realism and compromise, and the importance of all concerned expanding on their positions.
Question: And in relation to the Special Envoy of the United Nations Staffan de Mistura, what power can he have if MINURSO has not even entered the occupied territory because Morocco is preventing MINURSO from operating in this region?
In October, the UN Security Council made a strong statement of support for Mr. De Mistura and for his intensification of this political process. The United States holds the pen on the Western Sahara file in the United Nations Security Council, so it was important for us to see such a clear statement without any opposition on the Security Council. The Security Council in the October resolution also voiced crystal-clear support for MINURSO and the vital work the peacekeeping mission is undertaking. MINURSO in recent months has taken important steps under Special Representative Ivanko’s leadership to ensure it is able to sustain its sites and fulfill its mandate. From my perspective, every day MINURSO is making an important contribution.
Question: What is the U.S. position on Moroccan violations of human rights including detention and torture in the Western Sahara?
The United States views human rights as a fundamental element of national security. It is vitally important to us in relationships around the world to have a conversation about how important human rights are. On the Western Sahara issue, the question is what is going to take us closer to our goal of a successful UN political process that would create, after so much time, a solution that really is going to last.
Question: How do you see Algeria’s move to call on the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders to come to Algeria?
The Algerian government has in recent days hosted the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders to have an important and transparent series of conversations about where there needs to be progress. This is a key step. It is very important that Algeria is prepared to have those type of conversations to hear from the United Nations about where there has been progress, and frankly what needs more attention on the human rights front.
We have been fortunate to also have very good conversations about human rights between the United States and the Algerian government. We want to learn about the situation and provide our thoughts and assessments on what needs attention and what could create a stronger human rights landscape, including here in Algeria. One important aspect of that relates to the critical role of journalists because an informed citizenry is so critical.
As the United States, we bring a lot of humility to these conversations, also recognizing the human rights challenges in our own country. We have many things to work on. We are going to continue to have these conversations, about detention practices, freedom of expression, and the vital role that journalists play.
Question: Do you consider Algeria as a real friend and partner?
I absolutely consider Algeria a partner of the United States. We have an open dialogue about advancing regional security and prosperity on a lot of different files. In October, we hosted a strategic dialogue between the United States and Algeria for conversations from how we could support the Libyan people’s desire for elections, to addressing the considerable challenges of insecurity in the Sahel, including the reinstitution of constitutional governance in Niger. We also talked about intensifying our economic cooperation and working to establish a direct flight connection between Algeria and the United States. We have an active dialogue and extensive cooperation on security and countering terrorism. This week in Washington we have had an Algerian delegation for a joint military dialogue at the Pentagon.
A real partnership is based on honest perspectives. We hear from Algeria about its insights and benefit from them. It is not to say that we always agree. I would also say there are urgent issues now since October 7 in Israel and Gaza, which is also an important part of our conversation with Algeria. There is a lot of convergence on urgency in addressing the humanitarian situation in Gaza, ensuring that critically needed food, medicine, water, and fuel makes it to Palestinians who are suffering greatly. Also, there is convergence on the urgency of political next steps to look at the post-conflict environment, like the practical steps necessary to achieve a Palestinian state, real circumstances where Palestinians and Israelis are able to live together with equal measures of security, freedom, and prosperity.
Finally, I will say we are so appreciative of the work Ambassador Aubin and our team here at the embassy in Algeria are doing every day to have these conversations to enable us to understand Algeria’s perspective on all these files and to take our countries down the path of ever closer cooperation.
Question: Does the United States support the status quo in the region, both in Western Sahara and in the Palestinian conflict? The autonomy plan is already de facto established in Western Sahara. The U.S. expresses support for a two-state solution for the Palestinian conflict, but you never denounced the massacres perpetrated by the Israelis. The urgency is really to stop the conflict, not to organize the distribution of humanitarian aid to the Gazan people.
Secretary Blinken has made numerous trips to the region since October 7. At every level of my government, up to President Biden, we are having constant communication with the Israelis, making very clear that how Israel conducts itself matters very deeply. That means ensuring civilians are protected and ensuring there is not further forced displacement of Palestinians from their homes.
My government has had a number of conversations with partners across the region about some basic principles, that the future of Palestinians must be at home, in Gaza and in the West Bank. Beyond the current conflict, there cannot be occupation. At the same point, there cannot be a circumstance where terrorist attacks against Israel such as we saw on October 7 are allowed to happen again.
Another important principle for us is that a revitalized Palestinian Authority has an absolutely vital role to play in the West Bank and Gaza.
Question: Why does the United States allow Israel to kill? Why does it finance the war against Gaza, with 20,000 deaths, including thousands of children and women?
I want to assure you we are grieving for every lost life. The loss of life that we are seeing is horrific. I am an American diplomat, and I am also a father, a brother, and a son, like you. On a human level, the violence and loss of life we are seeing is tragic and horrific. We are grieving for that, and we are grieving for the Palestinian lives that have been cut short, absolutely.
We are making very clear that Israel has not just a right, but an obligation to defend itself in the face of terrorism. But how the campaign is conducted matters very much. We have been clear there need to be meaningful steps to ensure that civilians are protected. Palestinian civilians are not to blame for the horrific actions of October 7. Civilians must be protected. There cannot be displacement, the forcing of civilians from their homes.
Question: The U.S. released anti-Russian propaganda as part of the war against Ukraine, but when it comes to the Palestinians who die in the hundreds every day, nothing happens. Why don’t you use the same words about Israel that you use about Russia?
There needs to be very practical steps to implement a two-state solution, with Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace and freedom.
This is part of the reason I came today, to have a conversation with our Algerian partners and to hear Algeria’s views on how we look beyond the end of this current conflict toward our shared goal of enabling the creation of a Palestinian state.
I also very much agree with you about how alarming the violence is. With respect to the violence in the West Bank, just a few days ago, Secretary Blinken announced steps in response to the completely unacceptable violence there. There needs to be accountability for extremist settler terrorism in the West Bank. My government has taken actions to restrict eligibility for U.S. visas as one practical step against the alarming cycle of violence.
Question: You were here in September, and this is your second visit. 15 days ago, your colleague Todd Robinson came to Algeria. CIA Director William Burns had a call with General Chengriha in September. In August, Attaf met in Washington with Antony Blinken and yesterday they finished a Joint Military Dialogue with a round table with the defense industry. Does this mean the US has finally decided to sell defense equipment to Algeria? Has there been an intensification of the relationship between the United States and Algeria? Has the United States sensed that Russia is withdrawing from its previous position and wanted to approach Algeria because of its regional leadership?
We are taking many steps together to expand the conversations between Algeria and the United States. We were very pleased to welcome Foreign Minister Attaf to Washington in August, for a positive meeting with Secretary Blinken. We had a strategic dialogue. This is an important relationship to us and there is a lot to talk about. For example, what we are talking about today. The critical importance of moving forward on Western Sahara and the UN process. Addressing the urgency of the situation in Israel and Gaza. The instability challenges in the Sahel and Niger, for example.
We are approaching this dialogue from a place of deep respect for Algeria’s sovereignty. Like any country, Algeria will make its own decisions about the kind of relations it wants, including with the United States.
A country like Algeria, a partner of the United States, has a range of choices about the kinds of relations it wants to have. Politically, in the energy sector, with regards to defense cooperation. You mentioned the defense industry: it is important that Algeria has choices. We are very open to hearing from Algeria about what Algeria needs for its national defense. We are very prepared to have a conversation between our militaries. If U.S. industry could be part of the answer to ensure Algeria has what it needs to defend itself, of course we want to be part of that conversation.
What the United States is offering is compelling in terms, like our economic, commercial, and energy sector cooperation, where we are taking important steps together. There is significant commercial cooperation between Air Algerie and Boeing. Algeria is going to make its own decisions about what is in the Algerian interest.
Question: There is a proposition to create a land passage between the UAE and Saudi Arabia and Jordan to Jaffa. An Israeli newspaper conveyed this. Can you confirm this?
Across the region right now we see two fundamentally different visions laid out. One of those visions is the path of closer integration, greater economic cooperation, including through trade and investment and infrastructure. Unfortunately, the other vision is one of disorder and manipulation by outside actors that are trying to ignite chaos. Obviously, the details matter a lot, and the details are complicated. There is a basic choice on what path the region wants to be on in this environment. I think the path of integration and closer cooperation is still a very important and compelling one.
Question: Could you confirm the creation of a joint power to protect ships in the Red Sea from Houthi attacks?
Especially since October 7, we are seeing some actors in the region try to take advantage of the current situation to create a broader regional conflict. Including what Iran is doing through proxy groups around the region.
The actions the United States has taken have been, in our view, very measured. We are not seeking escalation. At the same point, we are going to defend ourselves.
We are focused on trying to prevent a broader regional conflict.
Question: How do you see the future of U.S.-Algerian relations?
We are serious about further developing this relationship, as Ambassador Aubin and the team here in Embassy Algiers are doing every day to make that specific and real and concrete. There is a tremendous amount we need to talk about. We will not be shy about sharing the U.S. perspective, just as we expect our Algerian friends to be honest and direct with us.