Secretary of State Colin Powell Tuesday begins a visit to three North African countries, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. U.S. officials say he intends to encourage political reform in keeping with President Bush's speech last month advocating democracy and human rights in the region.
It will be Mr. Powell's first visit to Arab countries since the president's November 6 address challenging Middle Eastern states to begin embracing democracy and officials here say the issue of political reform will be on the agenda along with combating terrorism and promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
The secretary is due in Tunis Tuesday afternoon after briefly taking part in a ministerial meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, in Maastricht in the Netherlands.
He'll meet Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, among others, before flying on to Morocco in the evening. He will confer with Morocco's King Mohammed in Marrakech Wednesday before completing the brief North African swing in Algiers and talks with Prime Minister Abdelaziz Bouteflika later in the day.
In advance of the Powell mission, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch appealed in a letter to the secretary of state to make the promotion of Middle East democracy and human rights a major theme of the trip. At a news briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Mr. Powell will be pressing the issue of political reform.
"Part of the secretary's agenda in North Africa," he said, "is to do what we can to encourage the process of opening up, to encourage the process of democratization, which is underway in each of these places in different ways, in a positive sense through our Middle East Partnership Initiative and the efforts that we already have underway on the ground with journalists, politicians or other civil groups that are forming. But also in terms of encouraging specific action on human rights, where that's appropriate."
In the letter to the secretary made available to reporters, Human Rights Watch said the Powell visit would be an early indicator of how the Bush administration intends to further the principles of the president's speech. It urged Mr. Powell to "frankly" address human rights problems in each of the three countries, and to make clear that the fight against terrorism "must not be waged at the expense of human rights."
Human Rights Watch Middle East research officer Eric Goldstein told VOA that despite recent progress toward reform there are "notable deficits" in human rights conditions in each of the three countries Mr. Powell will visit.
"In Tunisia, there's been substantial progress in eradicating poverty and illiteracy," he said. "But in the realm of political and civil rights, there's virtually no room to dissent. Human rights activists, lawyers, suspected political activists are all at risk of being imprisoned, having their passports confiscated, they're followed. There's very little freedom of expression in Tunisia. In Morocco, things are different. There's more room for people to speak their minds, more opposition newspapers, independent reporting. But especially since 9/11, and then the odious terrorist attacks in Morocco in May of this year, there's been a number of cases of suspicious deaths and detention, people who've disappeared after being arrested."
The Human Rights Watch official said while political violence in Algeria has abated after a decade-long terror campaign by Islamic militants, the "legacy" of the civil conflict needs to be dealt with, including resolving the fate of thousands of people who disappeared after being taken away by security forces.
In its letter, the group urged Mr. Powell to press Algerian authorities to greatly enhance the powers of the special commission set up by President Bouteflika in September to probe cases of disappearance, so that it can obtain the "credible and specific information" that it says has long been denied to the families of the missing.