Tunisia: ICTJ Program Report - Tunisia

Photo: La Presse
A case of torture in Tunisia (file photo).

Since the uprising that sparked the "Arab Spring," Tunisians have demonstrated unwavering commitment to transitional justice. Before its revolution in 2011, Tunisia was under the rule of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who took power in 1987, and whose government kept power through oppressive security policies designed to quell opposition: according to information to date, over 10,000 people were arbitrarily detained during his rule.

Several weeks of protests starting in December 2010 ended with Ben Ali's overthrow in January 2011, when he fled the country. Tunisia's first democratic and transparent elections were held on October 23, 2011, and a new constitution was adopted in January 2014. In December 2013, Tunis passed a groundbreaking Transitional Justice Law, which outlines a holistic approach to ensuring truth and justice for the past abuses, and deals with prosecutions, reparations, and institutional reform. The Law also established the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC), a body created to investigate gross human rights violations that have occurred in the country since 1955, which will be formally launched by President Marzouki next week.

In this ICTJ Program Report, we talk with Rim El Gantri, Head of Office for ICTJ's Tunisia Program, about this dynamic time of change in post-revolution Tunisia. Ahead of the launch of the TDC, El Gantri explains how the country is preparing to face the truth and seek justice for a past of economic marginalization, targeted violence and political oppression.

From the time of the fall of Ben Ali's regime in 2011, the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly (NCA), the Ministry for Human Rights and transitional justice and civil society organizations worked together to pass the groundbreaking and historic Transitional Justice Law, which sets out a comprehensive plan to address a legacy of past human rights abuses. What kind of transitional justice mechanisms are developing in the country, and what has been ICTJ's role?

The revolution of January 14, 2011 signified the will of the Tunisian people to end 23 years of oppression and dictatorship. This will was combined with a desire not only to deal with the past, to know the truth, and to heal victims of the previous regime, but to also ensure there was accountability for abuses committed by the regime.

After the revolution, two fact finding committees were created: the National Fact-Finding Committee on Abuses committed in recent events (since 17 December 2010), the National Committee to Investigate Cases of Corruption and Embezzlement, as well as a National Committee for the Recovery of Misappropriated Assets Abroad.

Several lawsuits have also been filed before the courts against those involved in corruption and bribery, as well as human rights violations related to the revolution. Pardons were granted to those who had been arrested by the former regime and had been detained for alleged subversive activities including belonging to political associations, protesting, etc. Limited reparations were given to victims of the dictatorship, including martyrs and wounded of the revolution. Additionally, several international treaties for the protection of human rights were ratified.

Despite these steps, it was obvious that the country needed a set of transitional justice mechanisms from truth seeking to institutional reform. But at that time, the concept of transitional justice was little known and was considered an elite topic.

ICTJ was one of the first organizations to organize a conference to introduce the concept of transitional justice in April 2011, hosted in cooperation with Open Society Foundations, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Arab Institute for Human Rights, and the Tunisian League of Defense of Human Rights.

ICTJ went on supporting civil society organizations (CSOs) in their efforts to initiate a transitional justice process, providing guidance and expertise as these groups arranged lobbying and other actions which sought to catalyze political will in favor of an official transitional justice process. Prior to the creation of the Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice, several local CSOs proposed draft laws expressing their vision of how this should happen.

ICTJ participated in several consultations between CSOs and the Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice when it was created in January 2012. They decided to launch a national consultation on transitional justice in order to have a common vision that would incorporate input from victims and human rights activists and reflect their needs. The Tunisian government supported the participatory approach, and the first draft law was presented to the Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice in late October 2012.

In December 2013, the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly voted almost unanimously to pass the Transitional Justice Law, a historic development for the region as well as for Tunisia's transition to a democratic society. Why was the law created, and what does it regulate?

The drafters of Tunisia's temporary constitution--deputies of the National Constituent Assembly-- drafted the temporary constitution right after the October 2011 elections. As a result of the sensitization and lobbying efforts by civil society organizations, they were aware of the importance of transitional justice as a tool that would help society deal with Tunisia's past. In fact, Article 24 of that constitution stipulated that the NCA "shall enact an organic law regulating transitional justice, its foundations, and its area of competence." Thus, there was an obligation to enact a law charting a transitional justice process in Tunisia.

Meanwhile, it was obvious that the ad hoc measures taken right after the revolution--including fact finding committees, and efforts to provide reparations for the martyrs and wounded--did not fully respond to the needs or rights of victims or other citizens. The need for a comprehensive approach to transitional justice became even more pronounced after Tunisia's national dialogue, discussions that revealed the extent to which Tunisians wanted the truth told about the past, accountability for perpetrators, reparations for victims, and the reform of the country's institutions, particularly the judiciary.

As a result of extensive consultations across the country, Tunisia's Transitional Justice Law was ambitious: the law envisaged the creation of a truth commission, a reparations fund and a vetting committee, as well special chambers to investigate and prosecute cases of alleged human rights violations.

One particularly important aspect of the law is that in addition to dealing with human rights violations that are abuses of civil and political rights, it also addresses violations of economic and social rights, which were always at the root of our revolution.

During this time, ICTJ was in the country and provided counsel to those seeking to establish the right combination of transitional justice measures. In its role as part of the support committee to the technical committee, ICTJ advocated for the country to enact an integrated approach to transitional justice. One of the points we emphasized was that a truth commission alone would not be enough: accountability, reparations and the reform of institutions would be essential to see Tunisia's transition through.

As you mentioned, the Transitional Justice Law created the Truth and Dignity Commission, which is expected to be a participatory process gathering testimonies of citizens across the country. Recently, the names of the commissioners were announced, and next week it will be formally launched. What does this truth commission set out to do, and how can ICTJ support this effort?

The Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) will investigate gross and systematic human rights violations committed by the State, or by groups or individuals who acted in State's name or under its protection. These investigations are conducted in order to reveal the truth during period starting from July 1st 1955 until the issuance of the law.

The commission is an independent body with a four year term that can be renewed once for up to one year, and may work anywhere in the territory. Although Tunisians believe they have a basic idea about what happened during more than 50 years of despotism, there is still a thirst or a desire to know what happened exactly and why it happened, to have an idea about the hidden perpetrators and mechanisms of oppression.

The process of the selection of commissioners followed the promulgation of the law. A committee of selection was created within the National Constituent Assembly and a call for nominations was published in January 2014. The names of the commissioners were announced in early May.

ICTJ continues to play an active role in this process. We prepared a memo on the selection of commissioners and the best practices based on comparative experiences. We also provided the deputies with a communication strategy, which underscored the importance of involvement and the sense of ownership of the process by all Tunisians. We hope that the TDC will be empowered to fulfill the expectations of the Tunisian people, and ICTJ will continue to support the TDC by providing technical assistance and expertise through lessons learned from our fieldwork in other countries.

Part of the new transitional justice law creates a reparations fund a "Fund for Dignity and Rehabilitation of Victims of Tyranny." Are there any ongoing reparations programs currently active in Tunisia, and if so, who is eligible?

Since the revolution, several ad hoc reparations measures have been implemented. Compensation was granted to beneficiaries of the general amnesty (political prisoners of Ben Ali regime) and to the families of the martyrs and the wounded of the revolution. Besides pecuniary compensations, other measures were taken such as free medical services, free transportation services and monthly pensions to the wounded and relatives of the martyrs of the revolution.

However, these measures did not respond to the demands of all victims of the dictatorship, because one must prove they are a victim to receive these benefits. This created unequal access to these benefits, as some people who were arrested and tortured have no evidence. The process has also been criticized because many think that the compensation is not proportional to the harm suffered by victims.

That's why a comprehensive policy of reparations is needed and that's why a reparations fund was created by the Transitional Justice Law. This means that an evaluation of what has been implemented so far is needed in order to provide the victims with more appropriate solutions. ICTJ is initiating a discussion on collective reparations as a response to marginalization in Tunisia. As most already know, several regions in Tunisia were intentionally marginalized and oppressed, and these regions were the first to spark the flame of the revolution and to demand their economic and social rights.

Violations against women are at the core of many issues that will be addressed by the Truth and Dignity Commission. The new Transitional Justice Law acknowledges that women were--and still are--particularly vulnerable to abuses and takes specific measures to address their needs. Meanwhile, it is imperative that women also are able to partake in political roles in order to ensure that their voices are heard in a process that is male-dominated. Can you explain how the new Law ensures protects the rights of women and plays an active role in the truth and reconciliation process?

As you say, according to the law, in the effort to reveal the truth, the TDC must consider the specific experiences of and violations against the most marginalized in society: the elderly, women, children, those with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups.

According to the law, the commissioners of the TDC must include representation of each gender by at least one third, meaning that at least 5 of the members (if not more) had to be women. This measure is in favor of women's representation and in compliance with Tunisia's new constitution based on the principles of equality and parity. This measure will help to ensure that women's voices will be heard, and will be an incentive for female victims to speak out.

However, ICTJ believes that ensuring women rights through identification as a vulnerable group is not enough. Women in Tunisia suffered from particular kinds of violence, abuse and marginalization that was directed towards them because they were women, including torture, sexual violence, and rape. Also exclusion of women from civil and political life severely impacted their economic situation, as they were prohibited from work and educational opportunities because of their religious convictions.

Much work needs to be done in order to deal with the impact of the past abuses on women. To ensure active participation of women and activists for women's rights, ICTJ has offered capacity-building activities to make sure this new process is not without monitors and watchdogs. We consider women's representation in the TDC as a positive first step.

After the revolution, former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country. Today, he remains in hiding in Saudi Arabia. In a trial in absentia, Tunisia's Le Kef Permanent Military Tribunal sentenced Ben Ali to life in prison for complicity in murder. What kind of efforts exist in the country to ensure accountability for the members of the ousted regime? Has ICTJ engaged on issues of criminal justice?

By the time of the dawn of the revolution, several lawsuits had already been filed before the military tribunals for the crimes committed during the revolution, and the civilian courts for the crimes of corruption.

After the revolution however, victims of the previous regime who had suffered harms such as torture, or unlawful imprisonment have waited for the Transitional Justice Law to be passed before they approached the courts. The law provides for the establishment of specialized chambers that would be entrusted to adjudicate cases related to gross violations of human rights as specified in international agreements ratified by Tunisia.

I should also mention that during the sessions we held in the National Constituent Assembly, ICTJ strongly urged the deputies not to hand over jurisdiction for cases involving severe human rights violations to military tribunals , reminding the authorities that such cases should be dealt through civilian criminal jurisdiction.

A committee of reflection about these chambers was created in within the Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice and ICTJ will provide technical assistance to the members of this committee through our experts in criminal justice.

We remember that the Tunisian revolution was sparked by a young man, Mohamed Bouazizi, who took his own life as an act of protest against police injustice and the economic depravity faced by his community. In what ways do you think the transition process has benefited from the active role young people have played both prior to and since the fall of Ben Ali's regime? How can Tunisia continue to engage the youth through the transitional justice mechanisms that will be implemented and in what way can the ICTJ assist in this process?

Tunisian youth played a huge role prior to and since the fall of Ben Ali. In fact, Tunisian young people helped spark the revolution, and helped to see it through, especially in their use of social media, most notably of Facebook. They were the first groups of people to take to the streets to claim freedom from the old regime and demand that the country take a new direction. The country saw that what the Tunisian elite and opponents of the regime could not achieve during prior decades was achieved by young people. These active young people played also a role right after the revolution--not only for the establishment of a National Constituent Assembly, but also for the organization of the first free and democratic elections in Tunisia.

Youth still monitor the process of democratic transition through their activism in civil society organizations, but also via social media and blogs. We expect that their active role will continue as the country embarks on concrete transitional mechanisms.

I think that transitional justice as a whole is still a discussion that is limited to people of a certain age. However if you look deeply into Tunisian society, you will find youth demanding truth regarding what happened in the past, accountability for the crimes that took place during the revolution and before, condemning impunity, and asking for the reform of the country's institutions. In other words, they are talking about transitional justice.

ICTJ, through its activities in Tunisia, is currently working on an analysis how the country's new transitional justice efforts can reach out to engage youth in their work.

Looking ahead, how will ICTJ be working in the country in the future?

ICTJ will continue to support stakeholders in the Tunisia's efforts to address its past of repression. We will advocate for an integrated and participatory process with a focus on the TDC as that institution begins its work.

Next week in Tunis the TDC will be formally launched, and ICTJ will be there as an independent expert organization in order to provide training sessions for the commissioners. The TDC will have six months to prepare its bylaws, so we are preparing our assistance to the Commission during this technical and critical phase.

We will also support civil society organizations to ensure that they can be real watchdogs of the process. We are in the process of organizing work around the specialized chambers and will continue to prioritize building relationships with local media as the transitional justice process unfolds.

Photos, from top: A French protest in support of Mohamed Bouazizi, "Hero of Tunisia" 15 January 2011 (/ANW/Flicrk); A simulation of vote was held in a school of Tunis with the aim of monitoring and verifying the mechanism of vote that will take place on October 23rd 2011. (European Parliament/Flickr); Tunisians take part in a protest calling the former ruling party the Constitutional Democratic Rally to withdraw from the newly formed interim government in Tunis, Tunisia, 19 January 2011. (Naser Nouri/Flickr); A woman is seen in front of the building where Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor, set himself on fire to protest harassment by local officials in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Dec. 13, 2011. (DAVID MONTELEONE/VII); Scene in the Medina, 2007 (Vittoria Sciosia, Flickr); Family members of those killed during the 2011 Tunisian Revolution (portraits), shout slogans during a gathering on April 16, 2014, in front to National Constituent Assembly in the capital Tunis to protest against lenient verdicts by a military court against former officials of the regime of Ben Ali in the case of protesters killed and injured during the revolution. (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images); Tunisian hip-hop group Armada Bizerta perform live at the concert 'Africa Celebrates Democracy' Tunis, Tunisia, November 2011 (Mo Ibrahim Foundation/Flickr); Tunisians commemorate revolution anniversary, 2014 (Magharebia/Flickr);

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