8 July 2014

Tunisia: 'Tunisian Spring' Continues, but Challenges Remain

opinion

The launch of the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) last month marks a turning point in Tunisia's transition -- a groundbreaking step toward justice in a country that has experienced many human rights abuses, particularly during the reign of its last dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Headed by Chairwoman, Sihem Ben Sedrine, the TDC is a critically important example to the region at large -- a region that very much needs an example of a successful transitional justice framework.

Tunisia has faced many challenges since the launch of the National Dialogue on Transitional Justice two years ago, including political assassinations that rocked the process as well as a number of political blockages. Yet the Tunisian people came through a complex and challenging process and achieved important results -- results that can provide the foundation to confront a long legacy of human rights abuses and pave the way towards a democratic transition built on the rule of law and trust between citizens and the state.

The adoption of the Organic Law Establishing and Organizing Transitional Justice has followed an integrated approach to justice in dealing with the past that employs a combination of the various mechanisms that underpin the transitional justice process, while also recognizing victims and their rights as the cornerstone of that process. While it is an ambitious law, it has pulled from a variety of experiences and approaches and, therefore, will greatly improve the chances that Tunisia's democratic transition takes root.

One of the key elements that informed Tunisia's approach has been a broad and inclusive consultation process. The importance of a thorough consultation process was recognized from the beginning. The consultations were not just held in Tunis, with the elites, but were carried out in the furthest reaches of the country -- in both urban and rural areas, with all groups, particularly victims from every spectrum of society. The Transitional Justice Law that emerged from this consultative process, and the important work of a technical committee that drafted the law, establishes an important benchmark for others in the region and beyond.

However, as Tunisia looks to the future, there are a number of challenges ahead. Adopting a law is not enough -- the challenge is implementing it. There may well be additional political shocks and setbacks, as were experienced during the last three years.

On a more technical level, the TDC has within in its mandate over 50 years of gross human rights violations. This is a complex task, and the commissioners will face many challenges. To fulfill its mission, the TDC must work with transparency and independence, putting in place proper procedures for its work and ensuring that the needs and voices of victims are both heard and addressed. It is critical that the TDC engage all sectors and regions of Tunisia and, at the same time, be supported and strengthened by relevant stakeholders, including governmental agencies and political authorities.

History demonstrates that no truth commission has succeeded without working closely with civil society organizations and victims' groups of varying ideologies and positions. While playing their traditional role of watchdogs in monitoring the process and preventing the TDC from deviating from its mandate, civil society organizations are critical to advocating for truth and providing relevant information to the commission. The role of civil society will be to uncover and expose the truth of what happened in the past and to assist the TDC in its important work. Civil society also has a number of criticisms and issues with the approach taken by the authorities, and the authorities need to address these with transparency and efficiency.

One of the TDC's critical roles and responsibilities is to communicate its work to the public, thereby ensuring that victims' right to the truth and the state's obligation to provide the truth are met. To achieve these important obligations, an outreach strategy is crucial to transmitting both this message and its findings to the public at large. These outreach efforts must go beyond perfunctory measures, like press releases, and instead generate impact by engaging victims and the public through a robust outreach and communications strategy. Such a strategy should be established and funded at the outset and should foresee and incorporate the important role that media can play in supporting the TDC and creating national ownership of this historic process. Indeed, journalists will play a crucial role in shaping social change and encouraging the engagement of citizens through objective and informed coverage of transitional justice issues and topics, allowing citizens to understand the process and make their own judgments regarding the commission's work.

ICTJ's experience has shown, in every conceivable context, that the active participation of women is an essential and profoundly important element for the success of a truth commission and other transitional justice measures. Tunisia's law ensures the participation of women from across society. In support of this principle, five members of the TDC are women and gender issues have been addressed with the requirement that the TDC suggest measures that ensure the protection of women's rights, including respect for privacy during hearings. Moreover, the commission is to take into consideration the impact of human rights violations that have a gender dimension.

As the TDC commences its work, it will work in tandem with other transitional justice institutions that have been designed and will be established in due course. Chief among these are specialized Human Rights Chambers, which are charged with judicially examining abuses. It is indeed important that the chambers be supported and do their work properly, to ensure that those most responsible for serious human rights abuses are held judicially accountable. It is worth stressing that the TDC's important work does not replace criminal accountability. In addition, a robust approach to reparations and institutional reforms is key to addressing the abuses of the past and the state's failure to protect its citizens.

Above all, coordination, consensus, dialogue, and public participation in all processes will be a crucial element for the success of this challenging path.

Should Tunisia successfully move its process forward, taking into account the rights of victims, it will become a model for the rest of the region and the world at large.

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