Truth and Dignity Commission public hearing in 2017 (photo from the Truth and Dignity Commission official website)

An Uphill Battle: The Truth and Dignity Report and Transitional Justice in Tunisia

08/21/2019 . By Nada Ahmed

The death of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi in July of this year and the prospect of elections in the fall leave the question open about what, if anything, will be done in the sphere of transitional justice. On March 26, the Truth and Dignity Commission in Tunisia made public a 2,000-page report that closes nearly five years of investigations looking into years of human rights abuses committed by Tunisian authorities. The report includes the commission’s main findings, identifies suspected perpetrators, and makes recommendations to prevent the repetition of these grave violations. During its tenure, the commission, known by its French acronym IVD, organized 47,000 private hearings, which led to over 57,000 files being opened. The IVD referred 174 cases to the Specialized Criminal Chambers, and 30 trials are currently underway. The focus of the IVD’s mandate was to record the truth, and, to a certain extent, the report managed to identify the violations that were committed over the past 60 years. For the victims’ statements to be made public and recorded in an official report is a public acknowledgment of their suffering. With some measure of truth-seeking being achieved, the door may now be open for national reconciliation.

While these steps represent significant accomplishments, now that the full report has been released, further measures must be taken by all parties to implement the recommendations, guarantee the non-repetition of abuses, and redress the victims. The follow-up will constitute a real challenge, especially as many of the primary and responsible state institutions failed to cooperate with the IVD over the past few years of its work. In fact, in December 2018, the IVD held a conference marking the end of its mandate and announcing its major findings. Notably absent were representatives of official institutions who had been the reason why the publication of the final report had been delayed for several months.

The Truth and Dignity Commission Report: Main Findings and Recommendations

According to the findings of the IVD, the regime controlled political life under former presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali by entwining the ruling party with state institutions. The regime further controlled its citizens through censorship in the media and surveillance in school and university institutions, in local committees, and in professional associations. The interior ministry went so far as to create a taxi company in which drivers were used as informants. Prisons were used to oppress dissidents, often accompanied by ill-treatment and torture. As stated in the report, “Investigations by the commission have proved that torture was systematic and planned by senior officials in security affairs who ordered, incited, accepted and kept silent on the torture of victims in the course of their duties.” The IVD also received over 17,000 complaints regarding the misuse of public funds and corruption by Tunisian authorities. Violations committed against women and children both under Bourguiba and Ben Ali were documented as well. In closing, the report contained numerous recommendations implicating judicial independence, civilian oversight of security and intelligence bodies, reparations for victims, and acts of contrition by officials.

In December 2018, international organizations like the World Organization Against Torture, Lawyers Without Borders, the International Federation for Human Rights, the International Commission of Jurists, and local entities like al-Bawsala, El Karama, Daam Center, and the Dignity and Rehabilitation Coalition expressed their concerns over the absence of any official representation during the press conference marking the end of the IVD’s mandate. The press release urged the government to put into action the recommendations of the final report and the parliament to monitor this implementation. Thereafter, in April 2019, the Coalition for Transitional Justice—composed of the aforementioned international and some additional national organizations—highlighted the need for a complete action plan from the government that considers transitional justice as a top-priority of the upcoming transitional phase.

What comes next?

Sihem Ben Sedrine, the chair of the IVD, has previously stated, “We are giving the tools with this report so that there are no more excuses not to act or not to start reforms…The integrity of the Tunisian state is at stake. It is really important that those violations do not repeat themselves.” What comes after the publication of the report will be instructive in determining whether the Jasmine revolution changed the core foundation of an authoritarian regime to create a democratic one.

According to Article 70 of the Transitional Justice Law (which was passed by the Constituent Assembly, a forerunner to the current parliament, in 2013), the government must draft a plan to implement the IVD’s recommendations, and parliament must approve such a plan within one year of the publication of the commission’s report. But Youssef Chahed—the prime minister and head of government—has not at all been supportive of the IVD’s work, describing it as a “failure of transitional justice.” Former president Essebsi, who has only recently passed, faced allegations of torture in the report; when he was still alive, he also advocated for an amnesty law for economic crimes committed by officials and old regime businessmen, contradicting the very essence of the IVD’s mandate to investigate, document, and refer to court abuses committed under past presidents. Nidaa Tounes—the party founded by Essebsi—constantly criticized the IVD’s work, which is not surprising as many members of the old regime have made the party their new political home. Ennahda, the Islamist party which is the second-largest in parliament, offered the IVD their rhetorical support, but did not always cooperate with their investigations.

The commission’s work has been hampered not only by the executive and legislative bodies but by security agencies and old-regime businessmen who fear punishment and still have ongoing interests. For example, police unions deterred police personnel from attending audiences held by the IVD and the specialized chambers and attempted to delegitimize the process. During the documentation phase, the police also prevented the commission from searching the presidential palace for government archives.

With new presidential and parliamentary elections coming up by the end of 2019, the transitional justice process is at stake. The next step as outlined by the state is to guarantee that the abuses documented and made public do not happen again. The role of civil society and Tunisian citizens will be crucial in ensuring that transitional justice remains a priority.

By far, the IVD report is a milestone not only for the transitional justice process in Tunisia but in the entire region. In worst-case scenarios where specialized institutions like the government and parliament fail to cooperate, the IVD report remains an absolutely necessary piece of history which documents more than sixty years of human rights abuses by a regime that used all of its tools not to provide citizens with the rights that they deserve, but instead, consolidated and abused control at their expense.