Tunisia’s Perilous, Unresolved Transition

Sihem Bensedrine, the head of the Tunisian Dignity and Truth Commission, at a discussion of Geneva Peace Talks in September 2017 (photo via U.N. Geneva on Flickr)

04-06-2018

Tunisia has recently witnessed the establishment of some long-awaited measures for transitional justice mainly related to the creation of specialized judicial chambers, seven years after the Tunisian revolution. However, the current political context is hostile toward the process, and recent setbacks are threatening any possibility for substantial progress in Tunisia’s transitional justice. Shortly after the Truth and Dignity Commission’s decision to extend its mandate, which should be in effect until December 2018 per the transitional justice law, the commission submitted its first-ever complaint in the Gabes First Instance Tribunal before the newly established specialized chambers. The file is related to torture crimes and forced disappearances committed under the former regime.

Transitional Justice Remains Flawed

Established nearly three years after the Tunisian revolution, the commission—whose mandate covers violations committed between 1955 and December 2013­—has played a fundamental role in restoring the collective memory of a country that suffered for decades from a long history of repression, systemic corruption, and torture. Indeed, the first series of live public hearings of the victims and their families in 2016 marked a historical moment that shaped Tunisia’s unique transitional justice narrative. However, in the absence of functional accountability mechanisms and with a political will slowly sliding back to the old ways, Tunisia’s transitional justice process, like its fragile democracy model, remains at great risk.

By voting last week against the extension of the Truth and Dignity Commission’s mandate, the parliament voiced its demand to blatantly abort the transitional justice process, one of the most valuable achievements of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution. While the legitimacy of the parliament’s vote in deciding the commission’s fate remains vague in Tunisian jurisdiction, it is a clear indicator of the current political will to end the process without any accountability.

President Beji Caid Essebsi’s consistent hostility toward transitional justice puts the whole process in jeopardy, as revealed publicly on numerous occasions, including in an interview in March 2015 to Paris Match, declaring, “We need to stop the settling of scores with the past.” In 2017, the adoption of his proposal of an economic reconciliation—the first law he proposed since he came into office—is another indicator of a political will determined to impede transitional justice.

The reconciliation law, which grants amnesty to those involved in state corruption, is not only a major setback for Tunisia’s commitment to accountability for the past crimes committed by the former regime, but is also feeding the mounting frustration and lack of trust in the state’s institutions experienced by Tunisians in general who are already fed up with the status quo. Tunisia’s inclusion by the European Union on the black list of countries with high risk of money laundering and financing terrorism, and the country’s classification as 42nd on an index by Transparency International measuring corruption in the public sector, showing that little progress has been made in recent years, are alarming figures that indicate a necessity for urgent action and a greater problem of governance.

An Environment of Impunity

With less than one year of its mandate remaining, the Truth and Dignity Commission—known by its French initials, IVD—is tasked with investigating more than 62,000 files received since its creation, which makes it almost impossible for the commission to complete its work within the time period of its mandate. The egregious delay in establishing the specialized chambers, a crucial component of transitional justice, puts into question whether these judicial bodies will be of any use in prosecuting cases of gross human rights violations in the coming period. The chambers, which as of now have not been fully set up, will examine files submitted by the Truth and Dignity Commission. To date, the commission had sent only one file to the chambers.

In addition to technical hurdles, the commission is seen as highly “controversial” by media, nongovernmental organizations, and even victims of human rights violations who submitted to it their files, hoping it would lead to some form if accountability. Civil society organizations criticized its lack of transparency regarding its scope of work and limited collaboration. The commission was not immune from protests and criticism of its primary audience: the victims. In late February, scores of protesters demonstrated before the Truth and Dignity Commission, asking for its progress on their cases in a campaign called What About My Case. Demonstrators criticized the head of the commission for her allegedly selective treatment in dealing with the cases and the slow progress made on their files, and called for electing new members of its council to replace those who resigned.

Systemic corruption and human rights abuses constitute a wide portion of the violations committed by the former regime, yet the current government has shown little evidence of efforts to make sure these practices will not happen again and reportedly hampered the work of the commission because of its lack of cooperation. Ironically, the recent laws the government had proposed institutionalize corruption and create a general atmosphere of impunity in the country. In addition to the Administrative Amnesty Law, authorities have also introduced a security bill to the parliament, which, if adopted, will grant immunity from legal pursuit of police officers in cases of unnecessary use of lethal force and would criminalize criticism of police conduct. With these kinds of laws undermining accountability, it has become clear that the fight against impunity has reached a critical stage in Tunisia to the point that it is being questioned whether there is any intention for the country to break from the old practices of the past.

A Shift from the Revolution’s Values

It was no coincidence that the word “dignity” was of great symbolic significance in choosing the name of the transitional justice commission—a deliberate reference to the 2011 revolution’s frantic call for economic rights, employment, and liberation. Despite wavering efforts to fight systemic corruption, the revolution brought some freedom of expression and further human rights gains. However, in this process, Tunisia lagged behind on socioeconomic rights.

The recent anti-austerity protests are a wakeup call that signals a flawed transition marred with prolonged frustration and economic hardship. Throughout January, a large wave of protesters rallied in more than 20 towns and cities across the country against recent increases in taxes and rises in the prices of a wide range of goods and services. Hundreds of protesters ended up being arrested when violence erupted with the police.

In an environment characterized by a lack of political will to prioritize transitional justice, an economic crisis, and a striking absence of clear political vision, Tunisia’s unique status widely seen as the Arab world’s most promising democracy is at stake. Tunisia must raise the bar higher and tackle the real objectives of the revolution—freedom and dignity—otherwise, it will not keep in the near future its highly regarded position as the only and the most unique Arab Spring success story.

Oumayma Ben Abdallah

Oumayma Ben Abdallah

Oumayma Ben Abdallah is the TIMEP-Atlas Corps Bassem Sabry Democracy Fellow. She worked for three years as a research assistant on Tunisia and Algeria for the Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa division, and has worked as a consultant to the United Nations Population Fund on its program on gender-based violence in Libya. She has also served as a consultant to the Global Fund on a project on HIV and healthcare access in Tunisia, and has lectured at the Mediterranean School of Business in Tunis. She has also worked as a journalist and consultant, and for six months was a parliamentary attaché in the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia.
Oumayma Ben Abdallah

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