Tunisia’s 2011 revolution opened the door to a national transitional justice process aimed at addressing the country’s legacy of widespread human rights violations and political repression. As the country endeavors to restore victims’ dignity and confront decades of violence and corruption, ICTJ is providing Tunisian policymakers and civil society groups with strategic advice and resources to build local capacity.
Background: Fighting for the Revolution’s Values
On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young fruit cart vendor in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, set himself on fire outside of the local governor’s office in protest against government corruption and police harassment. This act of self-immolation set off a massive chain of events, with groups staging large public demonstrations throughout the country calling for “jobs, freedom, and national dignity.” The protests drove President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali out of office one month later and inspired protests against authoritarian rule throughout the region. Since then, the home of the Arab Spring has embarked on a process to deal with its past and preserve the gains of the revolution.
Bouazizi’s individual act prompted such widespread protests because it tapped into major socioeconomic and political grievances that had been fomenting for decades. Protests that started with calls for the government to address Bouazizi’s death grew to general demands for economic and political reforms. Demonstrations increased in size and organization as major social forces, including the Tunisian General Labor Union and the Tunisian Bar Association, got involved.
The revolution began in regions of the country that had long been marginalized and economically disadvantaged under Ben Ali’s rule. Youth in those areas were particularly hard hit by the lack of opportunities and high levels of unemployment. In the years before the revolution, unemployment had grown steadily, especially in southern, rural regions (where the unemployment rates hovered around 22 percent between 2004 and 2010), and among college-educated young people, for whom the unemployment rate reached 20 percent in 2010.
Meanwhile, corruption and conspicuous consumption among the country’s elite, particularly Ben Ali and his family, intensified public frustration. In addition, the government became increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of dissent. Surveillance, harassment, imprisonment, and torture of political activists, as well as torture of criminal suspects, was reportedly common under Ben Ali’s administration.
After the Revolution
Within a year of Bouazizi’s protest, Tunisians had taken firm steps toward instituting democratic rule. They elected a new National Constituent Assembly that, in addition to mandating a new constitution, drafted laws to guide the transition, including a transitional justice law. After surviving successive political crises, Tunisia’s parliament passed the Transitional Justice Law in December 2013.
The law set out a comprehensive framework to address violations committed during the period of dictatorship and the years immediately following the revolution (from July 1955 to December 2013) by revealing the truth about past abuses, providing reparations to victims, and pursuing criminal accountability for serious crimes. The law established the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC), as the official truth-seeking body to investigate and report on past abuses, and created the Specialized Chambers to pursue criminal accountability for specific past violations, a key component of the transition.
The Specialized Chambers have jurisdiction over serious violations including deliberate killing, rape and any form of sexual violence, torture, enforced disappearance, and execution without fair trial. The TDC also referred cases to it relating to election fraud, financial corruption, misuse of public funds, and forced migration for political reasons.
Through its Transitional Justice law, Tunisia confirmed its commitment to a transition based on accountability for the past, respect for victims’ rights, and adherence to international standards.
On July 25, 2021, President Kais Saied seized control of the government, suspending the parliament and proceeding to govern by decree. The move has had a direct impact on the Dignity and Rehabilitation Fund for the Victims of Totalitarianism (hereafter “the Dignity Fund”), which is tasked with delivering reparations to victims: Its head was dismissed, and no official information has since been available about its work.
Truth and Dignity Commission
The Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) was Tunisia’s official truth-seeking body. It was charged with investigating and reporting on past human rights violations, making recommendations for reparations and institutional reforms, and issuing urgent reparations.
The TDC collected 65,000 complaints submitted by individuals as well as collectively. The TDC hosted a series of public hearings to give victims a platform to share their stories and worked with Tunisian journalists to cover the historic proceedings. It transferred 204 cases to the Specialized Chambers by the end of its mandate in December 2018.
The TDC issued its final comprehensive report on March 27, 2019, along with a program for reparations to be implemented by the Dignity Fund. However, the digital version of the report, posted on the TDC’s website, was amended in the months that followed, which undermined its credibility. The report’s content has also been a source of controversy with some arguing that, among other issues, its historical account was unbalanced. Others have charged that the analysis and findings have not been communicated or publicly discussed in a way that promotes societal ownership of the report.
ICTJ has supported the transitional justice process in Tunisia since 2011, organizing the country’s first conference on transitional justice in April of the same year and opening an office in 2012. We have assisted key state actors leading the process including the Human Rights and Transitional Justice Ministry, the National Constituent Assembly, the TDC, the Specialized Chambers, and the Dignity Fund, as well as civil society organizations, victims’ associations, and youth movements throughout the process.
ICTJ works to advance efforts to pursue accountability, combat corruption and recover ill-gotten assets, reform institutions, deliver credible reparations, and preserve the collective memory.
- Reparations. In 2013, ICTJ initiated discussions on collective reparations as a response to marginalization in Tunisia. Some regions in Tunisia were intentionally marginalized and oppressed during the dictatorship—regions that would later become the birthplace of the revolution and its demand for economic and social justice. ICTJ supports the Dignity Fund, which is tasked with delivering reparations, by providing technical expertise related to the implementation of the TDC’s reparations program and securing financial resources through recovered assets.
- Anti-corruption and asset recovery. ICTJ has fostered efforts in the country to address the legacy of corruption and combat measures meant to provide amnesty for corruption crimes, such as the proposed economic reconciliation bill. We have helped to improve the public’s understanding of the relationship between corruption and the transitional justice process. We focus on assets recovery as a source for reparations and development, and we advance anti-corruption processes as a form of accountability for past systemic violations.
- Women’s participation. ICTJ has worked closely with women’s organizations to ensure their voices have been heard and their needs addressed throughout the transitional justice process. We helped improve their understanding of the TDC and its operations and strengthened their capacity to meaningfully participate in its public hearings. In 2014, ICTJ established the Transitional Justice Is Also for Women Network, a coalition of 11 groups that encouraged more women to submit their stories to the TDC. We brought together women victims to create the Voices of Memory project, a collaborative art project that breaks the silence about women’s experiences of repression and preserves memory, while also contributing to efforts to combat impunity and reform institutions.
- Engaging youth through art. In 2017, ICTJ brought together a group of young Tunisian photographers for a series of workshops on the country’s transitional justice process. The result was the photography exhibition entitled Left Behind that explored the effects of marginalization across generations of Tunisians. ICTJ continues to engage young Tunisians through art, as part of the Voices of Memory project. In partnership with youth centers across the country, we have organized a series of art workshops focused on intergenerational dialogue and the preservation of memory as a means to prevent the recurrence of violence and repression. In 2020, ICTJ held the Create to Connect art contest. Open to young emerging and mid-career artists, the contest featured artwork reflecting on historical injustices and memory during the the COVID-19 pandemic.