ICTJ and Victims’ Coalition for Dignity and Rehabilitation Urge Extension of Truth Commission’s Work


Members of parliament from political parties opposed to extending the work of Tunisia’s truth commission today voted to end the commission’s mandate. This came after parliamentarians from parties that support the extension walked out of the proceedings because their position is that the Organic Law that created the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC or Instance Vérité et Dignité in French) authorized the TDC to extend its mandate. Earlier, the TDC had voted to extend its mandate by a year in order to complete its work. In a position paper distributed to members of parliament and civil society activists, ICTJ and the Victims’ Coalition for Dignity and Rehabilitation jointly said that they supported the extension of the TDC’s mandate, despite internal issues among its commissioners. ICTJ pointed out that other truth commissions elsewhere have sought and been given extensions in order to carry out key parts of their work, such as public hearings, or to complete writing their reports. Both ICTJ and the Victims’ Coalition said that an extension would allow the TDC to hold public hearings on marginalization and unemployment – which was one of the grievances that drove the Arab Spring in Tunisia. It would also give the Commission time to finalize its report and recommendations, including those on reparations.

Read the full statement in Arabic here. Read the full statement in English below.

There is a reason why Tunisia’s truth commission is called the “Truth and Dignity Commission.” It was meant to emphasize two of the most important goals of Tunisia’s revolution and of the transitional justice process that the nation agreed to pursue following the dictatorship. The first goal of the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) is truth — for the Tunisian society across all social and religious lines to acknowledge the truth that large-scale corruption, marginalization, and human rights violations happened during the Bourguiba and Ben Ali dictatorships which victimized thousands of Tunisians. The second goal is dignity, which implies dignity on several levels: for an entire country victimized by corrupt dictatorships, for regions and groups marginalized by economic and social policies imposed by foreign lenders who funded and enabled the dictator-led State, and dignity for the men, women and youth whose civil and political as well as economic and social rights were violated, often with violence and always through repression and exclusion.

A Policy Rather Than a Legal Debate Is More Important###

The transitional justice (TJ) law institutionalized the pursuit of truth and dignity through a commission whose mandate reflects the principles for which the revolution was fought. Unfortunately, the debate over the extension of the TDC’s mandate has focused on the legal question of who can make that decision. This focus completely misses the point. The more important question is why there should be an extension at all. Our position is that an extension is both practical and necessary. Regardless of the TDC’s flaws and the discord among its commissioners, extending the length of the TDC’s term is far better than ending its existence. If parliament believes that the first principle of justice is to “do no harm,” then an extension is the way to do no harm to the TJ process in Tunisia.

An Extension Is Necessary, Despite and Because of the Flaws of the TDC###

In the first place, the State already anticipated the possibility than an extension may be needed by providing for it in the TJ law. That provision applies to the present situation.

The TDC needs to act on the more than 62,000 “complaints” filed with it, including deciding whether further investigations are needed, which complaints should be taken to the Specialized Chambers for criminal investigation, and whether those who filed complaints or submissions as individuals, groups, or collectives are entitled to particular forms of reparation. Aside from these considerations, the TDC must also take into account the outcomes of the arbitration proceedings it conducted, including ensuring that its arbitration decisions are fully enforced through the recovery of ill-gotten assets and the gathering of information about corruption during the dictatorship by those who sought arbitration.

The TDC likewise needs to analyze not just data from its investigations but the response of Tunisian society to its public hearings. So far, only 12 public hearings have been conducted. Some of the violations and themes that many Tunisians, including members of the coalition, believe should be heard, have not received a hearing. These include violations affecting the free exercise of religion as well as the theme of marginalization and unemployment as grievances that led to the revolution.

The TDC also needs to finish research on the causes and consequences of the corruption, violent repression, and other forms of abuse during the dictatorship periods. Doing so may very well require the TDC to examine the underlying social and economic policies of the dictatorships and the role of State institutions — such as the police, courts, and economic policymaking institutions including those that regulate natural resource extraction, banking, and employment. It may also call for gathering and looking into data on the complicity and role of commercial entities, international financial institutions, and foreign governments in the emergence of dictatorships and the abuses that violated the rights and took away the dignity of many Tunisians.

An extension is needed because the TDC, whether through its own fault or because of the complexity of its mandate, still needs time to complete many of the above tasks. Without completing these tasks, the TDC’s obligation to write a comprehensive report containing its findings and recommendations will have a weak, uncertain foundation. An incomplete truth-seeking and dignifying process will have a negative impact on post-TDC transitional justice measures such as reparations, development planning in marginalized regions, the criminal accountability process within the Specialized Chambers, and institutional reforms affecting courts, education, the police, resource extraction, and employment. It will also have serious, adverse implications for the treatment of women.

An Extension Is Not Unprecedented###

According to the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), “most [truth commission] mandates include the possibility of an extension.” Among the laws creating truth commissions formed in the last 15 years, many included provisions allowing extensions. Most truth commissions have been given terms of at least two or more years. Many of these commissions then asked for an extension for various reasons, including reasons such as not having operated right away, a lack of resources, or political and other kinds of crises that prevented the commission from moving forward sooner or simply to complete its work. The truth commission of Peru asked for and was given two extensions of five months and then one month to draft and complete its report.

Liberia’s truth commission was created in 2005 but could not operate right away due to lack of funds. Internal disagreements among its commissioners also delayed its work. In a report evaluating Liberia’s truth commission, the ICTJ noted that: “In September 2008, with many hearings still not concluded and report-writing yet to commence, the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] requested an extension for a total of nine months (three three-month extensions at one time) in order to conclude its work by June 2009.”

Even when the United Nations itself was involved directly in mandating a truth commission, an extension was considered necessary and useful. The truth commission of Timor-Leste initially had a two-year mandate, which was extended twice, adding up to an extension of one year.

These examples not only show that extensions are often needed by truth commissions, but that, as ICTJ has pointed out, the more complex and difficult the circumstances are of a truth commission, the more it might need an extension in order to complete its work. Tunisia’s truth commission is the first (and right now only) truth commission that emerged out of the “Arab Spring.” Not only is its mandate complicated by the period it must cover but it must also address complex themes such as corruption and marginalization that only a few other commissions before it have tried to examine. One of them is Kenya’s Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC). Similar to the TDC, Kenya’s TJRC had a mandate to cover not only violations of human rights but also corruption and marginalization. The law creating the TJRC began operating in 2009, but was troubled by issues involving its chairperson. Eventually, the TJRC asked for an extension of at least six months and the reasons for seeking that extension may be relevant to Tunisia. According to Kenya’s TJRC, it wanted more “Kenyans to have a chance to appear before the Commission” and time to complete its mandate, including hearings on marginalization that it eventually carried out. Read the full statement in Arabic here. This is not to say that extensions are inherently useful. In Nepal, for example, some victims’ groups have complained that the two truth commissions — the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission for the Investigation of Enforced Disappearances — have sought extensions not so much to finish their work but to simply go on working without resources from the State and a strategy for their work. Nonetheless, the two commissions were given a one-year extension by parliament.

Comparing various truth commissions and the time they needed to complete their work, the ICTJ has noted that “as truth commissions have become more complex, dealing with larger scopes of research, the time allotted for their work has increased.” The coalition believes this ICTJ observation applies to Tunisia. Again, regardless of how the institutional and individual problems within the TDC are interpreted, the fact is that its mandate is complex. It requires more time to carry out.

In summary, an extension of one year would be justified provided it is used by the TDC:

  • To conduct public hearings on themes it has not covered under its mandate, including marginalization and unemployment and the exercise of freedom of religion;
  • To decide on cases it will refer to the Specialized Chambers and ensure the enforcement of its arbitration decisions;
  • To aggregate the data and research findings it has compiled from complaints, hearings, arbitration proceedings, research and investigation, archives, and other sources;
  • To analyze this data, articulate its main findings based on the requirements of the transitional justice law, and put together recommendations; and
  • To release a written report that victims, civil society, State institutions, and other stakeholders in Tunisia’s transitional justice process can build on and use for future work.

PHOTO: Inside Tunisia's Assembly of the Representatives of the People. (Jasmine Foundation)