A Measure of Dignity: The Beginning of Reparations in Post-Revolution Tunisia


By Ruben Carranza, Director of ICTJ’s Reparative Justice Program

Since the fall of the Ben Ali dictatorship in January 2011, the government of Tunisia has put in place a series of reparations measures offering economic benefits and social services to victims of human rights violations associated with political repression, religious persecution and social unrest in the country’s past. These various reparations measures have offered financial compensation, access to some forms of medical services, access to subsidized public transportation, and opportunities for public sector employment to victims and their families.

These reparations programs have undoubtedly helped victims’ families deal with some of the immediate consequences of the harms they suffered during the Ben Ali regime. Financial assistance for families whose bread-winners were killed or seriously injured during the “Arab Spring” protests has been spent on essential needs. Access to medical care (in State facilities and even abroad) has allowed some of the seriously injured to survive and continue to function in their daily lives.

More recently, those denied access to higher education or the right to practice a profession during the dictatorship—including those who were forced into exile or dismissed from schools or public employment because of their political activities or religious affiliation—have been given some opportunities to work in government agencies.

These programs, however, have also faced several challenges. Initially, some of these challenges reflected the tensions between Tunisia’s secular and religious political actors, including criticism that the programs were designed or implemented to favor constituents of one political movement.

Challenges also continue to arise from what has so far been an ad-hoc approach to reparations policy-making. This has meant that the very definitions of victims and beneficiaries entitled to certain forms of reparation have sometimes been based on different and specific episodes of Tunisia’s history, rather than principally on the kinds of human rights violations, the gender or economic profile of victims or the harms they experienced. For example, soldiers who were detained and tortured because of their alleged involvement in the Barraket Es-Sahel plot against Ben Ali have been offered compensation and symbolic reparations.

After families of those killed or injured during the 2011 revolution were given compensation and other benefits, families of mineworkers in the south who were killed by police during strikes for better wages and working conditions in 2008 (which is seen by many as the start of the revolution) protested their exclusion. The government relented and offered them reparations, too.

Subsequently, a more systematic policy of granting uniform reparations benefits to those who had been imprisoned for political offenses under Ben Ali and amnestied after the revolution was adopted; but this step did little to dispel the political animosity and division that continues in the country.

But a far more complex challenge for reparations policy-making in Tunisia comes from the overlapping character of the violations experienced by a significant number of Tunisians under the only two post-colonial political leaders they have ever had.

The Habib Bourguiba government’s harsh promotion of secularism led to the protection of women’s rights but also led to increasing political repression and curbs on religious expression. Under Ben Ali’s dictatorship, political repression became even more systematic and relied on Western-supported internal security policies and counter-terrorism legislation.

This led to long and repeated periods of detention, torture or the forced exile of religious leaders, labor union organizers and left-wing political activists. These violations overlapped with the economic and social rights violations and economic crimes that affected communities in the interior the most.

The combination of large-scale corruption and State economic policies backed by international financial institutions systematically marginalized Tunisia’s interior while favoring Ben Ali family members and business associates with government contracts, State-guaranteed loans for private enterprises in the coastal regions or outright transfer of government land and assets.

These overlapping violations and harms explain why Tunisia’s transitional justice law mandates individual reparations for physical integrity violations and collective reparations for marginalized regions and why the truth and dignity commission – the Instance Vérité et Dignité – will examine economic crimes and corruption alongside civil and political rights violations.

Thus, the most difficult hurdle to reparations policymaking in Tunisia will be whether and to what extent current reparations measures—as well as those that will be recommended by the Truth and Dignity Commission—will respond to the core grievances that sparked and sustained the Tunisian revolution. For example, it remains to be seen whether or not reparations measures will respond to what the government’s own Fact Finding Commission on the Abuses Committed during the 2011 Revolution describes as its multiple roots: “repression imposed on the Tunisian people and upper classes under Ben Ali; the government’s incapacity to create equal opportunities among the citizens and regions (and) the incapacity of administrative institutions to carry out their supervisory roles vis-à-vis the unlimited abuses.”

In 2013, ICTJ’s Reparative Justice Program convened a series of dialogues in Tunis and in two cities in the interior, Tozeur and Tataouine (with the participation of people from all the nearby governorates in the region, including Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, Sfax, Gafsa, Medenine, and Gabes), to facilitate discussions between government, civil society (including the Tunisian trade union UGTT) and representatives of communities in the region that see themselves as both victims of political repression and economic and social marginalization. Some existing individualized measures clearly respond to violations experienced by those who were detained, tortured, forced into exile or otherwise suffered religious or political persecution.

However, the communities of Tunisia’s interior regions whose historical economic and social marginalization and the young, unemployed citizens across the country who sought jobs, dignity and the dictatorship’s overthrow in 2011 are still waiting for the kind of reparations measures that will address these larger grievances. In between sessions of these dialogues, we talked with Tunisians from the interior regions, who shared their experiences during the dictatorship, their reflections on marginalization, and their expectations about reparations.

Watch a video with testimonies from victims of political repression and economic and social marginalization who participated in the dialogues ICTJ conducted in Tunis, Tozeur and Tataouine in 2013 (Part 1 and Part 2).

PHOTO: Tunisian men walk past a poster with the face of former Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali partially removed in downtown Sfax, Tunisia. March 31, 2011. (Emilio Morenatti/AP Photo)