To Protect Victims’ Rights, Tunisian Civil Society Looks Ahead to Engaging with Truth Commission


As the impetus of the 2011 revolution that toppled the Ben Ali regime, Tunisian civil society continues to be an integral part in the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law.

The dialogue about the past is central to this transition in order to acknowledge the experiences of victims of the regime, and to establish a record of the country’s momentous time of change. Looking ahead, Tunisia is preparing for its own truth commission—the proposed Truth and Dignity Commission—which will require an active and informed civil society to ensure the commission upholds the rights of victims.

To offer assistance and international expertise to Tunisian civil society groups, ICTJ partnered with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for a training on public engagement in truth seeking processes. Titled “The Role of Civil Society in Truth Commissions: Participation and Advocacy for Victims in Tunisia,” the training was launched on the 22nd of October in Tunis and extended to Sfax and Sousse, offering around 65 participants the opportunity to examine the role of truth commissions in contexts of transitional justice, and to assess future engagement of their organizations in Tunisia’s proposed truth commission.

The participants included lawyers, researchers, activists, and other members of civil society, all with the shared goal of learning how best to support to victims in Tunisia through the cycle of a truth commission. Through interactive sessions, the training drew on lessons from other transitional justice contexts and to lay out steps towards effective participation and advocacy of the Tunisian civil society.

Tunisia's truth commission will require an active and informed civil society to ensure it upholds the rights of victims
    In particular, these practitioners discussed their role in defending the rights and needs of victims, and influencing the truth commission’s scope. “I very much look forward to the establishment of the Truth and Dignity Commission,” said Hend Kechine, who participated in the Tunis session. “The truth commission will allow me to move ahead with all that my organization is already doing for victims of torture.”

The training was led by Howard Varney, Senior Program Adviser for ICTJ, who shared his extensive experience in representing victims and investigation on truth commissions from South Africa, Sierra Leone, and Timor Leste; and co-facilitated by Kora Andrieu, Human Rights Officer in OHCHR Tunisia.

A session of the training was dedicated to the established measures of transitional justice in Tunisia, where participants revised the processes, articles of the Draft Basic Law on the Organization of Transitional Justice Foundations and Area of Competence, and the status of the victims, as essential background knowledge for their role in sustaining truth and reparations.

The gender perspective was a crucial element of the discussions as participants relayed the importance of creating and upholding such a perspective to avoid overlooking related violations amongst the other crimes.

Abdel Dayem Ennoumi, one of the participants from Sousse, stressed that the violations committed against women and children should not be forgotten. “We have a real difficulty in convincing others that the gender perspective and also the experience of children should be taken into consideration,” he said. “We should work actively to ensure the upcoming Tunisian truth commission treats these aspects seriously and professionally.”

ICTJ’s Howard Varney echoed this concern, stressing that without an active voice advocating for the experiences of women to be included in the truth commission, they risk being excluded. Varney offered lessons learned from the experience of Sierra Leone’s Truth commission. “While most women testified in closed hearings, some insisted on speaking publicly in order to ensure that the nation learned of the suffering of women first hand,” he said. “These were incredibly courageous women.”

To conclude the training, OHCHR and ICTJ offered a set of recommendations for civil society organizations in Tunisia based on the expertise of both organizations and the contribution of the participants who shared the successes and challenges in the Tunisian setting. In the concluding recommendations, Howard urged the civil society actors in Tunisia to “closely monitor the selection process of the commissioners” and to examine “the specific contexts and circumstances before adopting transitional justice strategies”.

PHOTO: Participants of the training "The Role of Civil Society in Truth Commissions: Participation and Advocacy for Victims in Tunisia,” which took place in Tunis, Sfax, and Sousse, in October 2013.