In the Shadows of the Nobel Prize - Impunity Still a Threat to Tunisia’s Transition


By Rim El Gantri

The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the National Dialogue Quartet in Tunisia highlights the crucial role of Tunisia’s civil society in the country’s transition from decades of dictatorship. The prize is a huge boost to social forces which have been the spark and the engine of Tunisia’s revolution and the ongoing struggle for freedom and dignity. Yet, we must not lose sight of the fact that the people of Tunisia are out on the streets again, once more demanding justice, equality and an end to corruption.

Despite a promising start to transitional justice processes after Ben Ali’s ouster under the previous government, the situation has deteriorated once again. The people’s anger is now trained on the new government, at least in part because it has not been able to respond effectively to society's demands for accountability for crimes committed under former regimes.

Threats to Tunisia’s transition do not just stem from economic downturns or terrorist attacks, but from the failure to keep the goals of transitional justice alive as one of the legacies of the revolution. If the current course is not corrected soon, impunity for past crimes may become the biggest threat to Tunisia’s transition to democracy and long-term stability.

“After nearly 60 years of authoritarian rule, it should not be surprising that people want answers”
    Yet Tunisians are eager to reveal the truth about gross human rights violations committed over five decades of dictatorship. They also want to break up the complex system of corruption that has spread its tentacles over the country. After nearly 60 years of authoritarian rule, it should not be surprising that people want answers.

Following a far-reaching national consultation process in 2012, and boosted by newly augmented political will, the country passed the groundbreaking Transitional Justice Law in 2013 that established the Truth and Dignity Commission. The commission has already received over 15,000 complaints, indicating that the public has high expectations for the commission and that victims believe in the truth-seeking process.

A primary problem, however, has been the general slowness of operations at the now one-year-old commission—in addition to delays in establishing other important accountability mechanisms. The commission was created to guide the national truth-seeking process, but delays have left Tunisia under attack, not only from a lack of overall justice but also from new laws intended to undermine efforts to redress the past.

The commission also faces a growing problem of credibility and purpose. The process to select its first 15 commissioners—and one replacement—was carried out in an exclusive and opaque way. The National Constituent Assembly, tasked with naming commissioners, has failed to appreciate the important role of the public and civil society in identifying and reviewing candidates. This has led to a truth commission that lacks full public buy-in and civil society support.

Last year, the Transitional Justice Law was amended to grant Specialized Chambers—a special judicial body to deal with crimes of the past—the competence to try cases of the martyrs and wounded of the revolution, in addition to investigating and trying cases of human rights violations committed during the dictatorship period. However, these courts still exist only on paper. The reluctance to create the Specialized Chambers, despite the provisions of the law, reflects the weakened political will to address the legacy of the past.

Today, the energy that helped to oust Ben Ali and drive the passage of the law has given way to politicization and opportunism. Civil society groups do not have the same access to the legal process as they did, and the political will to deliver justice to victims and equal economic opportunity to all Tunisians—the rallying cries of the revolution—has almost dried up.

Exacerbating this problem is the fact that President Beji Caid Essebsi and his political party are supportive of a new “economic reconciliation” bill that would give immunity from prosecution to corrupt businessmen in exchange for returning stolen state assets. According to them, Tunisia needs to turn the page and look towards the future in order to improve the economic situation in the country. But the proposed law sends the wrong message to the business elite and strengthens the culture of impunity for a certain class of people. It has given rise to renewed “revolutionary” anger among Tunisian youth, who have gone back to the streets promising that they “will only forgive in the courts.”

But the criminal accountability process that started early in 2011—with cases concerning the martyrs and wounded of the revolution that were tried by military courts—has been slow to gain traction. These courts were heavily criticized for their lack of independence and, in some cases, for delivering lenient sentences to convicted perpetrators of serious crimes, which caused anger and despair among victims and their families.    
“The criminal accountability process that started early in 2011 has been slow to gain traction”

The new government has made it increasingly clear that pursuing truth and accountability for the serious human rights violations and economic crimes of past regimes is not one of its priorities. Instead, it has prioritized security measures in the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks. But the logic of a “war on terror”, and the political exploitation of the deteriorating economy to push for amnesty for corrupt former government authorities and businessmen, can only weaken the overall transition.

If the political will existed to implement the Transitional Justice Law in full, these false dilemmas between security and accountability would be easily dismissed—national and international stakeholders must be firm with this message. Efforts to face and overcome the past are essential to building a solid democracy and long-lasting stability. To abandon the path toward truth and justice will only reinforce impunity, maintain corruption, and undermine ongoing efforts to rebuild trust between the citizens and the state.

If there are any signs of hope, it is that the current controversy over the proposed “Economic Reconciliation” bill has revived the energy of civil society and victims’ groups; they will be additionally boosted by the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the National Dialogue Quartet. It is they who are now defending the process and the Truth and Dignity Commission (regardless of its internal problems) as a historic opportunity to uncover the truth. This renewed commitment shows that the demand for justice remains strong in Tunisia. The dream ignited by the revolution for a society that respects the rule of law and treats all citizens fairly is still very much alive.

Rim El Gantri is head of the Tunisian office at ICTJ.

This article originally appeared on OpenDemocracy.

PHOTO: A protester holds a sign reading, "No reconciliation without justice," at a demonstration against Tunisia's proposed economic reconciliation bill in September 2015 in Tunis. (AP Photo/Riadh Dridi)