Tunisia's Truth and Dignity Commission Winds Down, ICTJ Experts Reflect on Impact


Amidst a year of significant political crises and setbacks to justice, truth, and accountability in Tunisia, including the decision by the national parliament to abbreviate the term of the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC)—the TDC is closing its doors. All year, victims, civil society groups, and citizens across Tunisia have eagerly awaited its final recommendations for providing redress for the violations of the Ben-Ali regime. Civil society, victims, and activists continue to press for more meaningful reflection on the political demands and fundamental concerns of the revolution. Victims are also still waiting for the activation of the Dignity and Rehabilitation Fund for the Victims of Totalitarianism (Dignity Fund). The TDC's findings should also offer a roadmap for the handling of cases that have been transferred by the TDC to the Specialized Chambers, which were created to pursue criminal accountability for the most egregious cases of human rights violations. 

Given the struggle to extend the TDC’s term, as well as broader issues of polarization across Tunisian society, the conclusion of its work is a pivotal turning point—one that will likely determine whether Tunisia steps forward or backward in its effort to acknowledge and provide redress for a wide range of human rights abuses. Here, Salwa El Gantri and Kelli Muddell discuss some of the challenges and successes of the commission’s work and their vision for transparent, participatory processes to advance Tunisia’s transitional justice mandate in the short and long term.  

ICTJ: What have been the expectations of victims’ groups in the work of the TDC and what are their hopes for the future?  

Salwa: Expectations are high for victims and other actors. You can see them very eager to have results as soon as possible. Their expectations are mainly the following:

  1. To have a report that really reflects what it means to reveal the truth
  2. To have a report that offers rehabilitation for the victims, because they have been demonized by the media, politicians, and also by those from the different ideological backgrounds that we have in Tunisia—secular and Islamist. To acknowledge them as Tunisians who were made victims by the State because of their political opinions and ideologies that did not justify the violations
  3. To have recommendations that are implementable and feasible so everyone can lobby the government, whatever 2019 brings us as far as new political actors.
  4. To have a report that shows us how the dictatorship machine worked, and provide recommendations on how to dismantle its system completely.
  5. For a final report that has official endorsement and is widely accessible to the public, so that each Tunisian citizen has full access to information about what happened and why there should be guarantees of non-repetition

Since 2011, and within this democratic transition, the Tunisian government enacted many positive laws that are progressive within the MENA region and are praised by everyone, but since 2014 we are witnessing a kind of turning backward on the level of human rights protection and respect for accountability. The promulgation of the Administrative Reconciliation Law is an illustrative example of this. Despite all the anti-corruption laws and related institutions, this law served as the basis to grant fiscal amnesty to public officials who had abused the public trust and misused public funds. The smear campaign against the Specialized Chambers is another illustrative example of challenges to the rule of law and the rights and liberties of individual citizens. The outcome of the TDC process is important because, as one victim told us, “and who guarantees that I will not again be a victim?”

ICTJ: What were some of the victories in implementing the truth-seeking process? 

Kelli: ICTJ has seen this process through from the start. We provided technical support to the TDC from the conceptualization stage through its initial set up, and then provided targeted assistance, upon request. We worked with the commissioners to have a women’s committee and to design its work plan and provide technical assistance. And one of the strengths has been that they have been incredibly flexible in their operations and were very in touch with obstacles that came up for women in participating. They adapted their work to address those needs, which is the best case scenario—what we always push for. We helped to facilitate outreach meetings in which they explained the role of the TDC in the regions. There was a significant increase in the number of statements submitted by women after these events. I also think that the public hearings were really well done if you look at them in and of themselves and from a gender perspective. They actually showcased a wide range of victims; you have this huge secular-Islamist divide in Tunisia and that’s reflected in the women’s movement. The TDC’s well-orchestrated public hearings, media coverage, and choice of the diverse victims who spoke are incredibly important. Finally, the way it was designed and its ability to recognize indirect victims—for example, women who were targeted because of their male loved ones’ political activities—was extraordinary. And I think we have to give the commissioners and the creators of the law, credit in really being responsive to the local dynamics of how the Tunisian experience played out during the dictatorship. 

ICTJ: How will ICTJ continue to support victims and other civil society actors? 

Salwa: The ups and downs of the transitional justice process and the weak communication from the TDC made victims come to ICTJ to ask for help in setting up a coordination mechanism that allowed them to better advocate for their rights. As such, the Tunisian Coalition for Dignity and Rehabilitation (Victims’ Coalition) saw the daylight on 15 October 2017 and included different victims’ groups and associations. 

The Victims’ Coalition held consultative meetings in the regions and the capital to get to know the victims’ needs within the process, to share their questions and concerns with the truth commission before it closes its doors this month and communicate with members of Parliament on these issues. The Victims’ Coalition, coordinated by ICTJ as secretariat, has acted as the victims’ voice, enhancing their visibility at events, including press conferences and a side-event at the 38th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The Victims’ Coalition’s first National Congress will be held on January 18-19, 2019. This event, the first of its kind after the TDC closes its doors, aims to convene victims, decisionmakers, political parties, national human rights institutions, and civil society to discuss the findings of the TDC’s final report, how to push to implement the final report recommendations, and, above all, how to preserve the victims’ rights within this new era in the TJ process.

ICTJ will continue advocating for the preservation of victims’ rights after the TDC is done, supporting the Specialized Chambers work, elaborating an appropriate framework for memory work and implementation of the recommendations of the TDC final report. ICTJ will also deepen its engagement with youth movements in Tunis and the regions through forums for dialogue such as our Café Talks competitions. 

ICTJ: What will be the ultimate value of the truth commission’s findings?  

Kelli: Thinking about truth commissions in general, from a broader perspective, often people have expectations that truth commissions can directly change society and institutions, and in fact, they can contribute to other efforts of change, such as public discourse or transferring cases to the Specialized Chambers, in the case of Tunisia. However, over the long-term, truth commissions are often judged on whether their recommendations are implemented. But that’s not up to a truth commission. Once a commission closes its doors, it’s done. 

In Tunisia, the Dignity Fund has been established and needs to be implemented. The TDC has issued its recommendations for a global reparations program to be carried out by the Dignity Fund. Hopefully, the commission’s findings will force or enable Tunisians to take a hard look at the past and push for political will to implement the recommendations, including reparations.

ICTJ: How have ICTJ’s efforts contributed to a greater understanding among the judiciary and public officials about the need to prosecute economic crimes? 

Salwa: In 2015, we were the very first organization in Tunisia to publicly argue why Tunisia should not opt for the Administrative Reconciliation draft law. The article shook the debate in Tunisia like an earthquake and was very widely shared by civil society and brought to deputies in the parliament to be consulted and debated. We engaged in efforts to challenge the passing of the law, via press conferences, meeting with youth movements like the one called I Will Not forgive. And I think no one can talk about an anti-Administrative Reconciliation Law without citing ICTJ. 

This increased not only the local population’s understanding of the law, but also their resistance to it because our analysis discussed not only technicalities of the law but also explained how it would not advance the economic and social conditions of the country as proponents argued. The law actually destroys equality of opportunities for citizens, equality before the law, respect for the role of the judiciary, and culture of accountability despite clear anti-corruption laws. The way the law was promulgated in September 2017 showed that the regime had no other choice but to have it passed by force and to ignore the will of those who were opposed to it. 

ICTJ: How can truth-seeking initiatives contribute to the articulation of new demands and reforms? 

Salwa: The transitional justice law is very comprehensive, compared to other transitional justice laws in the world. I think the Constitution of 2014—according to all of the actors, national and international—is a progressive one, which reflected a broad human rights mandate, and this final report should help people understand why the constitutional court is important. It could illuminate what the different rights and liberties are in the constitution; why torture, which impinges physical and mental integrity, is prohibited; why freedom of expression is something that only advanced nations can protect, along with the right to protest the lack of independence of the judiciary; because under the dictatorship the judiciary was too often instrumentalized against the opponents of the regime. 

The report should reflect the crucial role of the Specialized Chambers to upgrade the popular perception of the judiciary and send the message that justice can still be done in Tunisia. It should reflect that there are conventions and international instruments that Tunisia has ratified and that should effectively enter in its legal system to allow for a second trial if the first one was not done according to standard procedure and did not ensure a person had at least access to a fair trial. 

Unfortunately, the message that we hear now is that the transitional justice process is one of revenge, that instead of moving forward on the difficult social and economic situation that we have in the country, we are focusing on the past, that we are bringing people who are old before the courts and that this is not a priority for the country. But how can a country move forward without any kind of justice—fiscal justice, respect for economic and social rights, respect for the Constitution, equality before the law and in accessing opportunities? This is what the TDC’s recommendations should tell us, shedding light on the different violations that led to continuous marginalization, unemployment, and economic disparities. And this is what would help us prioritize institutional reforms. 

The Specialized Chambers also have a golden opportunity to remedy the deficits by producing not only sentences but a strong jurisprudence toward more effective implementation of the human rights system. 

If the judges use constitutional arguments and those related to the international treaties that Tunisia ratified, and link them to the discrepancy between the advances that we have made in Tunisia in terms of laws and the realities of victims, I think we have a chance to have a debate that is stronger than the one that the public hearings provided, and we can move forward in a more global picture through concrete proposals. The Specialized Chambers have a crucial role to ensure this, and we as ICTJ along with our UN partners and all other civil society associations and victims associations have this responsibility to help them to move forward and ensure the strengthening of the human rights system in Tunisia.

PHOTO: Victims testify before the Truth and Dignity Commission during the first day of public hearings. (TDC)