Tunisia’s January 2011 revolution opened the door to address a past of widespread political repression and human rights violations. As the country works to restore victims’ dignity and confront decades of corruption and violence, ICTJ provides Tunisian policymakers and civil society groups with advice and resources.
On December 17, 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi, a young fruit cart vendor in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, set himself on fire outside of the local governor’s office in protest against government corruption and police harassment. This act of self-immolation set off a massive chain of events, with groups staging large public demonstrations throughout the country calling for “jobs, freedom, and national dignity.” The protests drove President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali out of office one month later and inspired protests against authoritarian rule throughout the region. Since then, the home of the Arab Spring has embarked in a process to grapple with its past and maintain the gains of its revolution.
Bouazizi’s individual act prompted such widespread protest and the eventual overthrow of the government because it tapped into major socioeconomic and political grievances that had been fomenting for decades. Protests that started with calls for the government to address Bouazizi’s death grew to general demands for economic and political reforms. Demonstrations increased in organization and numbers as major social forces, including the Tunisian General Labor Union and the Tunisian Bar Association, got involved.
The revolution was born in areas of the country which had long been marginalized and economically disadvantaged under Ben Ali’s rule, and youth in those areas were particularly hard-hit by the lack of opportunities and high levels of unemployment nationwide. In the years before the revolution, unemployment had grown steadily, especially in southern, rural areas (with average unemployment rates of 22% in many areas between 2004 and 2010), and among college-educated young people, for whom it reached 20% in 2010.
Meanwhile, corruption and conspicuous consumption among the country’s elite, particularly Ben Ali and his family, increased public frustration. In addition, the government became increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of dissent. Surveillance, harassment, imprisonment and torture of political activists, as well as torture of criminal suspects, was reportedly common under Ben Ali’s administration.
Within a year of Bouazizi’s protest, Tunisians had taken firm steps toward instituting democratic rule. They elected a new National Constituent Assembly (NCA) that, in addition to mandating a new constitution, drafted laws to guide the transition, including a transitional justice law. After surviving successive political crises, Tunisia’s parliament passed the Transitional Justice Law in December 2013.
The law set out a comprehensive framework to address violations committed during the dictatorship period and the years immediately following (July 1955 to December 2013) by revealing the truth about past abuses, providing reparations to victims, and pursuing criminal accountability for serious crimes.
The law also established the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC), as the official truth-seeking body to investigate and report on past abuses, and the creation of specialized chambers to pursue criminal accountability for specific past violations, a key component of the transition. Among the violations under the specialized chambers’ jurisdictions are: deliberate killing; rape and any form of sexual violence; torture; enforced disappearance; execution without fair trial; and cases referred to it by the TDC related to election fraud, financial corruption, misuse of public funds, and forced migration for political reasons. As of now, the specialized chambers are not yet operational.
Through the new Transitional Justice law, Tunisia confirmed its commitment to a transition based on accountability for the past, respect for victims’ rights and adherence to international standards.
The Truth and Dignity Commission is Tunisia’s official truth-seeking body. It is charged with investigating and reporting on past human rights violations, making recommendations for reparations and institutional reforms, and issuing urgent reparations.
The TDC concluded gathering statements in June 2016, and ultimately collected 65,000 complaints. These complaints were submitted by individuals as well as collectively, which means that groups provided input on the impact human rights violations had on a community.
As part of its mandate, the TDC should also propose adequate reparations measures and contribute to a more comprehensive notion of reparations for both individual victims and collective subjects
ICTJ has supported the transitional process in Tunisia since the early days of the Arab Spring, organizing the country’s first conference on transitional justice in April 2011 and opening an office there in 2012. But as other Arab Spring countries falter, Tunisia also faces mounting challenges, from security issues to the concentration of power among the elite. Therefore, ICTJ’s work to support and advance accountability and reform in the country is of crucial importance for the long-term impact of the revolution gains.
The Truth and Dignity Commission- ICTJ has provided considerable assistance to the TDC to develop effective systems, methodologies and structures for the implementation of its mandate. The TDC began accepting submissions from victims in December 2014, and thanks to ICTJ’s involvement, participation by victims has been stronger than expected: by mid-2016, approximately 30,000 submissions had been received, of which 20,000 were submitted in 2015. The participation numbers underscored the importance of the process for key sectors of the population.
Women’s Participation- As in most dictatorial regimes, the way that women experienced violations and the types of violations they experienced in Tunisia varied compared to men, and their perspectives are crucial to ensure that the TDC has a complete picture of the past decades. ICTJ worked with women’s organizations to make sure their voices are heard, helping to build their understanding of the purpose and functions of the TDC, to aid in the monitoring of TDC’s work, and to encourage collaboration within and between the various group. In 2014, ICTJ established the “Transitional Justice is Also for Women” Network, a coalition of 11 groups working together to encourage more women to submit their stories to the TDC. The Network submitted a collective file with statements from over 140 victims, the first time a women’s advocacy group had done so. The file detailed the effects of discrimination against veiled women under Ben Ali’s government.
Anti-Corruption- ICTJ has fostered Tunisia’s efforts to grapple with its legacy of corruption and fought measures meant to provide amnesty for corruption. Much of its work has centered on opposition to the country’s proposed economic reconciliation bill, which would offer a path for corrupt Ben Ali-era officials and business people to legalize their stolen assets and secure a form of amnesty. ICTJ has focused on improving public understanding of the relationship between corruption and the transitional justice process.
Reparations- In 2013, ICTJ initiated discussions on collective reparations as a response to marginalization in Tunisia. Some regions in Tunisia were intentionally marginalized and oppressed, and these regions were the first to spark the flame of the revolution and to demand economic and social rights. ICTJ works to establish an operational definition of marginalization in Tunisia that would provide a foundation for a comprehensive reparations program. Such a program would ensure that all victims of the dictatorship, including those who were marginalized as a result of their living in an intentionally underdeveloped geographical area, have access to reparations.