When protests started in December 2010 in Sidi Bouzid, an unheard of place for many, no one could have predicted that they would lead to the fall of one of the most notorious police states in the Middle East and North Africa region. Yet on January 14, 2011 after less than a month of largely peaceful protests, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, abruptly ending 23 years of autocratic rule.
In the following weeks, mounting street pressure led to the resignation of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi. In the following months, protesters continued to demand more jobs, greater freedoms, and the trial of the former President, his family and officials seen as mired in and responsible for corruption. The success of the uprising gave Tunisians an historic opportunity to show the world that the “jasmine revolution” was not just about toppling President Ben Ali, but was also and most importantly driven by a demand for meaningful human rights reform.
The initial caretaker government and the government that took office after elections to the new National Constituent Assembly (NCA) in October 2011 took several positive steps to break with the abuses of the past. However, state institutions that had facilitated or practiced human rights violations for decades are yet to be reformed in ways that would ensure past abuses are properly investigated and provide effective guarantees against their repetition.
Progress towards reform
Ratifying key international human rights treaties, including the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance; and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Significant steps were taken to relax the severe constraints on freedom of expression and association. In November 2011, the new press law and the law on freedom of audiovisual communication lifted restrictions on newspapers and allowed journalists greater freedom, including by abolishing prison sentences as punishment for defamation. Defamation, however, remained a criminal offence punishable by large fines, as did “spreading false information” which had been defined as a crime and used by Ben Ali’s government largely to repress dissent.
In the run-up to the NCA elections in October – the first democratic elections since Tunisia gained independence – the authorities set up independent institutions to manage the poll, agreed to allow international monitors to observe the vote, accredited foreign journalists wishing to cover the elections, authorized 187 newly created periodicals and granted licences to 12 new radio stations. Many formerly banned political parties and NGOs previously denied registration, were allowed to legally register.
The interim government withdrew a number of reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in August 2011, though it stressed the need to respect provisions of the Tunisian Constitution that refer to Islamic law. The withdrawal of the reservations was an important step towards gender equality and established a good precedent for other governments in the region. However, the Tunisian authorities have yet to bring national legislation into conformity with international law and standards and to eliminate discrimination against women in both law and practice.
In September, a new NGO, the League for Tunisian Women Voters, was established with the aim of building alliances between women candidates for election to the NCA to work collaboratively against violations of women’s rights.
Former President Ben Ali and members of his family were tried in absentia on charges of corruption and drugs offences in June 2011. Ben Ali was sentenced 35 years’ imprisonment for embezzlement and misuse of state funds, and an additional 15 years for drugs- and weapons-related offences. The former President was also among 139 former officials, including former Interior Ministers Rafik Haj Kacem and Ahmed Friaa, who were referred for military trial on charges arising from the killing and injuring of protesters between December 17, 2010 and January 14, 2011. However, families of victims and those injured were still waiting for justice.
In August 2011 the interim government renewed the nationwide state of emergency indefinitely, thereby retaining restrictions on some fundamental rights. Security forces continued to clamp down on protests that focused on the slow pace of reform, the need for greater economic and employment opportunities, and demands that officials connected with the former regime be removed from office.
No significant steps were taken by the new authorities to address the impunity for past human rights violations. Neither the police nor the judiciary, two of the institutions that had been directly responsible for or complicit in serious abuses, were made subject to significant reforms with one exception: in March 20121 the Interior Ministry dissolved the notorious Directorate for State Security (DSS) – known in Tunisia as the “political police.” The DSS had been infamous for torturing detainees, close surveillance and intimidation of human rights defenders and independent journalists, and imposing restrictions on former political prisoners. In September 2011, the Interior Ministry set out a “road map” for reform of the police, but made no reference to investigations or other action against police responsible for past abuses. Several repressive laws, including the Counter-terrorism Law, remain in place.
Freedom of expression remains under threat. Journalists and activists have criticized the government for not enforcing new press and audiovisual laws passed in November 2011. Instead the authorities are resorting to articles in the Penal Code such as “spreading information that disturbs the public order” to arrest, prosecute and fine journalists and others for peacefully expressing their opinions.
Photo: A woman holds a placard reading in French 'Tunisia says No to extremism and violence' during a demonstration in front of the Interior Ministry in Tunis on December 1, 2012. FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images