Tunisia's New Rulers Advance Human Rights in Name Only

Article Summary
On the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Dorra Megdiche Meziou reviews the human rights situation in Tunisia and finds it lacking.

On Dec. 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris.

Every year, on Dec. 10, all countries around the world celebrate human rights, pleading “that each individual, wherever they live, should fully exercise their fundamental rights.”

According to the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this declaration must constitute “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance,”

In Tunisia, we celebrate this day, almost one year after the new government of the Troika came to power, the first “legitimate” government after the revolution. The Troika has a modest track record under its belt, with respect to defending human rights, although the country’s leaders were former activists and defenders of such rights. In fact, those leaders helped establish one of the rarest ministries of human rights in the world, after Pakistan! But, why do we feel that there is still a long road to go before we succeed in securing such fundamental rights?

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It is worth noting that the struggle for human rights and fundamental freedoms started in Tunisia under former president Habib Bourguiba. In fact, the Tunisian League of Human Rights [LTDH] — an association founded in 1976 to protect and defend human rights in Tunisia — was the first human rights league in Africa and the Arab world. But the LTDH was a false human rights organization that had little impact, for Tunisia’s former regimes banned all activities promoting human rights across the nation.

On Jan. 17, 2011, upon Ben Ali’s fall from power, the “government of national unity” headed by Mohamed Ghannouchi lifted definitively the ban on LTDH’s activities.

It is also important to mention the historic achievements of the incumbent President of the Republic, Moncef Marzouki, as a human rights activist. Marzouki was a member of the steering committee of the Arab Organization for Human Rights based in Cairo, and an active member of the Tunisian branch of Amnesty International. In 1996, he was appointed as the president of the Arab Committee for Human Rights. In 1998, Marzouki co-founded the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia [CNLT] and was the CNLT’s first spokesperson until 2001. 

In his turn, the president of Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, undertook several steps in the advancement of human rights when he was a main figure in the Tunisian opposition. In 1970, he co-founded the Errai weekly (the Opinion), and in 1976, the CNLT. What have those ardent activists and supporters of the oppressed and victims of injustices — who are today key figures in the government — achieved to support their cause?

To celebrate Human Rights Day on Dec. 10, the LTDH organized a series of activities. Under the motto of “For a civil and democratic republic,” the LTDH’s ceremony program includes awareness sessions as well as intellectual, cultural and sports activities.

Despite the official ceremonies, we still see serious violations and infringements of human rights today.

Let us start with prisons and court decisions. A number of arrests and detentions are ongoing despite the fact that detainees have not been brought to justice and no verdicts have been issued against them. Some of the officials from the former regime have been under arrest for almost two years and they are still awaiting trial, which does not seem imminent. Fehri Sami is still being held despite a decision by the court to release him.

Furthermore, young people have been arrested in several regions due to their participation in demonstrations or sit-ins. They are still waiting to be brought to justice. … Many detainees are also speaking about the miserable conditions in their places of detention. This has led many prisoners, especially Salafists, to go on hunger strike, which, in turn, claimed the lives of two young Salafists!

Were fundamental human rights really respected in our prisons? Facts prove otherwise.

In addition, there are reprehensible practices across the geopolitical landscape. These are sometimes even backed by political "officials." Meanwhile, there are groups that call themselves "the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution" (LPR). These are acting freely with the aim of "cleansing" the country and getting rid of the "CDR remnants." The same LPR did not hesitate to assassinate Lotfi Naghadh, a Nidaa Tounes party activist from Tataouine. The same LPR did not hesitate to attack the largest unionist institution in the country, the UGTT, in a "clean-up" operation on Dec. 4. Are these leagues acting in accordance with human rights?

Yet still, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the ruling Ennahda party, stubbornly defends them and describes them as "the conscience of the people," simply because they defend his party’s achievements and interests.

Ironically enough, in spite of multi-party calls demanding the dissolution of these leagues because of the offenses and injustices they commit, Mohamed Abbou, president of the CPR, believes that "their dissolution would violate the principles of human rights and would break the law." He even added that it is contrary to the principle of equality of all before the law. And yet, this same Mohamed Abbou, who serves as a lawyer at the Court of Appeals of Tunis, was well known for his support of human rights, being the founder of the International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners and member of the CNLT.

On a more institutional level, the state violated fundamental human rights, notably through the Ministry of the Interior, which did not find a better way to confront the protesters of Siliana than by shooting them with buckshot, a weapon which causes — among other injuries — serious eye damage which can lead to blindness.

Isn't it a violation of human rights to shoot with buckshot — a weapon originally designed for animal hunting — crowds who are angry at their governor and calling for regional development?

Human rights are not limited to empty slogans that we repeat from time to time to seduce the electorate or to save face in front of the international community. [Human rights] are primarily concrete practices with clear rules to protect them. This is the perfect opportunity for these former activists of human rights who are now in power to get to work and translate their words into actions.

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Found in: moncef marzouki, islamist, ennahda
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