Will Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission Heal the Wounds of the Authoritarian Past?
Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission sets a precedent in transitional justice initiatives amongst countries that experienced the Arab uprisings four years ago, and has been greeted with optimism by victims of the Ben Ali regime. But unreliable support from the government, and internal divisions within the Commission, pose threats to its ability to fully deliver justice for historical human rights abuses
In 2011, popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa were inspired by Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. Four years later, Tunisia is again setting a precedent in the region – its Truth and Dignity Commission, which began work in December 2014, will be the first attempt at a ‘truth and reconciliation’-style process in a country that overthrew a dictatorial regime in 2011. And many herald the establishment of the Truth and Dignity Commission as another sign that Tunisia is the Arab Spring’s ‘success story’ – as Syria continues to be engulfed by war, Libya disintegrates with two governments each claiming legitimacy, and Egypt slides back to authoritarianism under Sisi, Tunisia appears the country of the 2011 revolutions that is best placed to begin to address its authoritarian past.
The Truth and Dignity Commission was established in the 2014 constitution and 2014 Transitional Justice Law. The Commission has a broad remit to address “political, social and economic crimes” committed between 1956 and 2013. Its work will encompass both ‘informal’ transitional justice processes like ‘truth-telling’ and recognition of victims of human rights violations which seek to bring about societal-level reconciliation, and more ‘formal’ aspects such as reparations, which will be paid from the Commission’s Victims Fund.
The Commission has been welcomed by victim’s rights groups and anti-torture groups who, particularly throughout the Ben Ali period, sought accountability for human rights abuses committed by the state, and campaigned for rule of law and transparency. The Commission claims that its offices currently receive, on average, five people a day seeking justice for human rights abuses committed by the state.
The inclusion of the word ‘Dignity’ in the transitional justice body is significant, a self-conscious reference to the demand of the Tunisian Revolution for “employment, freedom, and national dignity.” As such, the Commission positions itself as an inheritor and defender of the values of the revolution, notably a rejection of the authoritarianism and corruption of the Ben Ali era. However, human rights organisations have expressed concern that current high-level politicians, particularly President Essebi who was elected in late 2014, held high-ranking governmental positions under Bourguiba and Ben Ali, and as such will be disinclined to support the spirit of the transitional justice initiative. While the constitution protects the existence of the Truth and Dignity Commission, the government has ultimate control over its budget, a fact that has already begun to constrain the work of the Commission. If the current and/or future Tunisian government is not fully supportive of the Commission’s work, this could pose problems particularly for its planned work that deals with reparations.
Moreover, in a report released in January 2015 entitled ‘Tunisia: Four Years On, Injustice Prevails’, Human Rights Watch noted that transitional justice processes and the attempt to establish transparency and rule of law were still far from complete, and that efforts to “ensure accountability for unlawful killings committed during the 2011 uprising were blighted by legal and investigative problems and failed to deliver justice for the victims.”
In addition to the external obstacle of the government’s wavering support for the Commission, the body has also been marred by internal divisions, as members of the Commission come from across the political landscape, from left-leaning feminists to those who identify with Islamist ideologies. Lastly, the Commission faces the challenge of living up to the pressure placed on it by the region, as the first commission of its kind since the revolution, to provide a ‘template’ for post-2011 transitional justice in the wake of authoritarianism. The Truth and Dignity Commission thus faces a difficult task – but hopefully not an insurmountable one.