Human rights in Tunisia
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politics and government of
The issue of Human rights in Tunisia, is complex, contradictory, and, in some regards, confusing in the wake of a revolution that began in January 2011 and overthrew the longstanding dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. While the immediate months after the revolution were characterized by significant improvements in the status of human rights, some of those advances have since been reversed. The entire situation, however, remains in a state of considerable flux, with different observers sometimes providing virtually irreconcilable accounts of the current status of human rights in that country.
Long labeled “Not Free” by Freedom House, Tunisia was upgraded to “Partly Free” after the revolution, its political rights rating improving from 7 to 3 (with 7 the worst and 1 the best) and its civil liberties rating going from 5 to 4.
- 1 Pre-revolutionary situation and post-revolutionary developments
- 2 Basic rights
- 3 Right of free expression
- 4 Religious freedom
- 5 Women's rights
- 6 Children's rights
- 7 Rights of asylum seekers and refugees
- 8 Rights of disabled persons
- 9 LGBT rights
- 10 Employee rights
- 11 Rights of persons under arrest
- 12 Rights of persons on trial
- 13 Rights of persons in prison
- 14 Freedom in the World Report
- 15 See also
- 16 Notes
- 17 References
- 18 External links
Pre-revolutionary situation and post-revolutionary developments
A U.S. State Department report, issued in April 2011 depicts the status of human rights in that country on the eve of the revolution, citing “restrictions on freedom of speech, press and association,” the “severe” intimidation of journalists, reprisals against critical of the government, questionable conduct of elections, and reports of arbitrary arrest, widespread corruption, official extortion, government influence over the judiciary, extremely poor prison conditions, and the abuse and torture of detainees and prisoners, involving a wide range of torture methods. Defendants did not enjoy the right to a speedy trial, and access to evidence was often restricted; in cases involving family and inheritance law, judges often ignored civil law and applied sharia instead.
Although the principal cause of the revolt was a frustration over the country's dire economic situation, many leaders of the revolution were longtime human-rights activists and many participants shared their hope of replacing autocracy with a democratic government and a civil society in which human rights were respected. As Christopher de Bellaigue noted in an article posted at the New York Review of Books website on December 18, 2012, Tunisia's new constitution is, “give or take a few vague references to Islam, strikingly secular. (It does not mention the Sharia, for instance, and guarantees equal rights for all Tunisian men and women.)”
The revolution initiated what Amnesty International has described as “a wholesale process of reform” under which “political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, were released; legal restrictions on political parties and NGOs were eased; the Department of State Security (DSS), notorious for torturing detainees with impunity, was dissolved; Tunisia became party to additional international human rights treaties; and a new National Constituent Assembly was elected with a mandate to draft and agree a new Constitution.”
In July 2011, the UN opened its first human-rights office in north Africa. “The whole world watched with amazement and growing respect as Tunisians kept demanding your rights, refusing to be cowed by the repression, the arrests, the torture and all the injuries and tragic loss of life that occurred,” the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said at the official opening of the office. “The impact of these actions, on Tunisia itself, on the wider region, and indeed all across the world is hard to measure and is far from completed. But it has unquestionably been enormous and truly inspirational.” She noted that in the previous three weeks, Tunisia had ratified four major treaties: the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances, and the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court.
Since the revolution, however, according to de Bellaigue, “tensions have risen sharply between the three partners” in the post-revolutionary government, “not least because the divisions between Islamists and secularists that the coalition was designed to bridge, or at least camouflage, are now obvious....increasingly, secularists and religious conservatives have been drawn into a vigorous culture war, in which the former invoke human rights, and the latter, Islamic law.” Moreover, under the current regime, as Amnesty International had pointed out, there have been “continuing human rights violations,” with security forces using excessive force against protesters, who have also been mistreated while in detention.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Truth, Justice, Reparations and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence, Pablo de Greiff, urged Tunisian authorities in November 2012 to put human rights front and center in their transitional efforts. In December 2012, at a World Human Rights Day ceremony in Carthage attended by several top Tunisian government officials, President Marzouki, while complaining about “an excessive freedom of expression of some media,” lamented that “the path towards the construction of a human rights Tunisia is still difficult and full of traps.” One difficulty was that many Tunisians consider the new constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be at odds with Islamic values.
Marzouki admitted that security officials need to undergo a radical change of mindset, while Speaker of the National Constituent Assembly Mustapha Ben Jaafar expressed thanks for the help given to the new regime by a number of human rights organisations. Problems aside, said Ben Jaafar, Tunisia's democratization was “on the right track” and the country was “moving towards a consensus on the new Constitution.” The President of the National Union of Tunisian Judges, Raoudha Labidi, however, charged that the exclusion of judges from the human-rights event represented a denial of judges' pre-revolutionary struggle, “adding that the judicial service is the guarantor of human rights and individual freedoms in the country.”
In a December 2012 article, Dorra Megdiche Meziou took a cynical view of the Human Rights Day event. While acknowledging “the historic achievements of the incumbent President of the Republic, Moncef Marzouki, as a human rights activist,” noting that he had been on “the steering committee of the Arab Organization for Human Rights,” belonged to “the Tunisian branch of Amnesty International,” served as “president of the Arab Committee for Human Rights,” and “co-founded the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia,” and while further acknowledging that Mustapha Ben Jaafar, too, had helped advance human rights as “a main figure in the Tunisian opposition,” Meziou complained that “serious violations and infringements of human rights” remain in today's Tunisia, and called on “these former activists of human rights who are now in power to get to work and translate their words into actions.”
In October 2012, Amnesty International said that Tunisia's revolutionary reforms had been eroded, with recent months seeing “new restrictions on freedom of expression targetting journalists, artists, critics of the government, writers and bloggers,” leading to a journalists' strike. Also, protesters complaining that reforms have not been instituted quickly enough, “have been met with unnecessary and excessive force.” In addition, Human Rights Watch documented the government's failure to look into attacks on political activists by radical Islamic groups. Amnesty International admitted to “doubt” regarding the commitment of Tunisia's new leaders to reform, saying that “Tunisia is at a crossroads” and calling for “urgent steps...to realise the rights and freedoms for which Tunisians fought so tenaciously and bravely in late 2010 and early 2011.”
Tunisia, according to de Bellaigue, “has taken important strides toward a more representative and accountable political system. The institutions are working, albeit imperfectly. Freedom of speech is being observed to a degree that is unprecedented in the country’s modern history. To be sure, secularists and Islamists exert themselves to ensure that their view of the world carries the day, but I have spoken to hard-liners in both camps who accept that, for as long as the majority opposes them, compromise is inevitable.”
After the revolution, moreover, Tunisia became the first nation in the Arab world “to legally enshrine gender parity in the electoral rolls.” According to Freedom House, the October 2011 elections “represented a dramatic improvement in electoral freedoms and practices. Under the former regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the cabinet, much of the legislature, and many regional officials had been appointed directly by the president. Elections were tightly controlled, and term limits were extended to allow Ben Ali to remain in power. By contrast, in the 2011 elections, all 217 members of the Constituent Assembly were directly elected through party-list voting in 33 multimember constituencies, and voters were able to choose from political parties representing a wide range of ideologies and political philosophies, including Islamist and secularist groups. Many of the parties that competed were excluded from political participation under Ben Ali.”
Dorra Megdiche Meziou complained in December 2012 about “groups that call themselves 'the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution' (LPR),” which despite its involvement in a political assassination and in an attack on members of the UGTT federation of unions, had been defended by the ruling party, whose leader had called the LPR “the conscience of the people.”
Right of free expression
Post-revolutionary press laws are considerably more liberal than the legislation they replaced. While it is no longer a crime to defame or offend public officials or institutions, defamation in general remains a crime, although one that is not punishable by imprisonment. Defamation of recognized religions also remains a crime, as does “distributing false information”, a charge on which the pre-revolutionary government prosecuted dissidents and human rights activists. This charge was used by the post-revolutionary government on May 29, 2012, to detain police official Samir Feriani, who had accused high-ranking government officials in the death of protesters during the revolution.
The new government has also failed in some cases to protect individuals exercising their free speech. On June 29, 2012, when dozens of Muslims charged into a screening in Tunis of a movie about atheism, police failed to respond. In October 2012, a prosecutor announced plans to investigate a complaint against Nessma TV for broadcasting a film that Muslims considered offensive. Although persons who vandalized and attempted to set fire to the home of Nessma TV co-owner Nebil Karaoui were arrested, they were “detained only briefly and not charged,” whereas Karaoui and two Nessma TV employees are still awaiting trial on charges of “undermining sacred values.”
In December 2012, Human Rights Watch called on Tunisia’s justice minister to “ensure the immediate release of Sami Fehri, the director of the privately owned Attounissia TV channel,” who remained in prison after Tunisia's highest court, the Court of Cassation, had ordered his immediate release on November 28. Although Fehri had been charged with embezzlement, Fehri claimed that the real reason for his arrest was his broadcasting of a satirical show about leading Tunisian politicians. “Refusing to carry out a ruling by the highest judicial authority undermines the rule of law in Tunisia,” said Eric Goldstein of Human Rights Watch.
Academic freedom, which was seriously limited before the revolution, has been significantly expanded.
Freedom House has noted that Tunisia's “small populations of Jews and Christians have generally been free to practice their faiths,” and that following the revolution “conservative and fundamentalist Muslims had more freedom to express their beliefs without state interference and to openly discuss the role that religion should play in the public sphere.”
After taking power, the post-revolutionary government accepted in principle equality between women and men in elections. Human Rights Watch has noted that “Tunisia, long viewed as the most progressive Arab country with respect to women’s rights, marked additional advances in this field” as a result of the revolution. For example, the Council of Ministers decided to withdraw Tunisia’s reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, though the government suggested “it might not implement reforms that conflict with Islam.”
Furthermore, Tunisia bans polygamy and the Islamic practice by which a man can divorce his wife with a simple declaration. Men and women have equal divorce rights and are required to undergo a judicial process to receive a divorce. The minimum age for marriage for both men and women is 18; since 1993, women have enjoyed the right to pass their names and nationalities to their children. As one observer has noted, in Tunis, unlike many cities in the Muslim world, “unmarried young men and women mingle openly together in coffee shops and restaurants. Most of the men are clean-shaven and dressed in modern European styles. The women are not veiled; many of them wear makeup and do not have headscarves.” Still, discrimination persists under law and in daily life, with women still denied equal rights in inheritance and custody matters.
According to pre-revolutionary laws, Tunisian children inherited their citizenship from: a Tunisian father; a Tunisian mother and an unknown father; a Tunisian mother and a father who has no nationality; or birth in Tunisia to a Tunisian mother and a foreign father. Children were entitled to free education up to and including university. School attendance was mandatory up to age 16. Under the pre-revolutionary government there were severe penalties for assaulting minors, but prosecution of such offenses was extremely rare. Government-employed social workers assisted abused children, and the Ministry of Women's Affairs, Family, Children, and Elderly Persons “employed a child protection delegate in each of the country's 24 districts to intervene in cases of sexual, economic, or criminal exploitation of children.” Presumably these rules and protections are still in place in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
Rights of asylum seekers and refugees
Many people fled to Tunisia in 2011, including Libyans fleeing the revolution in that country. Some were returned home but at the end of 2011 several thousand remained at a refugee camp on the Libyan border. Human Rights Watch described the situation as a “humanitarian crisis,” noting that “Tunisia hosted at least 195,241 third-country nationals” as of mid 2011, and that “the military authorities—aided by Tunisian civil society, international organizations, and volunteers—made significant efforts to respond to the humanitarian needs.”
Rights of disabled persons
Pre-revolutionary Tunisian law banned, and presumably post-revolutionary law still prohibits, discrimination against disabled persons. The prewar law required that “at least 1 percent of public and private sector jobs be reserved for persons who have disabilities,” but many employers were not even aware of this law. Prior to the revolution, the government had “increased vocational training programs in handicrafts geared toward persons who have disabilities,” and a 1991 required new public buildings to be accessible to the disabled. Before the revolution, it was the job of the Ministry of Social Affairs, Solidarity, and Tunisians Abroad to protect disabled rights, and this is presumably still the case.
One group that has not benefited noticeably from the Tunisian revolution is LGBT people. “While the fall of Ben Ali has afforded a greater space to free expression, not all Tunisian homosexuals are convinced things are headed in the right direction,” reported the Tunisia Live website in January 2012. “Homosexuals in Tunisia celebrated the ouster of dictator Ben Ali, hoping it would improve their situation,” noted Deutsche Welle in November 2012. “But in nearly two years, little has changed for the country's gay and lesbian community.” Under Article 230 of the penal code, anal intercourse can still be punished by up to three years in prison. In June 2012, Tunisia's Minister for Human Rights vehemently rejected a call by the United Nations Human Rights Committee to decriminalize same-sex acts, dismissing sexual orientation as a Western concept and insisting on its incompatibility with Islam. A good deal of anecdotal evidence suggests that harassment and assaults by police officers and others on LGBT persons continue to be widespread.
In August 2012, a gay Italian tourist identified as Angelo was murdered in the Tunisian resort town of Hammamet by a local who stabbed him 10 times. A friend claimed that he had cried for help but that “his plea went unanswered because he was gay.” She described a man who kept eating a bowl of soup “just a few feet from the man’s murder” and she also maintained that “townspeople spoke as if Angelo deserved to die because of his homosexuality and children laughed at the tragedy.” Commenting on the murder, a Tunisian editor for Gay Middle East said that “human rights in general and LGBT rights in particular” are “getting worse in Tunisia...Society hated gays before Ben Ali, but under [the new ruling party] Ennahda, homosexuality is used as political weapon even more rigorously than in Ben Ali’s time.”
Michael Lucas, referring in The Advocate in December 2012 to the closeted gay life of pre-revolutionary Tunisia, claimed that the situation “has gotten even darker in the past two years. Laws against homosexual activity were rarely enforced under Ben Ali, a pro-Western military leader whose regime helped insulate Tunisia from the rising tide of religious fanaticism that has engulfed much of the Muslim world. But the new government of Tunisia is officially Islamist....Gay Tunisians tell me that arrests for homosexuality have been on the rise, sometimes resulting in jail terms of up to three years, from which some prisoners—victims of harassment, rape and violence from other inmates—never return. Before 2011, transsexuals and drag queens could be seen in the streets; now they have disappeared.”
There is still no official LGBT rights organization in Tunisia, although an online magazine for gays was established in March 2011.
Before the revolution, Tunisian law technically allowed workers to join unions, but this right was not always respected. All unions belonged to the UGTT, a federation that was technically independent but whose leaders were often subject to government harassment and to limitations on their freedom of action. Strikes were subject to UGTT approval, a requirement that the International Trade Union Conference called a violation of employee rights, but in practice unions rarely asked for such approval. Collective bargaining was permitted and protected. Forced labor was illegal, although some girls were compelled to work as domestic servants, and there were rules governing work by children, with those under 16 generally forbidden to work, although in practice many children “performed agricultural work in rural areas and worked as vendors in towns.”
The UGTT played a major role in the revolution but “has become the main opposition force” against the new government. During the post-revolutionary period it “has been flexing its muscles,” announcing a general strike that was called off after talks with government officials.
Rights of persons under arrest
Post-revolutionary amendments to Tunisia's law on torture brought it more into line with international law. Though there continue to be accusations of torture, such incidents are far less common than before the revolution. Most such accusations concern the beating of protestors at demonstrations or at police stations. Freedom House notes that human-rights reforms have not taken place in the law-enforcement sector as extensively as in other spheres of Tunisian society. And Amnesty International has noted that while Tunisia's post-revolutionary Interior Ministry planned sweeping police reforms, it has not addressed pre-revolutionary human-rights violations by the police and others in authority.
Meziou noted in December 2012 that the post-revolutionary government was arresting people but not bringing them to trial. “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,” she wrote. Also, young demonstrators in various places around the country had been arrested and were awaiting trial under “miserable conditions.”
Rights of persons on trial
Before the revolution, according to Freedom House, Tunisia's judiciary “was carefully managed by the executive branch, which controlled the appointment and assignment of judges. Trials of suspected Islamists, human rights activists, and journalists were typically condemned as grossly unfair and politically biased by domestic and international observers.” While such abuses “declined significantly in 2011,” and the judiciary underwent “some changes,” the courts, like law-enforcement agencies, “have been criticized for lagging behind other institutions in their pace of reform, and there is a significant backlog of cases related to abuses by members of the former regime and security forces that have yet to be officially addressed.”
At a series of workshops offered in 2012 by the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute, the International Legal Assistance Consortium, and the CEELI Institute, the majority of Tunisian judges were provided with training about human rights and the role of judges in a democratic society. In October 2012, however, Human Rights Watch criticized Tunisia's justice minister for dismissing 75 judges, calling on Tunisia's parliament to “urgently pass a law to create an independent body to govern the discipline and dismissal of judges in an impartial and transparent manner.”
Rights of persons in prison
Prison conditions in Tunisia have long been considered extremely substandard, with overcrowding and violence among the major problems. “Hygiene was extremely poor, and prisoners rarely had access to showers and washing facilities,” according to a U.S. State Department report issued in early 2011. Typically, up to fifty inmates were confined in “a single 194-square-foot cell, and as many as 140 prisoners shared a 323-square-foot cell. Most prisoners were forced to share beds or sleep on the floor. Current and former prisoners reported that the lack of basic facilities forced inmates to share a single water and toilet facility with more than 100 cellmates, creating serious sanitation problems. Contagious diseases, particularly scabies, were widespread, and prisoners did not have access to adequate medical care.” A U.S. State Department report issued in early 2012 described prison conditions as “varied” and noted that while two prisons observed in February by Human Rights Watch had been overcrowded, the situation was expected to improve as the result of an amnesty that “freed thousands of political prisoners detained during the Ben Ali era.” The report indicated, however, that up-to-date, comprehensive information about post-revolutionary prison conditions was hard to come by.
Although the death penalty has not technically been abolished, post-revolutionary Tunisia has maintained the moratorium on executions that was put in place in 1991.
Freedom in the World Report
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