In the last week of August, Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission—the body tasked with a broad mandate to implement transitional justice for human rights violations between July 1955 and December 2013—was thrown into turmoil when commissioner Zouheir Makhlouf was removed by his colleagues for alleged legal violations after he wrote to parliament accusing other commission members of corruption. The internal upheaval is only the latest challenge to Tunisia’s fragile transitional justice process. Despite a transitional justice law that local activists and international experts have described favorably,1 the Truth and Dignity Commission has struggled to overcome a challenging political environment that endangers the country’s efforts to hold human rights abusers accountable and reform recalcitrant state institutions.

Some of the damage has been self-inflicted: to the frustration of Tunisia’s transitional justice activists, the recent problems inside the commission are nothing new. Three of the original fifteen commissioners had already resigned in its first year of operating, and only one was subsequently replaced. Coming from diverse backgrounds, the commissioners reportedly struggled to overcome political and personal disagreements to form an effective team,2 and the commission’s president Sihem Bensedrine has become a polarizing figure both inside and outside the commission for her allegedly aggressive and dominating leadership style. Even allies of the body have been frustrated by its inability to develop a coherent communications strategy to explain its work to the public.3 In part, these internal challenges are manifestations of the broader, problematic political context surrounding transitional justice—opponents have aggressively fought against a robust process and supporters have struggled to overcome political divisions and ambivalence.
From the start, the commission was hobbled by the intense polarization between the Ennahda-led Troika government and its opponents. Despite a base that strongly supports transitional justice, Ennahda delayed passage of a transitional justice law for fear of alienating key state institutions and stirring up further opposition in a highly polarized political environment. As a result, the law was not passed until December 2013, after much of the country’s revolutionary momentum had faded. The Ennahda-led National Constituent Assembly then selected the Truth and Dignity Commission’s members, leaving the body vulnerable to allegations that its members were too close to the Islamists. This partisan divide stripped the commission of potential allies among those who advocated for transitional justice but opposed what they saw as Ennahda’s influence over the process. Several civil society organizations attempted to challenge the members’ selection in court, pushing for the formation of a new body rather than supporting the commission’s efforts during its crucial first year,4 and partisan disagreements reportedly played a role in the initial resignations of at least two commissioners.

State institutions and political forces sympathetic to the Ben Ali regime also actively opposed transitional justice efforts. Some fear being implicated for past crimes, while others believe the previous violations have been overstated and distract from more important issues. Following the election of President Beji Caid Essebsi in December 2014 and the formation of a coalition government between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda, these opponents have been ascendant, and the commission has become even more politically isolated. Nidaa Tounes, which has many officials from the old regime among its ranks, including Essebsi himself, has been skeptical of transitional justice. As a result, the commission has struggled to manage relations with the parliament, the presidency, and emboldened security forces over the past several months, resulting in problems such as budget delays, difficulties with accessing archives, and political pressure on the commission’s members. 

The latest challenge to the commission came in July, when President Essebsi’s government reinvigorated the debate over transitional justice by unveiling a draft law for reconciliation with Tunisians accused of corruption and other financial crimes. The proposed bill would establish a new presidential commission to review these cases and even reach arrangements with businessmen to pay back stolen funds in exchange for amnesty. Its supporters argue the bill would complement rather than replace the transitional justice process—they claim the law is needed to help revive Tunisia’s moribund economy by freeing up much-needed funds and attracting new investments.5

Opponents see it differently. In their view, the proposal reflects a direct attempt to undermine transitional justice by further isolating the commission. Tunisia’s transitional justice proponents have been particularly proud of the process’s emphasis on economic issues as a part of the old regime’s systematic human rights violations, and a major component of the Truth and Dignity Commission’s mandate involves economic crimes. But the president’s proposal would supersede the commission’s work on these issues, and the body has reacted angrily to the proposal, claiming it is an unconstitutional infringement on its mandate that will invalidate the entire transitional justice process. According to the commission’s president, Sihem Bensedrine, the law will not only affect a narrow subset of economic cases, but a majority of the commission’s work, because corruption played such a central role in the Ben Ali regime and was often tied directly to other human rights violations as well.6

But the president’s proposal has also rallied supporters of transitional justice to the commission’s side. Even civil society organizations and political parties that continue to differ with the commission’s members have nevertheless spoken out against the law and defended the body.7 Opponents in parliament have been fairly vocal, and the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) has also declared its opposition to the law. Under pressure, Essebsi has expressed his desire for consensus on the issue—but with Nidaa Tounes on board with the bill and Ennahda not openly opposed to it, the opposition still faces a serious challenge if it hopes to kill the proposal.

Despite its serious internal problems, the Truth and Dignity Commission has already received more than 15,000 files from victims of the former regime and expects to receive thousands more. With access to so much information, the body may well succeed at fulfilling part of its mandate: to expose the truth of the dictatorship and create a new narrative of Tunisia’s past. But the commission will have a much harder time making headway with its other tasks, whether providing reparations for victims, attaining judicial prosecutions, or influencing institutional reforms. Given that these efforts will rely to a large extent on a government and state institutions that have already proven hostile toward transitional justice, Tunisians will probably be disappointed if they still hope for the process to bring far-reaching changes to their state.

Scott Williamson is a PhD candidate in political science at Stanford University. 

1. Interviews with international and Tunisian NGOs working on transitional justice, July-August 2015
2. Interview with Tunisian human rights activist, July 21, 2015
3. Interviews with international and Tunisian NGOs working on transitional justice, July-August 2015
4. Interview with Tunisian transitional justice activist, August 4, 2015
5. Interview with Nidaa Tounes MP, August 10, 2015
6. Interview with Sihem Bensedrine, August 1, 2015
7. Interview with Hamma Hammami, August 11, 2015; Interview with Tunisian transitional justice activist, August 4, 2015