Tunisia’s attempts to address transitional justice issues have been sporadic and disorganized at best. Following the initial steps—days after the overthrow of former President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali—to dissolve his ruling party, the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD), the country's external communication agency, the Agence Tunisienne de Communication Exterieure (ATCE), which served as a propaganda machine for the regime, was also closed down. Investigation commissions were quickly established to shed light on corruption, human rights abuses, and on the killing of protesters during the uprising. But since the elections for Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly in October 2011, the will to confront transitional justice issues has declined. Crimes of the past have gone unaddressed—despite the fact that Tunisia is the first country to have created a ministry to deal specifically with transitional justice. The Technical Commission for the Elaboration of the Draft Law, a mixed commission of civil society actors and ministry employees formed in May 2012, drew up a draft law on transitional justice, which has now been shelved for half a year.
Much is expected of the transitional justice process, as it is required to deal with years of regime repression that had systematically silenced and victimized Tunisians from various backgrounds, including communists, unionists, student activists, and Islamists. It also must address crimes of the revolutionary period; the investigation commissions put in place immediately after the revolution to shed light on the human rights abuses during the revolution report that 338 people died and 2174 were wounded. However, politicization of transitional justice issues, among other challenges, has stalled the process after the elections. The victims of the former governments of Bourguiba and Ben Ali—including members of the current ruling party Ennahda—have yet to agree on a common vision of the past, further hampering the process of transitional justice.
Like many initiatives that began in the immediate aftermath of the revolution—a time when many civil society actors and politicians were eager to start projects but unprepared for the challenges of post-authoritarian transition—the work of the investigation commissions has been largely ineffective. Even trials of former regime figures that took place shortly after government overthrow, including the trial—in absentia—of Ben Ali himself, were hurried, botched up, and eventually considered show trials. The ruling family was condemned for rather small economic crimes, and therefore the trials were judged of little importance by the Tunisian population and dismissed as maneuvers to calm public opinion. Before the elections, the mechanisms and institutions put in place by transitional governments to address transitional justice issues (including the investigation commissions) had little legitimacy. The commissions’ findings were questioned, particularly after the elections, and the issue of transitional justice became mired in politics.
Reform of the judiciary—the main implementation mechanism—and security sectors has also been severely neglected, presenting major challenges to Tunisia’s transition. The Ministry of the Interior, operating largely as a state within the state, still struggles to reform itself. Even though some efforts have been undertaken to get rid of those closely associated with the former regime, the reform of the apparatus—a large concrete block dominating the main boulevard of Tunis—drags on slowly. Furthermore, the documents of the secret service and political police that implicate torturers, informers, and those responsible for the oppression of opposition figures, may still be inside the building. Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the Ennahda party, recently promised the publication of much of this archived material before the upcoming elections, without giving details on a possible legal framework. However, many concluded that this is mainly a campaign promise rather than a serious attempt to deal with past human rights abuses.
The draft law on transitional justice itself is still waiting to be discussed by the Constituent Assembly, much to the disgrace of the Ministry for Human Rights and Transitional Justice. With the vote of the draft constitution coming up, a discussion of the transitional justice draft law is likely to be delayed again, even though there is surprising consensus on most of its articles. This consensus was facilitated by the composition of the commission, as the majority of its members were civil society representatives with diverse political backgrounds and only two of the twelve members were ministry employees. The commission held consultative meetings in all the regions of the country to understand what victims of rights violations expected from the law: 37% asked for their grievances to be legally recognized, 29% expected financial benefits, and 28% wanted confessions by the abusers.
The most important element of the draft law is the creation of a "Truth and Dignity Commission," formed of fifteen independent members with a four-year term, to create a reparations fund and to put in place trained judges to deal specifically with transitional justice cases. The draft law also indicates that entire regions can be considered victims, and therefore receive special development aid—a clear reference to the regional imbalance that in part sparked the Tunisian uprising.
While the law enjoys wide support, its scope has been hotly debated. The commission is set to cover grievances that have occurred since the country’s independence on March 20, 1956. This date, which considers the entire history of independent Tunisia a history of injustice, led to discontent among the deputies of the Constituent Assembly. However, the biggest obstacle facing the transitional justice initiative is not the law or its scope, but rather the issue of implementation. Reforms of Tunisia’s judicial system remain slow, and the majority of the judges are remnants of Ben Ali’s regime. Some 75 judges have been dismissed since the revolution without clear legal proceedings, and the Judges’ Union continues to blame the Ministry of Justice and the Constituent Assembly for the slow pace of reforms.
Yet another challenge that could reduce the entire draft law on transitional justice to a footnote in Tunisia's post-revolution history is a law—proposed by a group of deputies close to the governing coalition—that would completely exclude former RCD members from the political landscape. The so-called "law on the immunization of the revolution" is essentially targeting members of Beji Caid Essebsi's party, Nidaa Tounes, which is the strongest opponent to Ennahda. Collectively condemning former members of the RCD would strengthen Ennahda's image as a bulwark against the return of the old regime in the lead-up to elections. However, it might also lead to the unjust condemnation of many people, especially given that many Tunisians were forced to join Ben Ali’s party. Observers deem the law a serious threat to the process of transitional justice, seeing it as a campaign maneuver unlikely to bring justice to the victims of the former regimes, but likely to stifle discussion on past human rights abuses.
Sarah Mersch is a Tunisia-based freelance journalist.