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How Tunisia is addressing its authoritarian past — and why it matters

Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission finally released a report showing past systemic abuses — and naming individuals responsible, including the country’s current president

- April 12, 2019

Last month, Tunisians finally got to see a five-volume report detailing past abuse and naming people responsible or complicit in the authoritarian system — including the country’s president.

The report, prepared by the Truth and Dignity Commission, was the result of more than four years of work and aims to address the country’s authoritarian past. It delivers important insights in an ongoing justice process — and also shows the challenges Tunisia faces as it tries to move forward.

What is the report about?

The report fulfills several functions: It gives an overview of the Tunisian transitional justice process and explains the work of the truth commission. It establishes a historical record of systematic violence, repression and corruption in Tunisia under authoritarian rule. It presents victims’ ideas on reparation and rehabilitation, and it eventually offers recommendations on dismantling the repressive and corrupt structures and proposes measures that should possibly guarantee their non-recurrence.

The report was finished in late 2018, and the commission collected more than 62,000 files from potential victims, conducted almost 50,000 individual hearings and held 14 public hearing sessions, and it referred a large number of cases to the 13 specialized chambers established within the Tunisian judiciary that are tasked with trying gross human rights violations committed since 1955.

But the report does not just draw on the commission’s work, it also refers to prior transitional justice efforts, such as investigative commissions on corruption and abuse during the revolution that had been established shortly before the fall of the regime. The report outlines the lawmaking process and explains in detail the truth commission’s internal structures and working procedures. It provides technical details on how files were treated and hearings were conducted and refers to the obstacles the truth commission faced in its work from several state institutions and political actors. It also frankly describes internal struggles, including resignations and dismissals of truth commissioners — a problem that at times impeded the commission’s working capacity.

A central contribution of the report is that it establishes a historical record of systematic repression and marginalization under dictatorship. It addresses physical violence such as torture, but also dismantles the system of control on which authoritarian rule was built. It shows, for example, the role of the one-party system, the security apparatus and the political police, the judiciary and the media. The Tunisian transitional justice process has been strongly focused on socioeconomic issues, economic crimes and corruption. In this vein, the report reflects on the role of these issues in the overall system of repression.

What is the political context of the report?

There was a window of opportunity for justice and accountability in Tunisia right after the 2010-2011 uprisings, which allowed for the development and institutionalization of such a far-reaching transitional justice process. This window closed relatively quickly, however, and the political climate has since not been particularly favorable toward transitional justice.

The political party that won parliamentary elections and the presidency in 2014 was Nidaa Tounes — the party that absorbed many members of the old regime — and, unsurprisingly, it wants to leave the past behind. Ennahda, the party under whose leadership the transitional justice process was initiated, played an ambiguous role as it has been part of what is called a national unity government with Nidaa Tounes.

Challenges within the Truth and Dignity Commission

Internal struggles over posts, procedures and priorities allowed the commission to appear divided. Time and again, discussions about the commission became personalized, often focusing on the polarizing truth commission president, Sihem Ben Sedrine. “She is no Desmond Tutu,” a Tunisian member of parliament said to me in a research interview, implying that she would not have the conciliatory force of the former chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

But the truth commission also faced external challenges and attempts at obstruction. These include the limitation of access to archives or the president’s reconciliation law initiative, a bill that was aimed at amnesties for corrupt business executives and administrative staff, that in its original form would have significantly curtailed the competencies of the truth commission. (A less-comprehensive version was eventually passed.) After political quarrels over the extension of its mandate, which the responsible ministry granted until the end of 2018, the commission had to terminate its operations before it could complete its tasks. This ties in with assessments that the commission would not be up to its broad mandate, because it would offer “small measures for big problems,” as a critic put it to me in a research interview.

In a subtler manner, the government and head of state have tried to avoid drawing attention to the transitional justice efforts by not engaging with them. Leading political figures from Nidaa Tounes did not participate in the public hearings of the truth commission; neither did they show up at its final conference or at the presentation of the report.

Why is the publication of the report important?

In a context in which those in power have constantly tried to undermine the transitional justice process and the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission, the publication of the report is a crucial accomplishment of the commission. The report establishes a historical record of past abuse. It breaks open the past and explicitly names individuals responsible for or complicit in the authoritarian system, including people currently in power such as President Beji Caid Essebsi.

Although a milestone for transitional justice, the report is only one step toward structural change. It reiterates that the government shall present a plan on implementing the recommendations of the Truth and Dignity Commission. However, a look at other cases shows that it is quite likely that politicians are not interested in a broad circulation of the report and may even actively try to sweep the truth commission’s results under the carpet. In addition, a recently circulated draft bill that aims at terminating all cases before the specialized chambers indicates that the government is working toward abandoning transitional justice in favor of impunity. If transitional justice should go ahead, a broad dissemination of the report would be a crucial step.

Mariam Salehi is a research fellow at the Center for Conflict Studies at the University of Marburg, Germany.