Anti-discrimination law 'a huge victory for Tunisia'

Anti-discrimination law 'a huge victory for Tunisia'
4 min read
24 October, 2018
Offenders are eligible for prison time, marking a huge victory for rights campaigners, writes Massinissa Benlakehal.
Sub-Saharan Africans face disrimination, particularly in northern Tunisia [Getty]

It is an initial success for the civil society organisations, 172 years after becoming the first Arab or Muslim country to abolish slavery. For rights campaigners, it is a huge victory. 

For the first time in the country's history, it's now possible to prohibit and punish a wide range of discriminatory acts. 

Saadia Mosbah is one of those who strongly lobbied for the new legislation alongside other activists and NGO workers. She comes from the southern city of Gabes, and runs an association named M'nemti. 

"We have been calling for such a law since 2012," she tells The New Arab. "For the government, the issue wasn't previously a priority."

The North African government, instead placed an emphasis on what it deemed persistent and larger economic and political issues, as well as security-related concerns. 

This new law comes as a result of a lengthy lobbying campaign led by several civil society groups, kicking off after headlines were made when a group of minority students from southern Tunisia were targeted.

Racial discrimination will now be defined in Tunisia as "any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, ancestry" or other discrimination that leads to "disturbances, an obstruction or privation". 

It allows prison sentences of up to three years for convictions and fines equivalent to between $345 and $1,152.

Early this year, the Tunisian ministerial council approved the draft law against racial discrimination. This was seen as a first for the North African country enmeshed in a process of democratisation since the 2011 revolution.

The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, EuroMed Rights and the Committee for the Respect of Liberties and Human Rights in Tunisia, also lobbied for the new legislation.

In a joint statement released online, the three organisations say they "welcome the adoption of this law and pledge to continue their struggle, with all civil society's forces involved, to eliminate all forms of discrimination and promote a culture of equality among all".

They also called on the authorities "to speed up the promulgation of orders and to provide victims of racist attacks with support and legal assistance".

On the political side, it's not without benefits for the current government - despite various disputes between the ruling party and the prime minister's supporters.

In fact, the Tunisian government sees the law as the actualisation of a promise made by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed on December 26, 2016. The day has been designated the National Day Against Racial Discrimination.

Messaoud Romdhani, of Tunisia's Forum for Economic and Social Rights, said sub-Saharan Africans living in Tunisia - including many students and workers - have endured daily discrimination in the form of verbal and physical aggression.

"The vote of this law is a response to the expectations of the Tunisian civil society," Romdhani explains. "It's a major step forward, which requires a lot of additional work to achieve it."

Migrants from sub-Saharan countries and Tunisian nationals from southern areas are most likely to suffer racial discrimination in Tunisia, particularly in big cities.

"It is not something that will change overnight," said Romdhani. "It's not only to incriminate racist acts, but to remove the idea of discrimination in the Tunisian mind, try to root this African horizon inside us, it's all work to do."

On the southern island of Djerba, for example, a popular tourist destination and the home of the Jewish community in Tunisia, many residents continue calling sub-Saharan Africans by the name "Atig" - the Arabic word for "freed slave".

Criminalisation is not enough, there is still a lot to do, Romdhani argues. It is a process of education, he adds: "It's the legacy of a whole history in Tunisia and we believe in the success of this process.

"We must remain vigilant and continue our outreach work and continue to work with people in government and civil society."

Much important work needs to be done within the family.

"It is a very important thing to do, and I am optimistic while remaining attentive to the future and how it would unfold - because we are still, unfortunately, a society that has prejudices against people of other races and colours."

Now the law has been adopted, central and local governments will have to delineate public policies on racial discrimination and also work on raising awareness.

It is also expected that a commission will be created, and tasked with proposing strategies and actions to be implemented at the local and national levels.

Massinissa Benlakehal is a freelance journalist, covering politics, society, human rights and security related issues in North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @mbenlakehal