Tunisia's transition

Tunisia's transition
5 min read
06 Nov, 2014
Following the Tunisian revolution and democratic elections, the country is now looking to correct past crimes and ensure they won't occur again.
Tunisia's transition to democracy has been relatively peaceful (AFP)

While war and coups have marked the region since the Arab Spring began three years ago, Tunisia has taken the world by surprise. The Jasmine Revolution was the first of its kind in the Arab world, and rare in that the country has experienced a peaceful democratic transition. One day this experience might be referred to as the “Tunisian model” in political literature.

This model began to take shape with the ratification of the first democratic constitution in the Arab region. This was approved by an elected constituent assembly and then endorsed by the people in an open referendum.


What followed were free and fair elections, in which no side was excluded. A democratic handover of power took place through the ballot box, another first for Arabs. A few days ago, electoral campaigns for the first free, direct and democratic presidential elections began in earnest.


In addition, transitional justice in Tunisia is expected to be another major achievement in the country’s democratic transition.


There can be no real democratic achievement without true transitional justice to right the wrongs of past injustices committed by authoritarian regimes. All experiments that try to bypass this, or establish some cosmetic justice, end in failure, with democracy ultimately suffering. Examples of successful transitional justice are few, but include Chile, Argentina, Peru and El Salvador in South America; South Africa, Rwanda and Sierra Leone in Africa; and Serbia and Greece in Europe.


Maghreb’s breakthroughs


In the Arab region, Morocco a decade ago became the only country to meet at least some of the criteria of transitional justice when the country established the Equity and Reconciliation Commission after campaigning by civil society groups and victims of human rights abuses. However, it was incomplete on more than one level. For instance, it excluded a search for truth, in its name and programme. Without a search for truth for the reasons and culprits of past crimes, justice cannot be served. The Moroccan experiment insisted on reconciliation rather than accountability. This left the door open for impunity, the antithesis of justice.


The Moroccan experience set a timetable for achieving transitional justice under the late king, yet violations and corruption have continued during the reign of the current ruler. Last, but not least, the recommendations of the body overseeing the experiment remained ink on paper. Ten years later, violations, corruption and impunity continues. This requires a new process for real transitional justice in Morocco.


The Tunisian experiment therefore remains unique in the Arab region. It follows a wave of popular protests that successfully ousted an authoritarian regime, and takes place amid a promising democratic transition.


A search for truth


The Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC), established by the constituent assembly that drafted the new Tunisian constitution, will oversee the process. Chairing the TDC is Sihem Ben Sedrine, a renowned human rights activist, respected at home and abroad. Her persistent and courageous struggle against the former regime made her a strong candidate for the position. By appointing a female activist to preside over the TDC, with unanimous support from members of the constituent assembly, including the Islamist Ennahdha Party, Tunisia has set yet another example illustrating the uniqueness of its experiment.


Above all, the outcome, like the Tunisian revolution, promises some surprises. The Organic Law on Establishing and Organising Transitional Justice, which governs the TDC, will ensure that there is no impunity or lack of accountability for those who have committed past crimes.


Those involved in gross human rights violations, including killings, rape or sexual violence, torture, forced disappearance, and execution without a fair trial, will be dealt with through specialised judicial chambers. This body will also look into cases involving electoral fraud, financial corruption, the misuse of public funds, and pressuring people into exile for political reasons.


There can be no real democratic achievement without true transitional justice

Institutional failures of the old regime will be corrected by the TDC, with the dismantling of systems that were responsible for corruption, oppression and tyranny. The establishment of a state of law is key to this, as are revising and vetting institutions that have been connected with corruption and human rights violations.


A committee with bite


To give teeth to the new law, a new committee will be formed to vet all employees in the state sector. It also has powers to recommend the dismissal or obligatory retirement of any official that submitted information to the former ruling party or the secret police, which led to torture or violence. The same applies to public servants responsible for the appropriation of public funds.  


Anyone who hinders or obstructs the work of the TDC, does not respond to its summons or falsifies a testimony, can face a prison term of up to six month.


The work of the TDC will last for four years, and cover a period from 1956 to the date the committee was established. It will then prepare a report containing its findings and make recommendations to ensure these violations are not repeated again. It will also take measures to promote democracy and human rights.


Transitional justice is ultimately achieved by restoring civil rights, uncovering the truth, paying compensation to the victims. This can only be done by not only establishing the truth about past crimes but also reforming laws to ensure they don’t happen again. When all these objectives are met, the Tunisian revolution will finally have achieved its ultimate goals of freedom and liberty.


This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.