What Does Human Rights Watch Say About Tunisia?

January 19, 2017

by Finn Quigley

Last week, Human Rights Watch released its annual World Report examining the state of human rights across the world. The chapter on Tunisia provides hope in an otherwise bleak assessment of the Arab region. The report notes the Tunisian government’s continued progress in safeguarding civil liberties since the 2011 revolution. In 2016, the country saw important criminal justice reforms and some progress on transitional justice and women’s rights. Nevertheless, rights abuses still occur in the new Tunisia. The state of emergency declared by President Beji Caid Essebsi after terrorist attacks in 2015 and extended in 2016 allows the government to limit some freedoms, and torture of detainees by police remains a significant problem. The LGBT community continues to suffer pervasive discrimination.

Among the 2016 advances in human rights highlighted in the report is the Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD). In November 2016, it began holding public hearings to investigate human rights crimes committed by the state between 1955, shortly after Tunisian independence, and 2013, when Parliament passed the law establishing the commission. In 2016, Parliament also passed a law ensuring suspects of most crimes the right to counsel at the start of their detention and limiting pre-charge detentions to 48 hours, a notable positive development. In addition, the passage of legislation establishing the Supreme Judicial Council was an important step in creating an independent judiciary. Gender equality made strides over the past year. A new law requires political parties to have at least half their electoral lists for regional and local elections headed by women candidates. On the international stage, Tunisia began a three-year term on the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva this January, marking the first time an Arab democracy will be represented on the HRC.

At the same time, the report describes several areas where Tunisia’s human rights performance continues to fall short, in some cases due to security and counterterrorism measures overtaking the protection of rights. For example, a law adopted in February 2016 allows a judge to delay a terrorism suspect’s access to a lawyer for 48 hours at the beginning of detention. Tunisia’s High Authority for the Prevention of Torture states that torture is still prevalent in police custody. Furthermore, since November 2015 more than one hundred Tunisians have experienced arbitrary detention and house arrest under the Emergency Law, according to Human Rights Watch. Although Tunisia’s new constitution and several laws protect freedom of expression, restrictive provisions remain in the penal code, the code of military justice, and the telecommunications law and in 2016 these provisions were used to prosecute journalists and bloggers for “offending the army” and “insulting a public official.” LGBT rights are almost nonexistent in Tunisia. Same-sex relations remains illegal and anal examinations are still used to “prove homosexuality” among men despite such tests having no proven medical legitimacy and being condemned by the UN Committee against Torture.

Finally, the report points out the lack of accountability for past human rights violations: “Although ex-President Ben Ali’s security forces used torture extensively, authorities have failed in the five years since his overthrow to investigate or hold anyone accountable for the vast majority of torture cases. They also have held no one accountable for the politically motivated long-term imprisonment of thousands of persons after unfair trials during his tenure.”