Following fifty years of dictatorship, Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission released its final report this week detailing the decades of torture and human rights violations the nation has endured. This report represents the outcome of four and a half years of investigation by the commission. The original mandate for this report was issued by the Constitutional Assembly following the uprisings of 2010 and 2011, demonstrations that would soon spur so-called Arab Spring revolts across the Middle East. Tunisia found itself in a unique position following this turbulent period. Unlike most other nations, which soon reverted to authoritarian regimes, Tunisia was able to maintain a democratic state. This report, in its inception, was meant to preserve this new democracy and to prevent the re-institution of dictatorship.
Still, the completion of this report has not been without difficulties. Tunisian Prime Minister Youssed Chahed has described the commission’s work as a “failure” and has so far declined to receive the report. Despite this, the president of the commission, Sihem Bendsedrine, has attempted to remain optimistic. “The report is in good hands,” she told human rights activists and survivors at the ceremony Tuesday, “and it is up to you to make sure the process goes on.” Further challenges will arise in actually attempting to administer the recommendations of this report, which the government is bound by law to implement within a year. Oula Ben Nejma, the head of the commission’s investigative team, addressed these concerns, stating: “Civil society was always supporting us when we were targeted or we encountered difficulties, that is how we managed to finish our work.” Ms. Benesdrine further emphasized the importance of these reforms, noting: “We are giving the tools with this report so that there are no more excuses not to act or not to start reforms, the integrity of the Tunisian state is at stake. It is really important that those violations do not repeat themselves.”
Truth Commissions have traditionally enjoyed a unique historical position in their somewhat limited global application. In African, European, and American contexts these commissions have existed in moments of profound transition, where past institutions no longer maintain any legitimacy and a new state must be crafted on the basis of a new national identity. Such a time of turmoil by nature puts the new state in a precarious position as it emerges from an authoritarian past. In Tunisia, this uncertainty is compounded by the failings of democratic movements in neighboring Middle Eastern states. Nowhere else in the Middle East or North Africa was meaningful change maintained, and if Tunisia is to prevent a reversion to authoritarianism, political reform must continue.
As The New York Times reports, the consequences of this commission have already been substantial. Over the course of its two-year lifespan, the Tunisian Truth Commission received more than 60,000 complaints from victims. From these complaints, 174 cases have been transferred to special chambers and 30 trials have started. Among those accused of wrongdoing are former interior ministers, security chiefs, and the past president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The corruption case of Ben Ali is of particular interest, as Tunisia has begun the training of special judges specifically for this case. Currently in exile in Saudi Arabia, Ben Ali has already been sentenced in absentia to imprisonment related to deaths following the 2011 protests, as well as for misuse of multiple state-owned properties. Officials from the Truth Commission hope that this report will help force Tunisian authorities to ask for Ben Ali’s extradition.
The scope of a Truth Commission is always limited, as such bodies are usually restricted only to exposing past crimes. The undertaking of actual change requires the involvement of several elements of society. In Tunisia, human rights organizations and civil society must continuously develop and take up the work of transitional justice started by the Truth Commission. Other institutions of justice, such as judges and the police, must also participate in the shaping of a democratic nation. If active reform continues, supported by elements of both the state and civil society, Tunisia should be able to continue on its path towards democracy without a return to despotism.
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