On Tuesday, October 9, the Tunisian parliament passed the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination Act, which is the first law of its kind in Tunisia, and not only defines but also criminalizes all forms of racial discrimination due to skin colour, sex and creed.
A draft law had been presented during a press conference held on March 21, 2016, by EuroMed Rights, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, and the Committee for the Respect of Liberties and Human Rights in Tunisia. The inspiration behind the draft law in 2016 came after racially motivated attacks against black Tunisians had made headlines. A prominent case involved Sabrina, a black Tunisian who had been verbally abused, and when trying to report the crime, was turned away by the police station due to the lack of a law against racism. The new law provides prison terms of one to three months for the use of racist language and one to three years for inciting hatred and spreading racist ideas and propaganda. Monetary penalties have also been set, ranging from 1,000 Tunisian dinars for racist speech and up to 15,000 for further offences.
The President of The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, Masoud Romdhani, told Agence France-Presse that the law is a “turning point in Tunisia, and is as important as the decree of the abolition of slavery.” He added that “There is now approval of the penalization, but respect must also be disseminated through education.”
Although there are no official statistics on the number of black Tunisians due to the state not previously recognizing race, Afrobarometer, a nationally representative survey conducted in April-May of 2018, recorded 8% of their respondents’ race as black, and can educate the public regarding the extent of racial discrimination. The survey data suggests that black Tunisians are economically worse off than other Tunisians, being less likely to own a radio, car or computer. Black Tunisians also appear to be educationally worse off, 10% less likely to have completed primary school and 17% more likely to be unemployed.
This data shows how the law is particularly important for defending the rights of the 15% of Tunisians who identify as black, as well as 60,000 sub-Saharan African immigrants residing in the country. This is because of the systematic racism which has been embedded in the society due to its past connections with slavery. Although Tunisia was the first Arab country to ban slavery in January 1846, along with the abundance of racially motivated attacks, many Tunisians use pejorative terms to identify a black person by the colour of their skin. There is also an absence of people in positions of responsibility, such as politicians or businessmen of black skin.
Therefore, the law being passed, two years after it was drafted, has been celebrated as a historic achievement for Tunisia. EuroMed Rights and other organizations, however, have also recognized the need to now quicken the support and legal assistance available for victims of racism, which has been an ongoing problem for many years.
The introduction of the law, prison sentences and fines, shows that the state is finally taking the issue of racial discrimination seriously and these offences aren’t something which people can continue to take part in without any consequences. However, only time will tell how successful the law will be. This success requires a fundamental shift in the attitudes of society, in order to provide more opportunities to the currently isolated parts of the population, including greater equal opportunities for healthcare and jobs, and most importantly, the freedom of basic human rights which would allow people to live freely in peace and without fear of discrimination.