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Transitional Justice in the Middle East: Tunisian Truth Commission and the Reconstruction Victimhood

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


By Ranime Djouider


Transitional justice initiatives in the Middle East and North Africa have been increasingly undertaken, yet remain underexplored.[1] The second instalment of this transitional justice series focuses on the case of Tunisia and its engagement with post-revolution construction. Hailed as the “success story” transitional justice in the MENA region[2], Tunisia is arguably the most advanced in its post-Arab Spring transitional process. Yet, there have been underlying doubts as to Tunisia’s achievements in tackling direct and indirect human rights abuses, most notably through the Truth and Dignity Commission, ultimately raising questions as to how victimhood is addressed in the current transitional justice framework.



The Tunisian revolution was a culmination of a number of events, beginning on December 17, 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit cart vendor, set fire to himself outside the office of the local governor in protest of the widespread police brutality and government corruption. This act of self-immolation generated a series of widespread public demonstrations and protests which called for ‘jobs, freedom and national dignity’, ultimately forcing President Ben Ali to step down. Developing into a nationwide uprising involving a number of key civil society actors,[3] protestors condemned the authoritarian regimes that marked the country throughout its years of independence. The revolution was further spurred by the structural socio-economic and political turbulences in which the youth were particularly hard-hit by the high levels of unemployment and the lack of opportunity.[4] Within a year of Bouazizi’s protests Tunisia began its first steps towards meaningful democratic transition.


This process began with the election of a National Constituent Assembly which was tasked with mandating a new constitution, which included passing the Transitional Justice Law in 2013.[5] The law included a comprehensive framework aimed at addressing structural violations committed during the dictatorship period and Ben Ali’s rule (specifically July 1955 to December 2013). Arguably its most significant contribution came in the form of the Truth and Dignity Commission. Truth commissions have historically been used as a mechanism of transitional justice and often function as a means of investigating the pattern of past events, their roots causes and their societal consequences.[6] Its direct engagement with victims and the experiences of the wider population has made truth commissions a popular means of restorative justice. The Commission’s mandate was directed at investigating the past human rights violations, and to provide reparation recommendations. Its final report, released in 26th March 2019, contained over 2000 pages of submissions and testimonies detailing the role of the state in instances of torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detention and many other abuses against the Tunisian population.[7]


The significance of the truth commission should not be underestimated. As the first independent truth-seeking mechanism in the MENA region,[8] it symbolised an critical pillar of demands of the revolution.[9] Moreover, it provided a platform for victims to engage and participate in the public arena; as put by Impunity Watch’s aptly titled book, ‘to participate is to have hope’.[10] Tunisia presents a stark contrast to its neighbouring country Algeria, in which the state actively prioritised silence and forgetting in its transitional justice approach.[11] Furthermore, the Commission had far-reaching consequences, particularly as it addressed wide-ranging systems of repression all with the aim of protecting victims from state-led abuse.[12] Ultimately, the Commission (and its wider response to transitional justice) highlights Tunisia’s willingness to ‘confront its abusive past’.[13]


The Truth Commission’s mandate raised a number of questions, particularly concerning the participation of victims. Firstly, it is important to note that truth seeking processes are by definition a painful experience. It requires survivors to publicly face the realities of their trauma, and for many victims this form of expression is implausible.[14] Secondly, its characterisation of ‘victimhood’ raises questions as to notions of who counts as a ‘victim’ and the broader role of victims in transitional justice processes. The Commission framed notions of victimhood around broad and vague conceptions, grouping them into three general categories: violations against the individual, collective groups, and entire regional groups. As a result, indirect victims, including the families of victims, were included within its framework.


This categorisation, which facilitated the inclusion of over 63,000 submissions, has garnered criticism. Some have argued that this expansive definition fails to recognise the intricacies of victimhood, with others going further to claim that it has diluted its conception and delegitimised the claims of direct victims.[15] Yet, this arguably fails to appreciate the wider context of Tunisia’s wider transitional process The Arab Spring was in part fuelled by calls against the excessive centralisation and exclusion of interior regions.[16] Hence, by incorporating a wider lens for victimhood it enabled the mobilisation of the periphery and guaranted their active participation in the transitional process in Tunisia. The case of Tunisia raises questions as to how far the role of victims can stretch within transitional justice frameworks. Victim participation is central to the legitimacy of transitional justice measures; they provide further enrichment to its process by offering a multi-faceted lens[17] and therefore its definition should be malleable to incorporate the widest range of stakeholders.


Ultimately, the case of Tunisia presents an interesting paradigm to the North Africa and the Middle East’s engagement with transitional justice. The Truth and Dignity Commission gained widespread praise and represented a significant milestone its post-Arab Spring process. Although it has faced criticisms in terms of its broad approach to victim involvement, it not only allowed for expansive participation of relevant stakeholders but arguably facilitates a precedent for Middle East states to engage further with victim groups in order to promote a more meaningful approach to transitional justice.



 

Image: Tunisia Truth and Dignity Commission Facebook Page <https://www.facebook.com/IVDTN/> accessed 21st February 2021

[1] Although this series is titled ‘Transitional Justice in the Middle East’ it will be exploring examples from across the wider North Africa and the Middle East region [2] Christopher K. Lamont, ‘The Scope and Boundaries of Transitional Justice in the Arab Spring’ in Chandra Lekha Sriram (ed.), Transitional Justice in the Middle East and North Africa (1st ed., Oxford University Press, 2016) 85 [3]Christopher Boland, ‘Tunisia and Transitional Justice’ (ICTJ, 22nd February 2020) <https://www.ictj.org/news/rooting-out-corruption-tunisia-youth-leader%E2%80%99s-perspective> accessed 10th February 2021 [4] Kora Andrieu, ‘Confronting the Dictatorial Past in Tunisia: Human Rights and the Politics of Victimhood in Transitional Justice Discourses Since 2011’ (2016) 38 Human Rights Quarterly 261, 267 [5] Loi No.2013-54 Relative á I’instauration de la justice Transitionnelle et á Son Organisation (24th Décembre 2013) <http://www.legislation.tn/sites/default/files/fraction-journal-officiel/2013/2013F/105/Tf2013531.pdf> accessed 8th February 2021 [6] Onur Bakiner, Truth Commissions: Memory, Power and Legitimacy (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016) 4 [7] Human Rights Watch, ‘Tunisia: Truth Commission Outlines Decades of Abuse’ (HRW, 5th April 2019) <https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/04/05/tunisia-truth-commission-outlines-decades-abuse> accessed 10th February 2021 [8] While Morocco did technically establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2004, this was led by the ruling monarchy rather than an independent body. [9] HRW (n6) [10] Kora Andrieu et al, Victim Participation in Tunisia’s Transitional Justice Process (1st ed., Impunity Watch 2015) 3 [11] For more information see Ranime Djouider, ‘Transitional Justice in the Middle East: Re-Thinking Transitional Justice and Human Rights’ (Durham Pro Bono Blog, 16th December 2020) <https://www.durhamprobonoblog.co.uk/post/transitional-justice-in-the-middle-east-re-thinking-transitional-justice-human-rights-in-algeria> accessed 11th February 2021 [12] Safa Belghith, ‘Transitional Justice in Tunisia: The Truth Behind the Trials’ (OpenDemocracy, 22nd November 2018) [13] HRW (n6) [14] Richard Sennett, ‘Disturbing Memories’ in Patricia Fara and Karalyn Patterson (eds.), Memory (1st ed., Cambridge University Press, 1998) [15] Laryssa Chomiak, ‘What Tunisia’s Historic Truth Commission Accomplished – And What Went Wrong’ (Washington Post, 16th January 2019) [16] Messaoud Romdhani, ‘The Region as Victim: Transitional Justice as Class Action in Tunisia’ (Brookings, 24 November 2020) [17] Juan E. Méndez, ‘Victims as Protagonists in Transitional Justice’ (2016) 10 International Journal of Transitional Justice 1, 2

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