Tunisia’s Human Rights Landscape and Key Priorities

This study was mandated by the Open Society Foundation and has been conducted from October 2021 to June 2022. It aims to document, analyze, and assess the current landscape of Tunisian human rights activism through 14 pre-identified case studies linked to recent human rights violations. The case studies cover Civil and political rights, Social and Economic Rights, Minority Rights (including vulnerable groups such as migrant population and LGBTQI+). Data was collected from 42 respondents working on the fields of intervention related to each case study (Social Movements, CSOs, Individual Actors, Unions).

19 April 2022
This study was mandated by the Open Society Foundation.

2011 events are still being investigated by activists, journalists, and the judiciary. The special chambers set-up under the transitional justice process are still gathering at the time of writing this report in 2022 and very recently the BBC released unprecedented phone recordings of Ben Ali’s last moments on top of the state. This proves that truth and pace of events still need to be investigated.

The past ten years in the country have shown that a country in the Arab Region and in North Africa can function with basic rights and freedoms recognized and respected. Despite many abuses, fundamental freedoms of speech and opinion as well as political rights to vote or run for democratic, honest, and free elections have existed for the past decade.

Again, these have been thoroughly covered by literature. Whether it has been produced by State institutions, local civil society, journalists and media, international organizations or international multilateral institutions, this documentation offer a comprehensive understanding of Tunisia’s human rights landscape from 2011 to 2021.

The openness of the country has made a laboratory for democracy out of it. Beside the birth of a strong net of associations, many forms of activism have developed or emerged. Unions existed in Tunisia long before the independence of the country and UGTT has never lowered down despite two successive dictatorships, however new unions appeared in the country after 2011 to push for new agendas such as the interests of unemployed university graduates (UDC) or the Union of Internal Security Forces Agents (UAFSI). Other structures adopted the form of associations (legally similar to any other CSOs under Tunisian association law) while representing often officially entire bodies of work. These professional associations (association of Tunisian magistrates, National Order of Tunisian Lawyers, Order of Tunisian Accountants) have pushed for drastic reforms when corporatist interests were met but also contributed or slowed down major changes (Establishment of a Constitutional Court, Reforms of Courts procedures, Reforms of Criminal Code, etc.).

Other forms of protest included a new shape of group action through unformal gatherings. These social movements have appeared since the revolution but thrived starting from 2015-2016 all around the country, most predominantly to request socio-economic changes on very local or regional levels with immediate/short-term responses expected. The Kamour movement in southern Tataouine region might be the best example of different layers of Tunisia’s society gathered around one cause: the direct redistribution of oil exploitation wealth to one of the most impoverished regions of the country.

Other examples of social movements include Stop Pollution campaign started in Gabes and spread to most of the coastal regions to counter wastes mismanagement and industrial pollution tragedies; Sayeb e’Trottoir movement started in Sfax and rapidly extended to all urban center from Tunis to Sousse, Nabeul and Djerba claimed the reappropriation of public spaces, sidewalks and green spaces from private sector owners profiting for years from the disappearance of municipalities; Jemna movement claiming the ownership over an oasis production of dates abandoned by the state and reclaimed by the administration after the people of the oasis invested time, money and energy to keep the oasis agriculture alive and profitable.

The landscape of social movements showed the extent to which these forms of activism can be helpful to avoid amalgams of social claims with political parties, unions or already established CSOs with political affiliations. These activists also push away the requirement to fall under the administration bureaucracy and procedures (creating and ruling an association) but many movements have also shown the extent to which informal movements can be effective. Many indeed combined the informal form of action with the creation of legal structures to push for agendas, fundraise and go through official procedures (examples of Manish Msab (I am not a landfill) in Agareb or Hwaidia movement in Jendouba).

Even within the realm of legally/formally structured associations, many followed the traditional path of action while others tried to come-up with innovative forms of action. Civil society activists have for example called for fair, democratic and transparent elections, have advocated for the election law in 2014 general elections and 2018 municipal election, along with observing the electoral process and releasing reports despite few experiences held on the issue (and with the support of international organizations) while other activists ran for elections or supported candidates-lists (especially for municipal councils).

The aim of these new forms of activism are as new as the means used to raise voices, ensure visibility and request changes. Online activism has settled in Tunisia since 2011 and have grown tremendously as the one of the most important ways to gather people with a same interest whether because they share the same passion (active sports fans groups on Facebook) or because they identify as the victims of one same issue (Ena Zeda victims testimony groups). Many scandals brought to light through social media in Tunisia during the past decade influenced the course of events during the past decade.

Going through the literature related to these trends in a comprehensive way seems rather infinite. This study is therefore intentionally focusing on the last major events in the country. On July 25th, 2021, president Kais Saied declared in an unprecedented and surprising move to take drastic measures in response to the decay of the country’s political scene. The catalogue of rights and freedoms included will comprise their evolution since 2011 but mainly focus on their state after July 25th, and their current state

Each case study documents one specific case of human rights abuses and puts forward all actors involved in protecting these rights from traditional associations, international organizations, unions to more recent social movements and individual activists.

Download the PDF version (under the excerpt section) for the full report

Apart from the fact that the final decision is not in all cases guaranteed, the rights holders have to be the first link in the struggle for their rights. In many cases, these right holders give up their cases under pressure from the police or authorities and influential people or by discouraging them: adoption of the “carrot and stick” approach.