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Transitional Justice in Tunisia Expanded to Include Economic Crimes

Amine Ghali's picture
Also available in: العربية | Français
TunisMore than three years after the wave of revolutions that swept some countries of the Arab region, it is now possible to step back and make an initial assessment of the subsequent transformation processes. While the picture seems bleak overall, the prospects for Tunisia’s democratic transition, at the very least, offers some cause for hope. Among the many features of the Tunisian transition, one of the most significant is the country’s commitment to a process of a transitional justice (TJ). The process took three years to materialize, and required a joint effort on the part of many actors, ranging from national organizations to the international community, along with politicians and legal professionals.

TJ is an important process for countries emerging from armed conflict or an autocratic regime. It is an important process for Tunisia too, after a dictatorship of several decades.  Only weeks after the revolution, civil society organizations, conscious of international experiences and best practices, started to advocate for a homegrown process that would adapt essential elements of TJ.   The Tunisian TJ was shaped by the different actors involved in this advocacy process.  First came civil society, followed by independent commissions, lawyers and victims groups (even though they were not originally constituted as such) and a later wave of judges, government institutions and politicians.

Along with this momentum, it is important to highlight some features of the early days of the Tunisian transition, marked by certain political decisions that have since come to be considered catalysts of the TJ process. The most important of these decisions was the establishment of national investigation commissions: the National Commission to Investigate Human Rights Violations and the National Commission to Investigate Corruption and Embezzlement. These two commissions, along with lobbying from civil society and the nature of the Tunisian revolution shaped the approach to Tunisian TJ. It is dues to these combination of factors that the process is centered around not only violations of ‘common’ political and civil rights, like most previous experiences of TJ, but also around violations of economic and social rights. Tunisians who went to the street were driven by a lack of freedoms and political liberties, but people were also deeply frustrated with nepotism, corruption, marginalization and lack of economic opportunities. Addressing these grievances will be vital for the success of the transition in Tunisia, and indeed the TJ process. During the last three years of transition, a number of steps were taken to institutionalize the TJ process. In fact, following the advocacy efforts of civil society groups and international organizations (followed by an important effort to build of the capacities of the likely key actors in the process), a political decision was taken to initiate a national dialogue on drafting a comprehensive law based on broad consensus. This process established an important collaboration between government, civil society and international organizations, yielding a relatively widely accepted law, but which was then distorted by the political process. This last point, however, is a subject for another blog. The climax of this process, so far, has been the selection, in early June 2014, of 15 commissioners of the Truth and Dignity Commission.

The mandate and scope of work of the commission is relatively large. They are mandated to dig into a variety of past violations, such as unlawful killings, torture, sexual crimes, and forcible disappearances… during the last six decades. But they are also mandated to look into cases of corruption, economic crimes and marginalization… and to recommend the proper reform. It is this last feature that is drawing most attention to the Tunisian TJ experience, not only from countries going through similar transitions but also from international organizations. In fact, it will be the first time that an independent TJ commission is entrusted with the task of addressing human rights violations of an economic nature per se, and recommending reforms to correct them.  If the process succeeds in this task, TJ could become a viable means for reforming economies and addressing the calls for economic justice throughout the region.

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