One year after the Arab Spring, IJT looks at the state of justice in four key countries touched by the revolution. After Morocco and ahead of the presidential election in Egypt, we turned to Bahrain and conclude our series with Tunisia, where the movement started.
Interview with Habib Nassar, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the International Centre for Transitional Justice
by Franck Petit, Paris
Six months after the first free elections held in Tunisia, does the government – led by the Islamic party Ennahda – have a comprehensive policy on transitional justice?
It’s too early to speak about a clear comprehensive policy. However, what we have been witnessing since December are many indicators that there is serious political will to deal with the past. A Ministry for Human Rights and specifically, for Transitional Justice has been established. The National Constituent Assembly is expected to adopt a law on transitional justice by the end of the year.
A national conference was convened to launch a “national dialogue” to help draft the law last month. The “troika” – presidents of the Republic, the National Assembly and the Prime Minister – called for a comprehensive strategy. Once all the participants to this dialogue, aimed at civil society, victims and the population outside Tunis have been consulted, we may have a clearer idea of what the transitional justice policies to be adopted will look like.
Could this be a way to delay things?
Many Tunisians are frustrated about the length of the process. However this dialogue is progressing at a reasonable rate, compared to other aspects of transition. The national dialogue has to take place, the government has to understand expectations, the needs of the victims and civil society - and it cannot be sacrificed under the pretext of hastening or making the process move faster.
Trials have already started, notably against former president Ben Ali and other powerful individuals. Are they satisfactory?
Some trials have already started before civilian and military courts, but in some torture cases the sentences were deemed too low by many Tunisians. This is mainly due to the fact that Tunisian legislation needs to be revised. On the other hand, there is also a need for measures to restore trust in the judiciary – through the process of judicial vetting for example.
Are those who remain in power still protected?
The previous regime has collapsed. However, there are still complaints about security officers involved in past abuse who cannot be touched. A former Interior Minister had to resign last year after he was physically attacked by security officers in retaliation for measures adopted by the Interior Ministry to exclude former perpetrators. This is worrying, and this is going to be the hardest part of the transition.
Many measures were put in place right after the revolution, even if in an erratic manner. Can they be useful to a possible truth commission?
Two commissions of inquiry were established last year, one on corruption, which published a report in November, and the other one on the violations that took place during the revolution, which published its report a few weeks ago. They did very important work that should really be taken into account and incorporated in the work of any future mechanism to be established such as a truth commission.
How do Tunisians see that?
We did hear some complaints in Tunisia that there has been a lack of communication and outreach on what is being done in the area of transitional justice. There was not enough explanation for example of criminal procedures and trial - that suspects have rights that should be respected, that it takes time, etc…
This is partly the reason why there is frustration among the public. Now that a dialogue has been launched, it is an important opportunity to communicate and inform the public about transitional justice especially outside Tunis in the inland areas.
Can transitional justice bring political gains?
No one has told Tunisians they need it. The demand came from civil society and the political parties. Even if they can take political advantage of it, this is not necessarily problematic. Of course, transitional justice should not be a pretext to delay other aspects of transition. It should be done in harmony with all aspects such as constitutional drafting or economic and social policies.
Is Tunisia a model for its neighbours?
It’s certainly inspiring for others in the region, as much as the revolution was inspiring. Despite all the problems and challenges facing the transitional process, a dialogue has been launched. This is very important. None of the transitioning countries in the region have initiated such a dialogue yet.
Transitions are very messy, fragile periods during which you have to restore trust between the institutions and so on. In Egypt for example, there is a mixture of a lack of political will and of political tensions that has delayed transitional justice.. You can see Moroccans talking to their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt.
The Moroccan experience has had an impact in the region despite the fact that the Moroccan context is very different from the current transitions in the region. I am sure Tunisia itself will have an important impact in the area of transitional justice on other societies in the regions.