What should we know about Tunisia’s transitional justice?

The country’s Truth and Dignity Commission is embarking on the formidable mission of investigating 65,000 human rights abuses and financial crimes. But not everyone is happy about that.


Victims of murder, rape and torture under successive dictatorships started testifying on live television as Tunisia – in a rare move for the Arab world – tries to deal with decades of abuse.

The small country of Tunisia is one of the few genuine democracies in North Africa and the Middle East. The "second republic" was born out of the country’s December 2010-January 2011 uprising, which overthrew decades of authoritarian rule.

While several other countries in the region experienced popular revolts of their own, Tunisia is the only one to have achieved a peaceful political transition.

Tunisians drafted the new constitution in January 2014, then held the country's first free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections later that year.

The next step for the country is to confront its traumatic past. The institution tasked with that powerful responsibility is the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC).

What is Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission?

The commission, known as the Instance Vérité et Dignité (IVD), is an independent institution that was created by the Tunisian Ministry of Justice, Human Rights and Transitional Justice on December 15, 2013. Since late 2011, the ministry has been a stepping stone on the path to transitional justice, carrying out consultations with civil society and gathering documents in the build-up to the establishment of the commission.

The TDC is charged with investigating human rights violations and economic crimes that were committed by the Tunisian state since its independence, from 1955 until 2013. This period includes crimes committed during the presidencies of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba. It also includes the governments that followed immediately after the uprising.

The TDC aims to bring about societal-level reconciliation, rather than a spirit of revenge. The reparations to the victims will be paid from the Commission’s Victims Fund. For financial crimes, the perpetrator must repay the stolen money.

The mechanism is similar to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission which aimed to salve the wounds left by the Apartheid regime that enforced racial discrimination and white minority rule as a state policy.

If the perpetrator of any alleged abuses agrees to “speak the truth” and testify openly before the commission, they will be forgiven. Should they refuse to do so, the case can be transferred to Specialised Chambers created by the transnational justice law. 

The commission also collaborates with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the International Centre for Transitional justice (ICJT).

Who are the commission’s opponents and who are its supporters?

The transitional justice process has stumbled in the face of political and institutional resistance. Much of the national media – still owned by the same powerful people as before the uprising – were extremely critical of the commission. They focused their criticism against its controversial president, Sihem Bensedrine, and accused it of spending public money without results.

It was championed by much of civil society, particularly human rights activists, since the idea was first conceived in 2011. Likewise, many of the MPs elected to the country’s Constituent Assembly in late 2011 fought to create the institution.

After the December 2014 elections, however, the balance of power shifted. Hardline secularists and figures linked to the Ben Ali era became much more powerful. The IVD has had a rocky relationship with the presidency and successive governments, which its proponents say have failed to adequately support it. This shaky relationship was further exposed by the absence of President Beji Caid Essebsi, Prime Minister Youssef Alchahed, and Parliament Speaker Mohammed Ennaceur from the historic public hearings on November 17 and 18.

Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi looks on as he attends an exhibition at the National Museum in memory of the victims of the March 2015 Bardo Museum attack, in which Daesh terrorists killed 21 foreigners and a police officer. [AFP]

Previously, in July 2015, Essebsi had proposed a law that would have granted amnesty to businessmen allegedly involved in serious economic crimes. He argued that the law is needed to revive the country’s economy and to “turn the page on the past.”

The initiative, however, triggered widespread outrage from civil society and opposition groups. Protestors chanted “resistance, resistance, no reconciliation” to voice their opposition to the amnesty. Civil society prevailed, and the proposed law was dropped.

How the commission operates

After its creation, the commission spent one year gathering complaints from Tunisian citizens seeking truth and justice for abuses committed against them. The commission received 65,000 complaints. It has investigated around 10,000 complaints to date.

The first hearings were held behind closed doors. On November 17 and 18, the first public hearings of Tunisian citizens were held, and televised nationally. The historic hearings featured victims and witnesses testifying about being tortured, humiliated, and sexually abused. Families spoke of their loved ones who had been forcibly disappeared by security forces. Others spoke of their children who had been shot dead during the uprising.

Relatives watching a live broadcast of the testimonials of abuse victims before the Truth and Dignity Commission. [AFP]

Though many of the speakers expressed anger and sadness during their testimonies, the process of airing the truth is seen by supporters as being an essential part of building democracy and healing the community, rather than a ploy for vengeance.

One of the complainants, Ribeh Briki, who lost her son, said that she believes that the commission will bring their rights back.

“We want the truth, and my appeal is for those traitors and killers of our children to be punished properly,” she said.

IVD head Sihem Bensedrine described the hearings as the “establishment of the Constitution and the rule of law.”

“Victims of despotism are entitled to fairness and justice, and this is the message we are conveying to the whole world,” she said.

Author: Ali Topchi


TRTWorld and agencies