By Sumaya Almajdoub
Continued social unrest in Tunisia indicates the need to comprehensively address a long history of inequality and uneven regional development. For that objective, the government may want to imitate the “victim region” framework as implemented in Tunisia’s transitional justice process to help address inequality compared to the government’s current reactionary approach.
Post-2011 governments in Tunisia have largely ignored longstanding socio-economic grievances and have only introduced surface-level reforms to appease new waves of growing protests. The government’s recent “anti-corruption” campaign is a case in point. Protests in the southern provinces have led to the arrest of three prominent businessmen and a customs officers. While necessary to hold the political and business elite accountable to the rule of law, these arrests will be insufficient in uprooting the structures that reproduce corruption. Corruption, along with consequential socio-economic grievances, is based on institutional and structural inefficiencies, not on individuals.
Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) was launched in 2014 as the main body responsible for leading the transitional justice process following the nation's 2011 uprising. The commission’s mandate includes investigating human rights violations in the country, dating back to 1955. It is expected to release final recommendations by 2018 or 2019. Unlike other truth commissions around the world, the TDC has gone beyond investigating civil rights violations by including investigations into socio-economic rights.
The “victim region” framework within the TDC allows geographic areas that have suffered from systematic marginalization and exclusion to file a complaint against the Tunisian government. Systematic marginalization and exclusion can manifest in different ways—including through a lack of basic services, high unemployment and poverty rates, and accumulating political and social grievances. Of the 65,000 human rights complaints the TDC has received, only 30 were submitted on behalf of “victim regions.”
The victim region framework can be considered a systematic approach to inequality for two reasons. Firstly, it takes into account that inequality is complex and manifests itself beyond a simplistic north/south or coast/interior divide. While it is true that Tunisia’s coastal regions are predominantly wealthy and the interior regions are particularly poor, exceptions can be found. One example of this is the “El-Tadamon,” a poor neighborhood in the heart of the capital city of Tunis. For this reason, article 10 in Tunisia’s 2013 transitional justice law, which extends victimhood to “every region which was marginalized or which suffered systematic exclusion” left the term “region” undefined. This allowed marginalized areas, large and small, within the coast and in the interior, to file complaints as victim regions. Claims were submitted on behalf of large governorates such as Kasserine, where unemployment stands at 29 percent, double the national average, and on behalf of smaller delegations such as Ain Drahem, where the illiteracy rate is 38 percent compared to 18 percent national average. Claims were also submitted on behalf of small remote areas, including a village in in the governorate of Siliana where basic services are still lacking and the only accessible school was built by the community in the 1930s.
Secondly, the recommendations filed on behalf of victim regions through the TDC are rooted in structural reforms that address regional disparities. The demands of victim regions are centered on four dimensions: 1) the recognition of marginalized areas as such, 2) collective reparations, 3) ensuring non-occurrence through positive discrimination when allocating budgets and, 4) institutional reform. According to the victim regions, the most important institutional reform is the decentralization of power and local participatory governance. Local elections, a new idea for Tunisia, are meant to address marginalization and lend more authority to local regions.
Implementing these institutional reforms will not be easy. Municipal elections have been consistently postponed since 2011 and, while they are currently scheduled for December 2017, justified skepticism remains. On May 9, Chafik Sarsar, the President of the Independent High Authority for Elections, resigned from his post and alluded to mounting political pressure compromising the authority’s mandate to hold transparent elections and carry out its work independently.
The current government’s stance on transitional justice and its mandate to address socio-economic rights violations has placed serious obstacles on the TDC’s work. For example, no representative from the ruling party, Nidaa Tounes, has attended any of the 10 public hearings the TDC has held so far. Not only has Nidaa Tounes demonstrated a lack of support for the transitional justice process, but the party has also at times actively objected to the process. This includes President Beji Caid Essebsi’s renewed attempt to introduce the “Economic Reconciliation Bill,” that would grant amnesty to perpetrators of corruption who confess and return a certain amount of the money they siphoned off. If passed, this bill would stifle much needed institutional reform and systematic efforts to fight corruption. This is the third time that the bill has been introduced since it was first drafted in 2015, and anti-corruption-minded Tunisians have once again mobilized to protest against it.
Despite the political tensions surrounding transitional justice, the victim region track with the TDC remains an important avenue to put forth a systematic and institutionalized response to years of marginalization. This framework should be at the forefront of the Tunisia’s ongoing transition.
Sumaya Almajdoub is a Middle East Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She received an MA in Middle East Studies from George Washington University in 2017.