Tunisia sets the example time and again

Tunisia sets the example time and again
4 min read
29 Nov, 2016
Comment: Tunisia's Truth and Dignity Commission has started its first ever public hearings, setting the example of transitional justice to other Arab nations, writes Radwan Ziadeh
Tunisians celebrate the five year anniversary of the 2011 revolution [Andalou]

Not only was Tunisia the first country to initiate the Arab Spring, but it was also the first country to start a transitional justice process to look for, and investigate the massive human rights violations that occurred during the dictatorship era. 

In addition, it was the only Arabic country to have a peaceful and smooth transition into a democracy, moving away from a one ruling party system into pluralism and multiparty system.

The Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) of Tunisia - created through the transitional justice law adopted on 15 December 2013 by the NCA - started its first ever the public hearings earlier this month, which will play an important role in the healing the reconciliation process in Tunisia.

The Commission has different mandate to other commissions around the world, and has a number of judicial and non-judicial mechanisms to investigate gross human rights violations that were committed by the Tunisian State since its independence, and provide compensation and rehabilitation to victims.

The concept of transitional justice links the concepts of justice and transition. But the accurate meaning of the concept refers to achieving justice during a transitional period experienced by a state.

This process occurred in Chile (1990), Guatemala (1994), South Africa (1994), Poland (1997), Sierra Leone (1999), East Timor (2001) and Morocco (2004). During the political transition after a period of violence or oppression in society, the community often finds itself burdened with the difficult task of addressing human rights violations.

The state seeks to deal with the crimes of the past in order to promote justice, peace and reconciliation. Thus, government officials and NGO activists prefer various judicial and nonjudicial avenues to address human rights crimes, using several approaches to achieve a sense of justice that is more comprehensive and far-reaching.

Transitional justice has been approached in a variety of ways: lawsuits for violations of individuals, as in Kosovo; or establishing fact-finding initiatives to address past abuses, as in Sierra Leone; or a process of reconciliation in divided societies, as in East Timor.

The establishment of a culture of accountability, instead of impunity, gives a sense of security to the victims

The establishment of a culture of accountability, instead of impunity, gives a sense of security to the victims and sends a warning to potential perpetrators of future violations in the future.

It also gives a measure of fairness to the suffering of the victims, and helps to curb the tendency to practice vigilante justice or retribution. Lastly, it provides an important opportunity to strengthen the credibility of judicial systems suffering from corruption and destruction, or those that did not function properly in the past.

Unfortunately none of the Arab Spring countries has as yet succeed in this challenge.

While Tunisia seems to be heading in the right direction, authorities in countries such as Syria, Libya and Yemen - all of which have small transitional justice initiatives initiated by civil society activists - have failed to adopt such measures. 

Other countries such as Egypt have moved away, towards a military government despite all the calls for transitional justice as a positive move forward for the country.  

It will not be possible for any Arab State to start a genuine process of political transition toward pluralism, democracy, and reconciliation without a transitional justice process like Tunisia's.

Reconciliation is closely linked to the path of political transition

As transitional justice experiences across the world have taught us, reconciliation is closely linked to the path of political transition, and this depends mainly on the political will and vision of both the actors and the political forces on the ground. 

Opening transitional justice processes can help victims have faith that those responsible for committing crimes against their children will be brought to justice, and that the time of impunity is over.

With the implementation of a transitional justice programme, Syrians, Yemenis, Libyans or Egyptians without exception would feel that there is a path toward national reconciliation, that their representatives could take to ensure adequate pluralism and the necessary credibility.

Now, after 23 years of authoritarian rule of former President Zein Abdin Ben Ali, his victims will be able to speak up, a moment Amnesty International described as "a historic opportunity to affirm a commitment to end impunity for past crimes under international law and human rights violations."

Tunisia was the "first" in many things, now the challenge comes of how to persuade other Arabic countries that this is the way forward.  

Dr Radwan Ziadeh is a Senior Middle East Analyst at the Arab Center Washington DC. Follow him on Twitter: @radwanziadeh

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.