On this day three years ago, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia in the face of a massive popular revolt against his despotic rule marked by repression and widespread corruption. This was the culmination of a revolution sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor from Sidi Bouzid, who took his own life in a desperate act of protest against injustice and humiliation suffered at the hands of local police. The Tunisian revolution started a wave of popular protests in the region that saw regimes fall in Egypt and Libya, uprisings in Bahrain and Yemen, and demonstrations ultimately turning into a civil war in Syria. Amongst all of the subsequent tumult, violence and bad news coming from the region, it is easy to overlook the progress made at ground zero of this regional awakening.
After the fall of Ben Ali, Tunisia had its difficulties, including two major political assassinations that rocked the country and threw the political landscape into turmoil. However, thus far these tragic events have not knocked the country off its transitional course. Following the second assassination, Tunisia has witnessed a political compromise worked out between bitter political enemies. The agreement has led to a caretaker government, which will supervise new elections and oversee the adoption of a new constitution.
Another key element of the progress is the adoption of a transitional justice law.
While those in western countries may wonder what is meant by “transitional justice”, in societies emerging from a period of mass abuse -- such as systematic torture, massive “disappearances”, and crimes against humanity -- the question of how to address such violations is an urgent one, particularly for the victims of these abuses. They want to know the truth: what happened to their loved ones; who committed and ordered the abuses; and how can they be prevented in the future. They want to see perpetrators face the bar of justice and that they never serve in positions of public trust again. They also want to see that their suffering is acknowledged, through reparations programs that materially and symbolically give recompense for stolen or injured lives. Unlike some who argue for “turning the page” and forgetting the past, the victims and their kin know that the past must be addressed and ultimately accurately reflected in the history books and the national curriculum. These are difficult processes, but societies throughout the world have recognized their importance.
In Tunisia, the centrality of reckoning with past abuses to the transition was recognized from early on. The post-Ben Ali government established a Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice, which launched a national dialogue on how to achieve justice for past violations. Civil society groups have played a key role in building momentum and support for transitional justice process. This support was critical during the times of political strife and tension when the concept of transitional justice could easily have been swept away.
These efforts have begun to bear fruit with the adoption, on 15 December, of a transitional justice law. This historic legislation was adopted following an extensive consultative process, which was admirably conducted throughout the entire country, including the hinterlands and among all groups; it was not left to elites in Tunis.
The law provides for a comprehensive set of measures, including a Truth and Dignity Commission, similar to many of the over 40 truth commissions established in other transitional societies; special judicial chambers to address human rights violations; and reparations to victims through a Fund for the Dignity and Rehabilitation of Victims of Tyranny. It also includes provisions for vetting out human rights abusers from the police, security and judicial services. Importantly, the law recognizes that women and children were particularly vulnerable to abuses and takes appropriate measures for addressing their needs.
Of course, this is only the first step in a long, challenging process and the messy details of implementation will follow, such as the selection of the right individuals as the commissioners of the Truth and Dignity Commission. Nonetheless, the adoption of the law is an impressive achievement and a key indicator of Tunisia’s commitment to address the abuses of the past.
Three years on, the heady days of the “Arab Spring” have long since slipped from the scene, with the return of military rule in Egypt, a blood bath in Syria, and the survival of repressive regimes in several other countries of the region. The path of transition to a more democratic future where human rights are respected -- the hope of so many both in the region and beyond -- may look very distant indeed in some of the countries. That is undeniable. At the same time, we should bear in mind that some of the social movements that have begun as a result of the “Arab Spring” may well survive and perhaps flower at a later date. History seldom follows a straight line, and we should beware of seemingly surefooted forecasters and ironclad predictions.
At this moment where so much has gone off course in the region, it is only fair to note that the country where it all began has taken important steps toward addressing a past of abuse and first steps toward a future where rights will be respected. In fact, recent developments in Tunisia are not only worthy of attention, but serve as useful markers for transitions in the region and beyond.
David Tolbert was appointed president of the International Center for Transitional Justice in March of 2010. Previously he served as registrar (assistant secretary-general) of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and prior to that was assistant secretary-general and special expert to the United Nations secretary-general on United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials.