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Justice to come? Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission

The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a keynote event on March 4, 2020 featuring Sihem Bensedrine, the president of the Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission (Instance Vérité et Dignité; IVD) and a veteran Tunisian human rights activist and journalist. Bensedrine helped found the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH), which is part of the National Dialogue Quartet that received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. She is also the recipient of the 2011 Alison Des Forges Award from Human Rights Watch. The event was moderated by Nadim Houry, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative. During the event, Bensedrine discussed the commission’s final report and whether justice is still to come in Tunisia, focusing on the following questions: Was the commission successful? How has it impacted public opinion? How has the commission dealt with the question of gender? And what can other nations take away from the Tunisian experience? The event was attended by members of Doha’s diplomatic, academic, and media communities.

The IVD was formally launched in 2014 to serve as a mechanism through which difficult truths of the past could be exposed, documented, and addressed. The body’s purview encompasses crimes committed from the last year of French colonial rule in 1955 through 2013. Bensedrine explained that these crimes can be broadly separated into two categories: (1) the violation of human rights and (2) embezzlement and corruption. To address such crimes, IVD was legally mandated with four tasks: (1) to uncover the truth; (2) to allocate responsibility; (3) to distribute reparations; and (4) to issue reforms. On the second point, Bensedrine emphasized that the IVD has not only assigned criminal responsibility to state officials, but also to France and the International Monetary Foundation (IMF). She also stressed that the fourth point is of utmost importance, as transitional justice is not only about holding individuals to account, but also about fixing issues at a systemic level so that crimes do not recur.

The Commission released its final report in May 2019, which focused on six themes: (1) the mission of the Commission; (2) dismantling the system that enables human rights violations; (3) empowering women; (4) dismantling networks of corruption; (5) reparations and redress; and (6) preserving national memory. Discussing the final theme, Bensedrine explained that it is important because it deals with how to ensure the IVD’s recommendations are carried out by the state. She said that the IVD issued 430 indictments in 18 cases of torture and 66 in three cases of corruption, which implicated senior officials in the judiciary system and government, including former President Beji Caid Essebsi.

Bensedrine also explained that the IVD defined milestones in the history of the country, identifying 18 significant events that involved clashes between the state and opposition groups. She gave the example of the bread riots that took place in the 1980s, which were associated with over 1,400 identified victims. She also noted how much more difficult it is to hold an entire system to account than just one person; in Tunisia, this means that not only must the individual who committed the crime be prosecuted, but also his entire chain of command and anyone else who was complicit.

When asked about how successful the commission has been in changing Tunisia’s culture, Bensedrine said that people must be patient. She said that, while there are still injustices taking place, people are beginning to realize that they cannot get away with crimes as easily as before. The public is witness to the trials being carried out and now understand that certain lines must not be crossed. Bensedrine added that the success of the old system in the 2014 elections is an impediment to change, saying that people must persevere in the face of such challenges. She also noted that we must differentiate between media and public opinion: media networks are very entrenched and critical of the IVD’s work, while public opinion is more open to the IVD and even actively defends it. The public has been shocked by the truths that have emerged from the hearings, said Bensedrine, adding that this shock is actually a positive force, in that it can spark change. Bensedrine stated that while other nations can learn from the Tunisian experience, they should implement different justice mechanisms depending on their own specific contexts. She concluded by saying that the commission has been exceptional in several regards, including in terms of how it overcame diplomatic immunity to hold senior politicians accountable, redefined the notion of the victim to include marginalized regions, and televised hearings for the first time.

The subsequent question and answer session focused on reparations, reconciliation, and international accountability. Bensedrine noted that is difficult to provide full reparations to victims. How can you compensate someone whose life has been destroyed? The first step involves having the president apologize in the name of the state, she said, adding that this is something that is currently in the works. Monetary compensation is more difficult because the state has limited resources, but public services, such as free medical care, can be offered. Bensedrine also spoke to the problem of incorporating former regime members into the current government. She noted that, while these individuals claim to seek reconciliation, reconciliation is impossible without justice. Finally, Bensedrine spoke about violations committed by France, which she said was responsible for civilian deaths and for marginalizing different parts of the country.

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