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A demonstrator hits a drum during a demonstration against a bill that would protect those accused of corruption from prosecution in front of Assembly of People's Representatives headquarters in Tunis, Tunisia, July 28, 2017. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi
Op-Ed

The region as victim: Transitional justice as class action in Tunisia

In June 2015, “Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Economiques et Sociaux” (FTDES) and Lawyers Without Borders submitted a file on the Kasserine region to Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC).  It called on the government to examine the alarming economic and social situation in Kasserine and to take adequate measures through the TDC to address them. Like many other interior regions, Kasserine, which is located in west central Tunisia, has suffered from continuous poverty and marginalization since the colonial era. FTDES, in which I have served as a founding member and president, submitted this file according to a number of legal, historical, and constitutional bases.

The first was Article 10 of Organic Law No. 2013-53 Establishing and Organizing Transitional Justice, which pertains to reparations and restitution for victims. This article states that “a ‘victim’ shall mean any individual, group of individuals, or legal entity having suffered from harm as a result of violation…” Notably, it emphasizes that “this definition includes every region which has been marginalized or systematically excluded.” The majority of those who submitted files to the TDC did so based on what they, or their families, suffered, whether this was torture, forced disappearance, imprisonment, wrongful dismissal, or deprivation of work. However, we chose to pursue legal justice for the region, as included in the transitional justice law, to better highlight and address the particular grievances suffered by Kasserine.

The second motivation for our file before the TDC was the marginalization that the Kasserine region has historically experienced. As of 2012, Kasserine had the lowest human development rate of all 24 Tunisian governorates. It suffers from a poverty rate that is more than double the national average (national rate: 17.8 percent, Kasserine: 36.3 percent). During the revolution, which lasted more than three weeks, Kasserine was the second governorate to experience unrest after Sidi Bou Said. Dozens of the region’s revolting youth were martyred or injured while demanding job opportunities, dignity, and social justice.

The third basis was Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution, which was drafted by the Constituent Assembly after three long years and which approves positive discrimination in favor of some interior regions on the basis of the marginalization, poverty, and unemployment from which they have suffered. It stipulated that the “The state shall seek to achieve social justice, sustainable development and balance between regions based on development indicators and the principle of positive discrimination.” In other words, the constitution not only acknowledged inequality among regions, but also advocated for special measures to be taken to benefit disadvantaged areas.

I believe that including the victim region in the transitional justice process highlighted an important issue, namely the socio-economic factors that led Tunisia’s interior regions to revolt. These factors include excessive centralization of power in the capital, the exclusion of the interior regions from development projects, and the state not fulfilling commitments related to providing job opportunities, healthcare, education, and infrastructure.

The way forward for transitional justice processes

In a transitional justice process, compensating victims for violations perpetrated against them is not enough. The process must also consider the reasons behind the violations. Tunisia, for example, has undertaken development policies since the early 1970s that have further entrenched social disparities and inequalities among its regions. These policies have aimed to promote the highest growth rate, at the expense of local and regional development that would have generated structural changes. This overwhelming concern with integrating the country into the global economy, while overlooking national integration, has largely benefitted coastal regions. According to a 2014 World Bank Report, Tunisia’s three largest cities – Tunis, Sousse, and Sfax – are responsible for 85 percent of the GDP.

The inclusion of a marginalized interior region in the transitional justice process raises the question of the state’s role in promoting balanced regional growth by intervening in economic processes. It also raises questions regarding the overall concept of justice, which must go beyond the concept of victims as individuals in order to address the plight of an entire national group that has suffered from social injustice for decades due to inept policies. Although interior regions are home to 50 percent of Tunisia’s oil, gas, and water reserves and produce 70 percent of its wheat, poverty rates are much higher in these regions than the national average. As of 2016, the North-West, Central-West, and South-West regions accounted for 70 percent of Tunisia’s extreme poor, even though they only held 30 percent of the total population.

The purpose of demanding that Kasserine governorate be considered the “victim region” goes well beyond shedding light on the marginalization that interior regions suffer. It is about introducing an issue that we consider to be fundamental: the inclusion of socio-economic factors in the transitional justice process. It is important to include these factors not only because they were one of the main drivers of the revolution, which began in these disadvantaged areas, but also because the democratic transition and all the freedoms it promises are tightly linked to what an all-encompassing concept of social justice can achieve.

If the new government wants to tackle social and economic woes in interior regions, it should implement an inclusive development approach. This could include establishing infrastructure to promote labor mobility between different governorates and incentivizing the private sector to invest in the interior regions. This plan can only succeed by implementing political and economic decentralization with the support of local stakeholders, including labor, industry, agriculture and trade unionists, civil society activists, and local political leaders.

 

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