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Protecting human rights as Tunisians finally vote for change

By Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International's Senior Crisis Response Advisor, in Tunis

There is much excitement and hope, and apprehension too, here in Tunisia on the eve of the first real multi-party elections in the country’s history. This vote also marks a real milestone as the first elections in the region since a wave of popular uprisings swept away three of the world's longest-ruling autocrats in less than a year.

This is my first visit since I was banned from the country 17 years ago and never allowed to return. In 2000 the then-Human Rights Minister publicly said that I could go back and so I did, but was denied entry at the airport. The government of then-President Ben Ali took issue with Amnesty International’s reports exposing the large-scale human rights violations which they tried so hard to conceal.

During Ben Ali’s rule, investigating human rights involved complicated arrangements to outsmart the plain-clothes security officers whose job was to keep a close eye on human rights activists, victims of  abuses, political opponents and government critics. The surveillance was far from discreet – the aim was to intimidate as much as to gather information.

But that was then and this is now. Last January mass street protests by mostly young protesters with degrees but no jobs or future prospects, who felt marginalized by a corrupt and repressive regime, forced former President Ben Ali to step down and flee the country after 23 years of repressive and despotic rule. Now people are no longer afraid to voice their criticisms, grievances, hopes and aspirations.

“Justice, freedom, dignity [‘adala, hurriya, karama wataniya]”, a group of youth was chanting last night at an impromptu pre-election gathering on a main street in downtown Tunis. This was the main slogan summarizing the demands of the protesters last January, which remain very much at the top of their agenda. Expectations are high and many are optimistic about the future.

But there is apprehension too about the unknown. These are, after all, the first elections when Tunisians do not know the results  in advance. As people speculate about the possible outcome, some wonder how safe their new-found freedom is while others wonder whether the winners will remember the electoral promises for socio-economic improvements in their areas.

Many women are worried about losing their equal status with men and feel marginalized by political parties, who broke a commitment to ensure women’s political participation by including mainly men among their prime candidates. Amnesty International sought to obtain pledges from political parties to uphold human rights, but only around a third of the more than 100 parties agreed to sign the pledges.

In Kasserine, a small town in a poor and long-neglected rural region some 300 km south-west of the capital, many of the people I spoke to, most of them victims of police brutality during last January’s protests, were disappointed and angry at the lack of progress. So far they’ve had neither justice nor reparations and many have so far been unable to get the medical care they need. I’ve heard the same concerns from others, both young and old, and not only those from unprivileged backgrounds.

While some important steps have been taken by the caretaker authorities on the road to reform, much remains to be done.

Political prisoners and prisoners of conscience held before the uprising were released. Civil society organizations, media and political parties have been allowed to register and operate freely. International human rights treaties have been ratified and some laws are being amended, notably the repressive Press Code. New legal provision will increase the punishment for  torture, and specific reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women have been withdrawn.

The authorities have also announced the dismantling of  the Department of State Security (DSS), responsible for decades of gross human rights abuses.  However, for now there is no clarity as to what this means – it's possible that DSS members were simply integrated into other security forces.

Impunity remains a key concern. Many of the abuses that fueled the December/January uprising have yet to be addressed. Bar rare exceptions, the necessary investigations into abuses have not been carried out and so far nobody has been brought to justice. In fact, the same officials up and down the chain of command who  committed and ordered gross human rights violations during the uprising or in the years before are still in their posts.

The winners of the elections for a National Constituent Assembly (NCA) will be tasked with writing a new constitution and preparing for legislative elections. The temporary government  formed in the coming days or weeks will be expected to enact concrete reforms  which will make a real difference in people’s lives. As they ready themselves for the political bargaining that will inevitably take place in the negotiations for the formation of the government, politicians would do well to remember the lessons of the uprising: if the government will not act to bring about change, people can act to change the government.

Read more: 
Time for Tunisian political parties to deliver reform (News, 27 September 2011)
10 steps for human rights: Amnesty International's human rights manifesto for Tunisia (Report, 27 September 2011)