The Tunisian authorities must halt the implementation, pending amendment, of a new Covid-19 decree-law that will deny anyone aged 18 or above without a vaccine pass access to many public and private spaces, ban them from working in public-sector or salaried private-sector jobs, and – if they are Tunisian citizens – bar them from traveling abroad, Amnesty International said today.
The new law is set to come into force on 22 December for six months. Although some aspects of Decree-Law 2021-1, which mandates use of the pass, align with international law and World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations, Amnesty International calls on authorities to amend provisions that violate the rights to work and freedom of movement as guaranteed by international law.
“After the health crisis this summer, the population of Tunisia enjoys far greater access to vaccines, but not all people enjoy the same access to public healthcare or vaccines. In seeking to limit the spread of Covid-19, the Tunisian authorities must only introduce restrictions that are necessary and proportionate for the protection of public health,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“The Tunisian authorities must not implement the new decree-law until they have amended it to ensure the vaccine pass requirements do not violate international human rights law by needlessly threatening the livelihoods of Tunisians and inflicting unduly harsh penalties for non-compliance.”
The new decree-law, which Amnesty International has extensively analyzed, bans public sector and salaried private sector employees from working until they are able to obtain a vaccine pass, with their employers ordered not to pay wages for during the period of suspension. The authorities are also mandated to order businesses that fail to enforce the vaccine pass requirements, with the exception of private health facilities, to close for up to 15 days.
These penalties could unreasonably undermine the livelihoods of those penalized and their families, especially considering the fact that Tunisia is already suffering from a severe economic crisis. Public healthcare infrastructure is uneven across the country and weaker in some poorer regions, which affects access to vaccines.
The Tunisian authorities have said the vaccine pass aims to help “bring about collective immunity“, yet they have not offered a clear, widely communicated, science-based rationale to justify vaccine pass requirements as per Decree-Law 2021-1 as opposed to less restrictive measures. Although the authorities consulted a committee of medical professionals, they have not shared the outcome of any consultations they may have undertaken with labour unions, civil society groups or others to help ensure a healthy public debate on plans for a vaccine pass.
According to WHO guidance on Covid-19 vaccine mandates and vaccine pass requirements, governments should provide clear reasoning behind these policies to help build public trust and address any ethical questions that arise through consultation with the public, especially representatives of those likely to be most affected.
“Instead of intimidating people and tightening the noose around their daily lives, the Tunisian authorities should opt for effective communication strategies and public outreach to encourage people to get vaccinated by choice,” said Amna Guellali.
The decree-law also requires Tunisian citizens aged 18 and above to show a vaccine pass to travel outside the country. According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Tunisia has ratified, any limitation on the right to freedom of movement must be necessary to achieve a legitimate aim, proportionate, provided by law and must not violate other rights guaranteed by the ICCPR.
“This requirement is clearly not a legitimate limitation on freedom of movement under international law, because it is unjustified and unfairly restrictive,” said Amna Guellali.
WHO guidance on international travel during the Covid-19 pandemic states that governments should not impose blanket travel restrictions based on proof of vaccination, and should opt instead for risk-based measures such as testing for Covid-19, imposing quarantine on incoming travellers, or requiring arrivals to present a negative Covid-19 test result.
The authorities should also establish a transparent mechanism for the frequent review of their vaccine pass policy based on the latest scientific research, Tunisia’s obligations under international human rights law and WHO recommendations, and then communicate the findings clearly and transparently to the public.
President Kais Saied, who suspended Parliament on 25 July and has granted himself the power to legislate by decree, issued the new vaccine pass law on 22 October, a month after dissolving a government body tasked with vetting the constitutionality of new laws and disallowing Tunisia’s Administrative Tribunal from annulling decree-laws.
Tunisia began its Covid-19 vaccination campaign in March 2021, yet the rollout proceeded slowly and was undermined by a lack of transparency, political interference, and significant delays in vaccine shipments. Meanwhile, rates of Covid-19 infection increased exponentially and, by mid-July 2021, Tunisia’s daily confirmed deaths per million was the second highest in the world.
From late July onwards, the authorities ramped up vaccinations, eventually raising the percentage of the population who are fully vaccinated from six percent in mid-July to around 46 percent in mid-December.