New Covid-19 restrictions in Tunisia banning all public gatherings effectively impose a blanket ban on public demonstrations, and thus impede people’s rights to free expression and peaceful assembly, Amnesty International said today. The restrictions came into force on 13 January, amid signs of growing intolerance for dissent and one day before planned demonstrations against President Kais Saied on the 11-year anniversary of the ouster of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
“Every January, Tunisians have commemorated Tunisia’s revolution by taking to the streets to voice their grievances. It is imperative that the Covid-19 health crisis not be used as a pretext to suppress rights in general or the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in particular,” said Amna Guellali, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“Under the new restrictions, there is a risk that authorities’ response to demonstrations could lead to unnecessary use of force or arbitrary arrests, a shameful feature of security forces’ policing of many public demonstrations in recent years. We call on Tunisian authorities to amend the new rules to bring them in line with Tunisia’s international obligations.”
Tunisia’s government says the new restrictions, announced on the head of government’s Facebook page, are intended to combat the spread of Covid-19. They will remain in force for two weeks and may be renewed on the advice of the Health Ministry. Daily Covid-19 cases and the positive test rate have both risen sharply in recent days, according to the Health Ministry. However, the ban on public gatherings goes too far. While states may restrict the right to peaceful assembly to protect public health, restrictions must be necessary, proportional, and not imposed in a blanket fashion. Authorities should instead assess each assembly case by case.
Moves since 25 July 2021 by Saied to concentrate power in his own hands – including suspending parliament and most of Tunisia’s constitution, and granting himself supreme executive authority and the right to legislate by decree – have polarised Tunisian society and triggered vigorous public debate over the country’s future.
It is imperative that the Covid-19 health crisis not be used as a pretext to suppress rights in general or the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in particular.Amna Guellali, Amnesty International
Supporters and opponents of Saied have staged public demonstrations since 25 July, which authorities have allowed to proceed largely unhindered. However, judicial authorities including military courts have increasingly investigated and prosecuted people for publicly criticising the president.
In January 2021, security services used unlawful force in response to wide-spread protests over socio-economic grievances, including beating protestors and firing tear-gas indiscriminately in residential areas.
Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Tunisia has ratified, guarantees the right to peaceful assembly.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that law enforcement officials may only use force when strictly necessary, provided for by law, and where the harm caused by the use of force remains proportionate to the objective they are seeking. This is echoed by The United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials.
“Over the past five months we’ve been seeing worrying indications of authorities’ increasing intolerance for dissent. President Kais Saied must rescind all restrictions that may implicitly violate human rights and publicly commit to respecting international law and standards,” said Amna Guellali.