Italy: The Meloni government’s short-sighted strategies on Tunisia

The visit to Tunis by the Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi last month, accompanied by Italian government promises to keep providing the Tunisian government with facilities and resources for coastal patrols, is one more step down a dark road for Meloni’s government.

In attempting to stop departures, Italy has offered the Tunisian government help without demanding greater respect for human rights. In doing so, it risks shoring up an increasingly repressive leader and encouraging more and more abuses.

Tunisia is going through a deep institutional, economic and social crisis.
Since President Kais Saied’s power grab on 25 July 2021 – ten years after the fall of Ben Ali and a start of efforts to build a new constitutional system based on the rule of law and respect for human rights – Tunisia has been spiralling into an authoritarian black hole. Saied has claimed exceptional powers for himself, dissolved parliament, ruled by decree, and adopted a constitution that expands the powers of the executive and threatens human rights.

The new constitution gives the president the final say on appointing judges, while Saied has also granted himself, by decree-law, the power to dismiss them – a power he immediately exercised by dismissing 57 judges. Saied has also issued laws to restrict freedom of expression, which have been used to open investigations against some of the government’s most prominent opponents.

Since last February, in particular, the authorities have arrested more than 20 people, including activists, lawyers, journalists and politicians, as well as Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the main opposition political movement, Ennahda. Only a few days ago, Ghannouchi was sentenced to one year in prison under Tunisia’s anti-terrorism law for having delivered a speech at a funeral saying that the deceased was not afraid of ‘a ruler or tyrant’. In recent weeks, four well-known lawyers have come under investigation, including a lawyer who defends opposition political leaders, a lawyer long committed to women’s rights, the leader of an opposition political party with a decade-long commitment to promoting democratic reforms, and a former Minister of Justice. Many of those under investigation have been accused without evidence of conspiring against the state.

At a time of high inflation, Saied’s incoherent policies have fomented further economic and social instability, as well as violence against refugees and migrants. On 21 February, Saied delivered a racist and xenophobic speech against people from sub-Saharan Africa, which gave rise to a wave of racially motivated attacks against black people in Tunisia. Manuela D, a 22-year-old refugee from Cameroon, told Amnesty International that six men attacked and stabbed her outside a bar, inflicting horrific wounds to her chest, stomach and face. Many other people were driven from their homes and robbed of their personal belongings. Local organizations have also documented hundreds of arrests of black people, including migrant workers, students and asylum seekers.

The African Union, the United Nations, the United States and human rights organizations have reacted vigorously to Saied’s attacks on the rule of law, repression of dissent and xenophobic comments. The European Parliament and some European governments have also condemned Saied’s repressive measures. For its part, the Italian government, worried by the increase in arrivals from Tunisia by sea and with its judgement clouded by its desire to reverse the trend, has instead engaged in diplomacy to convince international financial institutions and any government able to do so to finance Saied’s government, turning a blind eye to his measures to restrict freedoms.

Since February, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani have spoken both publicly and privately to ask the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, the United States, and even the Arab Emirates, Qatar, Algeria, and Israel to make funds available.
The Italian government is not just providing patrol boats to the Tunisian coastguards – 12 already appear to have been delivered and four more are expected – but is also doing its utmost to help Saied out of the financial dead-end into which he has led his country. The problem is that, in blocking refugees and migrants from leaving the Tunisian coast, the Italian government is turning a blind eye to the Tunisian government’s abuses. In a way,

Italy is again using the same strategy as it did in Libya, ignoring the recent UN report highlighting Italy’s joint responsibility for crimes against humanity committed there, and exposing itself to exploitation by an increasingly repressive government. Furthermore, ongoing violations of refugees’ and migrants’ rights – in a country without an asylum law, but with a law criminalizing homosexuality – might even cause departures to increase further. The Meloni government’s approach therefore seems short-sighted, as well as deeply immoral and potentially illegal.

Rather than put pressure on its international partners, so that they too ignore Kais Saied’s disastrous policies, the Italian government should make its support conditional on specific, decisive actions to re-establish the rule of law, end attacks against freedom of expression and political opponents, and counter all forms of discrimination and violence.

It is not by militarizing borders that irregular departures are discouraged, but by guaranteeing rights and dignity for everyone, including refugees and migrants.

This article by Amnesty International’s Hussein Baoumi & Matteo De Bellis, was originally published in Italian on Domani