Recent public hearings of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) saw a painful period of collective introspection for the country’s people. Tales of humiliations, torture, and rape committed over a near-60 year period—starting at around the time of Tunisia’s independence from France—were broadcast in eight live public hearing sessions from November 2016 to March 2017.
According to Refic Hodzic of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), transitional justice processes generally take place in polarized contexts, in which there is resistance to change. This has proven true in Tunisia, where the TDC and its chair have been the target of attacks by political and media leaders, mainly those linked to the old regime, over their operating costs and financial management. Some have also criticized the choice of victims in the public hearings, arguing that the majority are Islamist activists, though, given that Islamists were the main oppressed group under the old secular regime, their over-representation here makes sense.
The hearings are the only publicly visible component of the commission, which has received 62,641 cases to date. It was established following the Tunisian revolution, which led to the removal of long-standing president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and initiated the wider Arab Spring. Tunisia was unique among Arab nations in seeing a peaceful transition to a democratic system.
Six years into this process, Tunisia has successfully written a new constitution, held two rounds of free and fair legislative elections, and democratically elected a president. It is now following the lead of other countries who have gone through major political upheavals. Based on investigations, testimony-gathering, and archival research, truth commissions were instrumental in the successful transitional periods of countries such as Argentina, Peru, and South Africa.
The TDC will produce a final report covering the period from 1955-2013, during which the successive oppressive administrations of Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali turned Tunisia into a police state under one-party-rule. The regimes imposed routine restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, and association, and relied heavily on intimidation, arbitrary arrests, beatings, torture, residential restrictions, and travel controls, alongside systemic corruption and economic marginalization.
Among the many women who spoke at the recent hearings was Latifa Matmati. Although her husband Kamal Matmati was killed in 1991, she only learned of his fate in 2011. For 20 years, she brought clothes to the police station where she believed he was held captive; for 20 years, the police did nothing to stop her.
Sami Brahim, meanwhile, told of his experience of abuse and torture while in jail: “All the prisoners were stripped, the young and the elderly. For an entire week, everyone was kept naked.” He said that he was ready to forgive his torturers, but that forgiveness must be accompanied by an explanation of why he was subjected to these activities.
After giving the floor to the victims, the TDC does indeed plan to have torturers testify, to explain the mechanisms that fueled the repression.
The hearings were an eye-opening experience for many Tunisians who didn’t know such abuses were taking place. Under the old regimes, information was tightly controlled and only those affected or linked to the victims were aware of what was going on. According to Salwa El Gantri, ICTJ’s Head of Office in Tunisia, it is “difficult to make those who were never victims, who never had any links to victims, understand victims’ suffering and victims’ rights.” The public hearings’ main purpose is thus to ensure those detached to hear the truth directly from the victims.
Despite millions tuning in via television, radio, and social media, it is still too early to assess the real impact on Tunisian society. Beyond a widely shared sense of high emotion, the reactions have been diverse. While most Tunisians appreciated learning about the abuses directly from their victims, some have argued that it was the wrong time for the hearings to occur, as Tunisia faces more pressing issues, such as a stagnating economy, high corruption, and continuous terrorist attacks and other security threats.
While no one can deny the urgency of the various challenges Tunisia is facing and will continue to face for the next few years, compromise on the full implementation of the transitional justice is only likely to diminish efforts to prevent human rights abuses from repeating. Successful democratic transitions require deep change to occur on multiple fronts and concurrently.
As its work continues it will be of paramount importance for the TDC to assess the effectiveness of its operations and make any necessary improvements. It should also keep up and even increase its communication efforts. This will help restore and maintain its credibility and relevance among the public, and challenge negative perceptions on the transitional justice process, as well as reform and democratization more broadly.
The successful creation of the pillars of the democratic transition was a remarkable achievement in a region crippled by an acute lack of individual freedoms, unemployment, corruption, war, and terrorism. To stay on track, ambitious reforms will be necessary. Continued progress on transitional justice can help in this process, by improving the institutions that were once complicit in the abuses, primarily the police and judiciary.
If nothing else, the public hearings have successfully initiated a constructive national debate on these issues. They have also made some degree of contribution to repairing the population’s trust in justice and the ongoing transition. Following his public testimony, Sami Brahim reported receiving thousands of letters and messages of support, while one of the TDC commissioners, Ibtihel Abdellatif, described the hearings in terms of a seismic event—“not an earthquake that destroys, but an earthquake that builds.”
Meriem Trabelsi is a recent graduate in International Affairs from the Graduate Institute of Geneva and a consultant on political participation with UN Women. The views in this article are solely those of the author.