Breakthrough in North Africa

The UN Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay, established a country office in Tunisia, the first in any North African country bordering the Mediterranean, during a two-day visit to that country.

Navi Pillay and Mouldi Kéfi plant an olive tree at the opening ceremony in Tunis © Nabil Mensi

On Thursday 13 July, while signing the “host country agreement” in Tunis with Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohamed Kefi, Pillay said Tunisia was embarking on a difficult, but rewarding path to the full establishment of the rule of law, human rights and equality.

“The protest movement in Tunisia unequivocally showed how violations of rights—economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights—are intrinsically linked and produce chain reactions,” she said. “The demonstrators asserted that a denial of peoples’ participation in shaping the destiny of their nation, and the unfair allocation of its wealth, are violations of human rights that concomitantly fuel discontent and that cannot be tolerated indefinitely.”

The High Commissioner sent a high-level mission to Tunisia in January shortly after widespread protests had led to the downfall of the government of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and discussions about setting up an office in the country began soon afterwards.

The main responsibilities of the new UN Human Rights office in Tunisia include combating impunity for human rights violations, as well as strengthening accountability and the rule of law by supporting the process for transitional justice and fostering a democratic society. Economic, social and cultural rights also form a cross-cutting aspect of the OHCHR-Tunisia programme.

Since the ‘Jasmine Revolution’, a number of positive human rights developments have occurred in Tunisia. The transitional government has ratified four major human rights treaties and became the 116th state to ratify the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court.  Ratifying the Rome Statute is one of the best deterrents to crimes.

Tunisia also created its first independent National Electoral Commission to oversee the process to elect a constituent assembly in October. More than 80 political parties registered – compared to seven before the revolution – and gender parity is enshrined in the electoral rolls for the upcoming elections, a first in the Arab world.

“Women played an important role in the protests that took place,” Pillay said on Friday 14 July at the official opening ceremony for the new office. “And whether or not they achieve true parity with men in the new Tunisia will be an important factor in the development of society, especially economic and social development. No country can become a mature democracy if half its population has its rights circumscribed in law or in practice.”

When she met with civil society on Friday, Pillay also noted that, throughout Tunisian history, civil society had been a key vector for change. “The first Human Rights League in Africa and the Arab world was established in this country. Tunisian civil society was at the forefront of resistance against colonialism, oppression, inequality and injustice,” she added. “It has been a leading player in carrying out the groundwork for the transition that the country is now experiencing, and it spearheads the ongoing process of political and institutional reform.  Indeed, a strong and free civil society is key to the protection of human rights.”

The High Commissioner reiterated her continuing strong solidarity with the people of Tunisia and pledged the support of her office for the efforts needed to bring about a successful democratic transition and embed strong human rights protections in Tunisian laws and official practices.

“Transition is an area where my Office has considerable experience and expertise,” she said at Friday’s ceremony. “We have helped many countries rewrite bad laws, and advised them how to implement them. We have even helped some countries rewrite their Constitutions to ensure that they are compatible with international human rights law.”

“In many countries around the world, we have trained judges, police and other security services on how to perform their duties without infringing people’s human rights – meaning any people’s human rights, including marginalized groups. We will continue to offer the Tunisian authorities help in these and many other areas. Human rights means much more than just criticizing authorities when they do things wrong. The more important aspect of the work is helping them to put things right,” Pillay added.

14 July 2011