Despite Tunisia’s reputation in Europe as the democratic success story of the Arab uprisings, human rights violations and elite impunity in the country are widespread. This has been the case throughout the last decade, and earlier. But since President Kais Saied suspended parliament in July 2021, claiming full executive, legislative, and some judicial powers, the human rights situation has worsened. Harassment of, attacks on, and the prosecution of journalists by state officials have risen, as have violations of freedom of movement. There is a lack of due process and military courts are being used to for civilian trials.
Troublingly, the European Union’s security-centric approach to the country often undermines the work of Tunisian human rights activists, rather than helping them. The EU’s rhetoric has largely focused on high-level political issues related to the ongoing political transition. The bloc also remains unduly focused on migration, which leads to rights abuses in that domain.
Tunisia’s human rights violations are often a product of police abuse, enabled by state officials and the country’s political elite. The security services have long inflicted rights abuses in the name of fighting terrorism. This includes torture; targeted violence against minors; committing ‘collective punishment’ through mass punitive arrest programmes across entire neighbourhoods; and arbitrary restrictions on people’s freedom of movement. Although the government sometimes uses “counter-terrorism” as an excuse, these violations have a political character and target protesters. Security services also obstruct the judicial process on the rare occasions that police are tried for crimes.
Tunisia’s security services are free to act as they wish, as they feel more powerful than politicians. Parliament has long lacked the political will to challenge police impunity. Despite a constitutional mandate to do so, it has failed to repeal repressive laws in the penal code that enable police repression, such as the criminalised nature of the defamation of officials. Parliament has even emboldened the security services by introducing new oppressive legislation such as an anti-terrorism law.
Broadly speaking, the arms sales to Tunisia and the security assistance that the EU has enabled under the bloc’s counter-terrorism policy have reinforced an already repressive policing apparatus. With Tunisia’s security sector, the EU’s failure to adequately integrate human rights issues into relations – which focus above all on counter-terrorism – means that its approach has helped many human rights violations to take place.
At the same time, European migration policy has criminalised informal migration, pushing migrants towards dangerous attempts to cross the Mediterranean, with often deadly consequences. The horrific number of fatalities means that this is perhaps the biggest human rights issue between Europe and Tunisia. And, while they are not the only ones who suffer from this, the number of Tunisian citizens seeking to make the crossing has risen in recent years. Tunisia offers freedom of movement to Europeans, but, to travel to Europe, Tunisians must go through restrictive, expensive, punishingly tedious, and opaque visa processes. Worse, European states then prosecute ship captains and NGOs trying to save lives in the Mediterranean.
The piecemeal support that the EU provides to support human rights in Tunisia, all while it pursues harmful broader policies, means it has failed to embed human rights issues in either its political or security discussions. International and local NGOs are left to pick up human rights issues – which makes for an ineffective approach. This can be seen in EU states’ responses to Saied’s seizure of power, which resulted in European leaders calling for a speedy return to a parliamentary system but without saying much about specific human rights violations, either relating to the coup or in general.
It is true that European governments engage with Tunisian activists and fund rights organisations. For example, Euromed Rights receives funding from the EU, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, and the German Heinrich Böll Foundation. This organisation is led by widely respected activists and addresses important issues such as police repression, the rights of migrants, women’s rights, and freedom of expression and assembly. Its assessment of the state of human rights in Tunisia in early 2021 offers a useful summary of the situation, as well as a very long list of legislative recommendations to both Tunisian and European officials.
But, too often, advocacy groups, including those supported by European funding, tend to seek top-down legislative change from elites that are uninterested in ever bringing about such change, rather than strengthening victims groups or grassroots organisations. Advocacy directed towards political elites that is disconnected from social movements and political actors with strong constituencies usually fails to produce tangible results. It can even be counterproductive. Rights organisations will often experience a backlash when Tunisians see changes as being brought in from above or abroad. Tunisian political and judicial authorities have also obstructed such legislation when there is little popular pressure to pass it.
European support for associations such as Terre d’Asile assists with advocacy, awareness-raising, and aid for migrants and asylum seekers. But this has a negligible impact in comparison to the effects of European policy. As such, EU member states and associated EU programmes need to make changes to their policies in order to properly address Tunisia’s human rights catastrophe. More positive examples include the provision of direct material support for human rights victims, such as the French Development Agency’s support for the Beity organisation, which houses vulnerable women. This approach is likely to lead to more concrete results and can strengthen and drive existing, domestic, programming.
To better protect human rights in Tunisia, Europeans should reform their approach. They should integrate human rights issues into political, economic, and human security initiatives rather than allowing them to remain siloed. Perhaps most importantly, Europe needs to reform its own securitised approach to migration, which produces severe rights violations.
Fadil Aliriza is the founder and editor-in-chief of Meshkal.org, an independent news website in English and Arabic covering Tunisia. He is also a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. As a journalist and researcher, Aliriza has primarily worked on Tunisian developments since 2011, with an ongoing focus on human rights.