CSVR | CENTRE FOR THE STUDY OF VIOLENCE AND RECONCILIATION
Introduction

Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission (Instance Vérité et Dignité, or IVD) was formed on 17 December 2013. The commission was mandated to investigate gross violations of human rights from 1955 to the official start of its proceedings. This timeline included the authoritarian regimes of former prime ministers Habib Bourguiba (1957-1987) and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2011).

The commission investigated crimes such as torture, deliberate killing, rape and any form of sexual violence, enforced disappearances, execution without a fair trial guarantee, election fraud, corruption, the misuse of public funds, and pushing individuals into forced migration for political reasons (Organic Law, 2013).

The period under investigation was marked by the pursuit of modernisation and a shift towards liberal ideals that included forms of government-supported liberal feminism, with the state providing rights such as abortion, repealing divorce laws that favoured men, and promoting access to birth control. At the same time, state security agents were committing various forms of systemic violations. Abuses such as rape, sexual harassment, menstrual torture and forced abortions were prevalent during this time (IVD, 2020). While all women could be subjected to such violations and forms of torture, Muslim (non-secular) women were the primary target of this violence under the two regimes (Gray & Coonan, 2013). Men and children were not exempt from violations such as rape, the threat of rape and castration.

Conflict and Prevalence of Sexual Violence

The 58-year period investigated by the IVD included the year before Bourguiba assumed power in 1956, when independence occurred. In 1955, Bourguiba, as head of his political party Neo Destour, orchestrated a campaign of violence against the supporters of his political opponent, Salah Ben Youssef. Backed by France for his ‘pro-Western’ stance, which contrasted with Youssef’s socialist and pan-Arabist base, Bourguiba assumed power.

Bourguiba then consolidated his power, which began with the dissolution of structures that could hold him and his government accountable for crimes or abuse of power. He ensured remaining structures were occupied by factions loyal to him. In addition, “in a series of 1956 and 1957 decrees, he abolished religious courts, liquidated Islamic land foundations, or waqf” (Chomiak, 2017, p. 10). In this way, Bourguiba governed without challenge and met opposition with violence and detention

When Ben Ali assumed power in 1987 after ousting Bourguiba, he introduced further repressive systems and draconian laws. Ben Ali continued the same approach of being a radical moderniser, challenging Islamic traditions and repressing their proponents. This led to repeated purges of Islamists, such as the Ennahda Movement, which questioned his government. Ben Ali’s regime passed laws such as the Anti-Terrorism Law, which appealed to Western fears of Islamist extremism and deepened the oppression of Islamists (Kaboub, 2014).

Rape and other forms of sexual violence were used by state security forces as part of their campaign of repression. During their consolidation of power, both Bourguiba and Ben Ali defunded the military in order to counter any coup d’état attempts by the opposition (ibid). Thus, the police, national guard, secret police and presidential guard served as the key security forces and were responsible for abuses. These forces were central in terrorising men, women and children during both regimes.

Sexual violence was used, in addition to arbitrary imprisonment, travel bans and government harassment of Muslim women (Zaki, 2018). Reliable figures for the number of detainees are not available, but it has been estimated that women detainees numbered between 300 and 1,500 during the period under the IVD’s investigation (Gray & Coonan, 2013, p. 350).

Contributing Factors around Sexual Violence

Under the two regimes, Tunisia passed progressive legislation that improved the legal status of women. This included the Personal Status Code of 1956, which raised the age of marriage for girls to 17, banned polygamy and gave women the right to divorce and child custody. Throughout these reforms, the Tunisian government was regarded as a “quintessentially state feminist regime” in the Arab world, working alongside feminist networks such as the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) (Arfaoui & Moghadam, 2016, p. 642).

Zaki (2018) argues, however, that a strong patriarchal state was concurrently created. Government agents enjoyed mass impunity as they violated the same rights that were created to protect women. This impunity would enable violations such as rape, the threat of rape and other sexual abuses to be used as a weapon for political intimidation. The state actively promoted its progressive façade to shield the ongoing violations from international criticism.

Secular women also gained privileged status in relation to Muslim women. Although no women were exempt from state violations, secular and women’s rights organisations enjoyed special status under Ben Ali’s regime. Women’s rights movements regarded Muslim women’s beliefs as a threat to their conception of women’s rights in the country, and largely failed to protect them from violations (Gray & Coonan, 2013). Muslim women were targeted both for their identity as Islamists and for their direct and indirect association with the Ennahda Movement, which was seen as a threat to the regime.

It is also argued that “some feminists found themselves harassed by the political police when they ventured outside of ‘women’s issues’ into what were deemed to be political issues, such as the human rights of political prisoners or the right to organize and protest” (Arfaoui & Moghadam, 2016, p. 641). Muslim women were thus targeted in multiple and intersecting ways under the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes.

The constant targeting of Muslim women was influenced by cultural norms in Tunisia. Although Tunisia had progressive legal frameworks, social realities and cultural norms, particularly within Islamic practices, remained traditional. Muslim women were subjected to demoralising treatment and torture that stripped them of their dignity, as perpetrators were often motivated by religious notions of purity and chastity and fuelled by the knowledge that their victims would not report such violations. Rape and any form of sexual abuse were considered as bringing shame on women and their family, as honour was tied to sexual purity (Gray & Coonan, 2013).

The violations of Muslim women were a deliberate humiliation that sought to psychologically break down victims/survivors, with a further assault on their religious values and beliefs. These violations were so systematic that sexual assault at the hands of doctors was recorded once they knew women were “Islamist political prisoners” (p. 354)

Transition and Establishment of the Truth Commission

On 14 January 2011, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia following months of protest that erupted across the country. The immediate catalyst for what was coined the Jasmine Revolution was the suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi on 17 December 2010. Bouazizi was a street vendor who took his own life outside the provincial governor’s headquarters after being harassed and beaten by state police (Aleya-Sghaier, 2012). Longstanding issues such as poverty, state-sanctioned violence and unequal distribution of resources were additional drivers of the protests.

The protests started in Sidi Bouzid, in the midwestern mining region of Tunisia, and later spread to the south and non-coastal cities that were economically marginalised by the state (Kaboub, 2014). The midwestern provinces were continuously disadvantaged when it came to resources: “For example, although the Sahel region [the provinces of Sousse, Monastir and Mahdia] comprised less than 14.4 percent of the Tunisian population in 2010, it had more infrastructure, social facilities, factories, hotels, and universities than all the provinces of the Midwest and South” (Aleya-Sghaier, 2012, p. 20).

The leaderless revolution was comprised of the youth, the elderly, men and women from different parts of the country, coming from different professions. The demonstrations reached their peak on 14 January in Tunis, where protesters gathered and called for Ben Ali to step down. Subsequently, it was declared on national television that Ben Ali had been disposed and replaced under Articles 56 and 57 of the constitution.

Following elections on 23 October, a three-party coalition was established, led by the Islamist party Ennahda. Transitional justice became important for Tunisia, “aimed at dealing with the legacy of the past abuses” and seeking to navigate the country’s future trajectory (Lamont & Boujneh, 2012, p. 34). On 19 January 2012, the Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice was created and appointed human rights lawyer Samir Dilou to assist with co-ordinating and guiding a transitional justice consultation process. The ministry would lead the national consultations, which included both domestic and international officials and civil society organisations.

The international actors involved in the consultations included the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the International Center for Transitional Justice (Lamont & Boujneh, 2012). In December 2013, Organic Law No. 2013-53 Establishing and Organising Transitional Justice (2013) was passed. This law established the IVD.

The national consultations also led to the formation of new groups such as Transitional Justice Is Also for Women, which was launched in 2014. This network would assist in creating ways to enable the participation of women during the transitional justice process (ICTJ, n.d.).

Mandate and Scope in Respect of CRSV

The IVD sought to establish an integrated set of mechanisms that could allow for understanding and dealing with the past, provide reparations for victims/survivors, contribute to the preservation of collective memory, and provide guarantees of non-recurrence (Organic Law, 2013).

The commission’s mandate was to investigate gross and systematic violations of human rights committed by the state apparatus or groups acting in the state’s capacity. Its mandate was not confined to gross violations of civil and political rights such as wilful killing, rape, torture, enforced disappearance and summary execution, but also included repressive tactics like electoral rigging and police procedures designed to punish part of the population.

Specialised judicial chambers were formed to preside over cases related to deliberate killing, rape and any form of sexual violence, torture, enforced disappearances and executions without fair trial guarantees (Organic Law, 2013), making sexual violence one of the focus areas for the commission.

Importantly, Tunisia submitted its instrument of accession to the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute on 24 June 2011 (IVD, 2019). This influenced the mandate and the commission’s investigations of sexual violence.

According to the Organic Law, a victim is any individual, group or legal entity that would have suffered as a result of gross human rights violations, implying both direct and indirect victims/survivors. These violations include family relations and the marginalised and systematically excluded individuals.

Truth Commission Operations

Fifteen commissioners were appointed by Tunisia’s Constituent Assemblybased on their impartiality, integrity and competence, with human rights activist Sihem Bensedrine as the president. The commission included six committees, including the gender committee, which was in charge of the “gender mainstreaming of all the Commission’s activities, investigation of all forms of gender-based violence, and the development of a nation-wide database of all such violations” (Zaki, 2018, p. 363).

The IVD also put in place special procedures to ensure the participation of women during the proceedings. In the case of victims/survivors of sexual violence, protection procedures were adopted through the digitising, encoding and encryption of their testimonies and any form of participation in the commission. This was intended to prevent any leakage of data that could render victims/survivors vulnerable. It was applied to both men and women. In line with these protection procedures, the IVD conducted secret hearings for women. They could provide their testimonies in any region, with the guarantee of confidentiality.

In addition, the commission established a toll-free number and a reception desk dedicated to receiving women victims/survivors. Although they were established for women victims/survivors in a broader sense, these measures were important for victims/survivors of sexual violence. The IVD also ensured that immediate care responses were available to victims/survivors, such as health, social and psychological assistance. These services were offered to women, children, vulnerable groups, older persons and people with special needs (IVD, 2019, p. 372).

Truth Commission Final Report

The IVD released its final report in 2019. Sexual violence was not defined in the executive summary of the IVD’s final report, but it was acknowledged as a form of gross human rights violation, in addition to rape (p. 77). The term ‘sexual violence’ in the report at times excludes rape, referring instead to disrobing, molestation, sexual harassment, and threats and attempts of rape (p. 459).

Through fact-finding and statement-taking, 795 cases of rape were reported to the commission, and 3,274 cases of sexual violence (p. 59). This demonstrates the widespread nature of such violations during the period under investigation.

The commission did not offer a chapter with a specific focus on sexual violence, but the final report is separated into nine parts, with one focusing on abuses against women and explicitly exploring forms of sexual violation of women and children. Regarding men, the report discusses sexual violence in relation to torture, rather than as a violation on its own, with violations such as rape and abuse to genital areas recorded (p. 161).

Many sexual violations occurred in places of detention, such as prisons and police stations, and sometimes in front of family members (p. 377). They included rape, electric shocks to intimate body parts, the abuse of genitals to cause impotence, and rape using batons, truncheons and glass bottles, directed at both men and women. At times, victims/survivors were forced to perform sexual acts on each other (p. 161).

Sexual violations against children were done in the same manner and mostly in places of detention. One victim recalled being sodomised by “inserting a truncheon in the behind” and having genitals touched by security police (p. 383). Another violation the commission discusses is exposure to sexual activities. All the violations had a significant psychological and social impact on children (p. 385).

The Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes sought to root out dissenting political opinion and crush any opposition. The Ennahda movement and its affiliates became the prime targets. The IVD final report provides a list of perpetrator names, stating that they were “repetitively mentioned by victims/survivors of violations or witnesses” (p. 163).

Truth Commission Recommendations

The IVD made recommendations that were specific to victims/survivors of sexual violence under “forms of violence and sexual assault, including rape.” It also provided general recommendations that would provide benefits to victims/survivors of sexual violence.

The commission recommended that the state adopt a definition of sexual violence based on the elements provided in Article 8(2) of the Rome Statute (p. 606).

It recommended material reparations for all victims/survivors, including of sexual violence. These were arranged into four categories depending on the gravity of the violation. According to the executive summary, victims of rape would receive the highest compensation rate of 70% of the unit measurement, based on the severity of the impact of rape physically, socially and psychologically. Victims of sexual violence would benefit from 35% of the unit measurement (p. 424).

The IVD also recommended symbolic reparations, namely that the president of Tunisia apologise to all victims/survivors subjected to human rights violations by the state apparatus and that this apology be done at ‘Apology Square,’ where a memorial to victims/survivors should be erected (p. 592).

The commission’s recommendations included ones related to prevention, particularly the development of a comprehensive programme in all places of detention, with a strong focus on women’s prisons. This was to be done to address sexual violence and rape by inmates, prison staff and security personnel working in and around these centres. It would also include the training of law enforcement personnel on “respecting human rights and republican security values” (p. 606). This included a recommendation for monitoring conditions in such centres.

The commission further recommended the establishment of health centres and institutions to provide sexual and reproductive health and psychological assistance to women. As a form of symbolic reparations, the commission recommended that these institutions bear the names of women victims/survivors of human rights violations (p. 612).

The IVD noted that all future allegations of sexual violence need to go through an independent doctor before an investigation is initiated, and that the doctor should draw up a report after the incident. As Gray & Coonan (2013) state, sexual assaults often occurred at the hands of state doctors, demonstrating widespread complicity in such violations within government structures.

In a measure that could have an impact on victims of sexual violence, the IVD recommended the strengthening of the Judiciary Supreme Council of Tunisia, and that all measures to ensure its proper functioning and independence be implemented (p. 596).

Finally, the commission recommended reforms to the security sector, stating that “various laws and statutory instruments governing the security sector should be compiled in a standard code, while ensuring their conformity with the Constitution and the international standards” (p. 597).

Implementation of the Truth Commission Recommendations

According to Article 70 of the Organic Law (2013), once the IVD released its report, the president was to prepare a plan and work programmes for implementing its recommendations within one year. The government has yet to prepare this plan or implement any recommendations (HRW, 2022).

Several demonstrations and protest rallies have sought to pressure the government into implementing the recommendations, but the government has not committed to any plans (All Africa, 2012).

There have also been allegations of President Kais Saied using authoritarian tactics in the country, such as placing limitations on movement and the organisation of marches and protests (HRW, 2023). This democratic back-sliding may have negative implications for the implementation of the IVD’s recommendations.

References

Aleya-Sghaier, A. 2012. “The Tunisian Revolution: The Revolution of Dignity.” Journal of the Middle East and Africa, 3(1): 18-45.

Arfaoui, K., & Moghadam, V.M. 2016. “Violence against Women and Tunisian Feminism: Advocacy, Policy, and Politics in an Arab Context.” Current Sociology, 64(4): 637-653.

Chomiak, L. 2017. Tunisia: The Colonial Legacy and Transitional Justice. Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. https://www.csvr.org.za/tunisia-the-colonial-legacy-and-transitional-justice/

Gray, D.H., & Coonan, T. 2013. “Silence Kills! Women and the Transitional Justice Process in Post-revolutionary Tunisia.” International Journal of Transitional Justice, 7(2): 348-357.

Human Rights Watch (HRW). 2023. “In Tunisia, Ticking the Authoritarian Checklist.” https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/03/13/tunisia-ticking-authoritarian-checklist

Human Rights Watch (HRW). 2022. World Report 2022: Tunisia Events of 2021. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2022/country-chapters/tunisia#c52f04

International Center for Transitional Justice. N.d. “ICTJ: Tunisia.” https://www.ictj.org/location/%D8%AA%D9%88%D9%86%D8%B3#:~:text=In%202014%2C%20ICTJ%20established%20the%20Transitional%20Justice%20Is,women%20to%20submit%20their%20stories%20to%20the%20TDC

Instance Vérité et Dignité (IVD). 2019. Final Comprehensive Report, Executive Summary. http://atjhub.csvr.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Tunisia-Final-Report-Executive-Summary-English.pdf

Kaboub, F. 2013. “The Making of the Tunisian Revolution.” Middle East Development Journal, 5(1): 1350003-1-1350003-21.

Lamont, C.K., & Boujneh, H. 2012. “Transitional Justice in Tunisia: Negotiating Justice during Transition.” Politička misao: časopis za politologiju, 49(5): 32-49.

Organic Law No. 53 on Establishing and Organising Transitional Justice. 2013. http://atjhub.csvr.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Unofficial-trans-Organic-Law-on-Establishing-and-Organizing-Transitional-Justice.pdf

Zaki, H.A. 2018. “Resisting and Redefining State Violence: The Gendered Politics of Transitional Justice in Tunisia.” Journal of the Middle East and Africa, 9(4): 359-377.


Sinqobile Makhathini
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Sinqobile Makhathini is a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.