The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has called on the Tunisian government to respect demonstrators’ rights following the protests that began around January 8, continuing through January 14, and have resulted in almost 850 arrests. [UN News Centre; NY Times: Arrests; BBC: Gas] In addition to mass arrests, the police have responded to the protests with tear gas and violence, which the State claims is justified by some protesters’ vandalism, theft, and aggression, despite reports of these tactics also being used against peaceful protesters. [BBC: Gas; Amnesty International]
January 14, 2018 marks the seventh anniversary of the 2011 protests that culminated in the ousting of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, following his 23 year-long rule. [BBC: Gas] While Tunisians gathered to commemorate this date, the demonstrators also protested the recent 2018 Finance Act, which took effect on January 1, 2018, and imposes austerity measures such as an increase in taxes on specific goods and services, including food and gas prices. [CNN; NY Times: Economic; Al Jazeera] As a party to several universal human rights treaties, and to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Tunisia is obligated to ensure the human rights to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, to freedom of peaceful assembly, and to freedom of expression, which the OHCHR has urged the government to abide by. [UN News Centre] See OHCHR, Ratification Status for Tunisia; African Union, List of countries which have signed, ratified/acceded to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Human Rights Commentary
On January 12, 2018, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed concern at the mass arrests, warning against arbitrary arrests and detention, and urging the State to guarantee the due process rights of those detained. [UN News Centre] Identifying the rights of freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly as potentially implicated by the government’s response to protesters, the OHCHR reminded the State that peaceful demonstrators are not responsible for the actions of others, such as looting, vandalism, or violence, of which there have been reports. [UN News Centre] The OHCHR indicated that it would closely monitor the demonstrations and pushed the State to address through a human rights lens the economic and social issues that sparked the protests. [UN News Centre]
The Tunisian interior ministry’s spokesperson accused the demonstrators of engaging in crime, and not protests, labeling their behavior as intimidation and threats to private and public property. [NY Times: Army] It is reported, however, that many demonstrations were peaceful, and still met with violence, or resulted in arrests. [Amnesty International; NY Times: Army] Police officers have used tear gas and batons to disperse protesters, and in some locations, army troops were sent in to quiet protests. [BBC: Gas; Amnesty International; NY Times: Army] Reports indicate authorities have intimidated journalists who were covering the protests, and at least one journalist was taken into police custody for questioning. [NY Times: Economic]
The government responded to the demands voiced in the demonstrations by proposing a welfare package which will include healthcare reforms and increased aid for those in financial need. [BBC: Gas] However, some demonstrators have expressed that they will not cease protesting until the demand to reverse the austerity measures are met. [CNN; NY Times: Improvements] Additionally, fresh protests arose on Sunday in a southern town in which protesters demonstrated against the lack of employment opportunities; police met the protesters with tear gas. [Reuters]
Demonstrations in Tunisia have taken place in the month of January over the last few years in commemoration of the January 2011 protests that contributed to the Arab Spring, when people across the Middle East and North Africa region called for regime change. [CNN] The 2011 protests occurred in response to high unemployment and corruption in Tunisia. [BBC: New]
Tunisia faces continued weak economic conditions, with approximately 35 percent of youth unemployed and high inflation rates. [BBC: Gas; CNN] The tourism sector, which is an important part of the Tunisian economy, suffered after 2015 terrorist attacks. [CNN]
The International Monetary Fund approved a four-year loan program in 2016; however, the loans are conditioned on Tunisia’s compliance with undertaking government reforms, including both economic and social reforms. [CNN] The State has indicated that it will not alter the austerity measures in the 2018 Finance Act. [NY Times: Army]
Tunisia’s Human Rights Obligations
Tunisia is a party to eight United Nations human rights treaties, and, therefore, the State has international human rights legal obligations under each. Those treaties are the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD); the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW); the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture); the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED); and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (ICRPD). Under these treaties, Tunisia is required to ensure the rights to due process, to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, to freedom of expression, and to freedom of assembly, among others.
Further, Tunisia has ratified Optional Protocols and made declarations that allow individuals to file complaints against Tunisia alleging violations of the ICCPR, CEDAW, Convention against Torture, and ICRPD to the Human Rights Committee; the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women; the Committee against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, respectively. Tunisia is subject to additional universal human rights oversight through the Universal Periodic Review and the UN special procedures.
Tunisia has ratified a number of regional human rights treaties and, therefore, has human rights legal obligations at the regional level. Tunisia has ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Cultural Charter for Africa, the OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Establishment of an African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Under the African Charter, Tunisia is obligated to ensure the rights to due process, freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly.
Tunisia is subject to the oversight of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and has also accepted the jurisdiction of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights to allow non-governmental organizations and individuals to directly submit to the Court complaints against Tunisia for alleged human rights violations. [AfCHPR Press Release; IJRC]