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The Fight for Truth and Dignity in Tunisia’s New Democracy

Sihem Bensedrine is a longtime advocate of human rights and a member of IRI’s International Advisory Council.  In her home country of Tunisia, she resisted the Ben Ali regime for decades and called for the world’s attention to the abuses of Tunisia’s police state. 

Today, following Tunisia’s revolution, she finds herself in a new political landscape as president of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, tasked with uncovering the abuses of the past and bringing justice to victims of the old regime. 

Many things in Tunisia have changed since the fall of the old regime.  Multi-partisan politics and expanded political rights like democratic elections, freer media, and looser restrictions on freedom of speech and organization have created a sense among most that Tunisia is successfully moving toward consolidated democracy.  But Ms. Bensedrine’s experiences attempting to uncover the crimes of the past demonstrate a more nuanced reality.  The impunity of the security sector and its ability to control events through the use force and manipulation of the state remains.  Furthermore, with a new government that maintains links to the old regime’s enforcers, power brokers and economic engines, Ms. Bensedrine’s task of bringing justice, reconciliation, truth and dignity to the Tunisian state is formidable.

On Friday, September 11, the Guardian featured in an article her Herculean mandate and the obstacles she has faced thus far.  In an interview with the Guardian, Ms. Bensedrine explains that “Truth commissions around the world, the state is on their side.  We are maybe the one case where the state is going against us…” 

And a growing body of politicians are calling for Ms. Bensedrine to be investigated for corruption, while media tied to the old regime have launched increasingly absurd smear campaigns, using the same tactics to defame her that were used in the 90s and early 2000s. 

A “reconciliation” bill currently slated for debate in parliament would set up a parallel judicial body under the authority of the government to investigate and clear businessmen and government officials from the old regime who illegally enriched themselves through theft of taxpayer dinars and other state resources.  In effect, human rights and democracy advocates feel that this government-run commission would give a carte blanche to the regime’s worst abusers and signal a return to the corruption and impunity that defined Ben Ali’s autocratic police state.  The sponsors of the bill contend that their plan would aid the Truth and Dignity Commission by hastening the process and allowing those who are cleared to return to their places as drivers of Tunisia’s economy. 

Ms. Bensedrine has faced repression and political obstacles far greater than these over her long career fighting for human rights in Tunisia.  So while the challenges are great, so too are the abilities and resilience of Ms. Bensedrine.  IRI is proud to have her as its longtime partner and WDN’s 2012 Jeane J. Kirkpatrick awardee and looks forward to working with her to continue to promote our shared goals of advancing human rights, democracy and freedom.

Posted by

Leo Siebert

Program Officer, Middle East and North Africa Division