The United Nations’ top human rights official today urged the Tunisian government to ensure that its security forces stop using excessive force against demonstrators, and to start credible investigations into deaths that have occurred during recent protests.
The North African country has been rocked by street protests by civilians reportedly angered by rising prices of essential commodities, lack of employment opportunities, alleged corruption and limitations on fundamental rights and freedoms.
“Whatever the precise total, I am extremely concerned about the very high number of people killed in Tunisia in recent weeks,” said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, in a statement issued in Geneva. “It is essential that basic international human rights norms and guidelines governing the use of firearms are urgently and strictly adhered to.”
Government figures for those killed over the weekend of 8-9 January stand at 21, but human rights organizations have put the death toll much higher. While demonstrations intensified during the past weekend, deaths were also reported in preceding weeks. The protests, which began on 17 December, have continued across the country.
Ms. Pillay noted reports which suggest that the majority of protests have been peaceful in nature and that security forces reacted with excessive force in breach of international standards.
“It is imperative that the government launch a transparent, credible and independent investigation into the violence and killings,” she said. “If there is evidence that members of the security forces have used excessive force, or conducted extra-judicial killings, they must be arrested, tried and – if found guilty of offences – punished according to the law. It is essential that justice is done, and is seen to be done.”
Ms. Pillay also expressed concern over reports of widespread arrests, including of human rights defenders and bloggers advocating fundamental human rights principles such as the freedom of expression, as well as reports of torture and ill-treatment of detainees.
“While it is correct that people should be arrested if there is evidence they have committed crimes such as violence or arson, no one should be arrested or harassed for standing up for human rights,” she said. “Human rights defenders and bloggers, arrested solely for their peaceful activities, must be released immediately.”
The human rights chief urged the Tunisian government to respond to the underlying causes of the unrest and to draw up policies to ameliorate economic hardship and lift severe limitations on civil liberties, including the freedoms of assembly, the expression of opinion and the right to associate.