The United Nations human rights chief will send a team to Tunisia next week to assess the country’s human rights situation amidst recent political unrest, which her office says has so far led to more than 100 deaths.
“I have been asking myself what my office, and what the international community in general, can do to help the people of Tunisia to take advantage of the opportunity that now exists,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said at a press conference in Geneva today. “While it is still very early days, it is important that the seeds of change are sown wisely and sown now, before former entrenched interests start to reassert themselves, or new threats emerge.”
Tunisia’s president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country last week amid growing protests and violence by protesters reportedly angered by rising prices of essential commodities, lack of employment opportunities, alleged corruption and limitations on fundamental rights and freedoms. Recent attempts to stabilize the political situation have been unsuccessful. On Tuesday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voiced renewed concern at the growing violence in Tunisia, and urged that all efforts be taken to restore peace and stability.
In her remarks to the press conference, Ms. Pillay said that while the situation on the ground is evolving and fragile, the Tunisian people have a tremendous opportunity to carve out a better future, based on laws that are fully in line with international standards, and are scrupulously observed by the authorities.
The human rights chief said her office has received information concerning more than 100 deaths over the last five weeks, as a result of live fire, protest suicides and deadly prison riots over the weekend. Along with colleagues, she has been conferring with key human rights players inside Tunisia.
Earlier this week, she met with a group of seven non-governmental organizations and listened to their concerns and proposals; while on Wednesday morning, Ms. Pillay spoke by telephone with Tunisia’s new Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Radhouane Nouicer. The pair discussed her intention to send a team to Tunisia to carry out an assessment of priorities on the human rights front – Ms. Pillay said the deputy foreign minister welcomed the mission in principle.
“We will be working out the details of the mission with the interim government and other interested parties over the next couple of days,” the human rights chief said, adding that she expects her team, in addition to gathering information about the current and past human rights situation, to come back with a set of concrete proposals for action on issues relating to past abuses as well as future reforms.
“Human rights abuses were at the heart of Tunisia’s problems; therefore human rights must be right at the forefront of the solutions to those problems,” Ms. Pillay said. “In future, those who abuse power in Tunisia – ranging from the President of the Republic to the Judge in the Court and the security officer on the street – must be held accountable.”
Ms. Pillay welcomed the fact that Tunisia’s interim government has already announced a number of important measures, including the release of all political detainees, permission for all political parties to operate freely, and the establishment of freedom of the press. She also welcomed the government’s announcement that it will address the underlying causes of the unrest by enacting policies to ameliorate economic hardship.
“Among its other tasks, the OHCHR team will examine whether or not these commitments are being pursued, and we are prepared to make recommendations to help them reach fruition,” Ms. Pillay said.
The human rights chief also welcomed the fact that the interim government has announced the setting up of three commissions – two commissions of inquiry into human rights abuses and corruption, as well as a commission on political reform – and that all three are headed by people known for their engagement in human rights.
“This is an important step, and the government must now ensure that these commissions enjoy total independence, have an appropriate budget, are able to access all relevant sources, and can publish the results of their investigations,” Ms. Pillay said. “It is also important that these and subsequent reform processes are transparent and inclusive – there must be no window-dressing when it comes to accountability.”
Ms. Pillay noted that there are a range of other issues that will need to be examined over the coming weeks and months, including accountability mechanisms for human rights abuses over the past decades, as well as for what happened over the past weeks; in addition to a thorough review of Tunisia’s laws, and its security systems and institutions.
“It is important that the international community does what it can to support the clear desire of the Tunisian people to see that justice is done,” she said. “It is equally important that, in the meantime, people do not take the law into their own hands. Issues relating to justice and fair trials need to be strengthened, not undermined by further acts of violence.”
The human rights chief said that, in the meantime, it is essential that the interim authorities act with scrupulous regard to international standards governing the imposition of a state of emergency. Importantly, she said, the authorities cannot suspend basic rights – notably the right to life, the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment – or fundamental principles of fair trial and freedom from arbitrary detention.
“I will continue to closely watch the situation in Tunisia, and do all I can to ensure that the human rights aspirations of the Tunisian people are finally achieved, and their sacrifices are not in vain,” Ms. Pillay added.