Travels to Tunisia: Training Tunisian Judges in Human Rights

The Tunisian revolution of January 2011 sparked the “Arab Spring” pro-democracy movements that led to the fall of Arab dictators. The aftermath of revolutions involve messy transitions; a crucial period in which success or failure of democratic uprisings is determined – think of Iran, after 1979. Tunisia is experiencing a rough period involving a struggle for control of the revolution and future direction of the country. It is in this evolving context that I recently travelled to Tunis to assist in the training of members of the Tunisian judiciary.

The program “Training of Tunisian Judges” is funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), and provided through the International Bar Association, Human Rights Institute. The objectives of the program involve infusing the Tunisian judiciary with knowledge of international human rights law, including an independent judiciary. Judicial independence is a crucial ingredient of a democratic society and respect for rule of law. International human rights law and treaties enshrine the fundamental principle of an “independent and impartial” judiciary. The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights enshrines the additional requirement of a “competent court or tribunal” [Art. 7(1)(b)].

The training sessions occur monthly over the course of one year and are intended to encompass practically every member of the judiciary and thereby build an element of critical mass. My co-trainers for the June 2013 session were from the UK and Morocco. The session had 30 judges, from around the country, of which one-third were women. The training required simultaneous translation in English and Arabic and was provided with excellence. My seldom used French language skills were useful and appreciated in social settings.

Despite decades of authoritarian rule, Tunisia is a secular society and that was reflected in the judicial contingent. The judges appeared genuinely interested and committed to fundamental fairness, judicial independence, democracy and respect for rule of law. The training covered knowledge and safeguards concerning due process and fair trial. My presentations included introduction to international human rights law and concepts, major universal human rights instruments and mechanisms for their implementation, major regional human rights treaties and jurisprudence, international legal standards for the protection of persons deprived of their liberty, and judicial independence and the role of the legal professions.

The first day did involve overcoming some skepticism or suspicion voiced by a couple of judges as to why the program and what human rights meant – including western ideas, hypocrisy on Palestine, and homosexual rights. These preconceptions were addressed and personal rapport and trust established – all the while emphasizing that human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated – with practical examples and jurisprudence.

I found the Tunisian judges to be gracious, intelligent and highly capable. Their professional fear and concerns related to a lack of unity amongst the judiciary and lack of judicial independence. They also feared for the direction of their country. The transition has been marred by violence, assassination, depressed economy and social unrest. A “moderate” Islamist party – Ennahda – won the polls and there is deep suspicion as to its real motives and commitment to genuine democracy.

A draft constitution makes Islam (not Sharia) the official religion, and while referencing universal human rights, it makes them subsidiary to the constitution. Prominent human rights lawyer and opposition leader, Chokri Belaid, a strong critic of the supporters of the fundamentalist Islamists – sometimes referred to as “Salafists” – was assassinated on February 6, 2013, and four radical Islamists were detained in relation to his murder. The PM denounced the murder and formation of a caretaker government until a new election is held.

Meanwhile, many Tunisians resent Saudi and Qatari money being funneled to build Mosques, propagate their ultra-conservative brand of Islam (Wahhabism), and finance Islamic radicals. Salafists have attacked theatre performances, music concerts, journalists, secular leaders, and political opponents. The government dismissed 82 judges without any due process and deep concerns about subordination of the judiciary to the executive branch abound. The government judicial bodies are stacked with government appointees. The judges went on a strike and the issue remains up in the air.

The defendants in the violent attack and burning down of the US embassy received only two year suspended sentences for their crimes. The double-edged justice became only more visible when two youths who spray painted graffiti on the walls of a religious site, calling out certain leaders as “dogs”, were imprisoned for two years. Judicial independence or not, there is widespread belief in political interference in the judicial and legal decision-making process. There is suspicion the government says the right things, but looks the other way with the Islamists or outright interferes and manipulates power to create an Islamic state and society.

It is essential the judges have unity and fight to secure judicial independence. They are also terribly underpaid and that makes it vulnerable to corruption. I was left with great respect and admiration for Tunisians. The capital Tunis and environs is highly secular and one of the goals of the 2011 revolution was to bring judicial independence through democratic transition. The struggle is on and democratic allies and institutions around the world could lend an assisting hand in strengthening democratic groups and institutions, including rule of law and an independent judiciary.

Ultimately, the fate of the revolution will depend on Tunisians themselves. That does not mean we must stand on the sidelines as cheering, foreign bystanders. We can help build a sustainable democracy on the ancient shores of North Africa. There is cause to be optimistic based on the Tunisians I met; a highly impressive, informed and dedicated people. It was an humble honour, informative and enriching experience to have been invited to work with the Tunisian judges on behalf of the International Bar Association.

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