Human Rights Defenders Face Struggle in Tunisia

Chairwoman Hautala met on 27.10 with human rights defenders from Tunisia to discuss the current human rights situation in the country and the impact of the controversial amendment to the penal code to the promotion of human rights in Tunisia and abroad. [:]

The human rights situation and the working abilities of human rights defenders in particular have worsened in recent years. Human rights organizations are under strict surveillance and their functioning has been effectively obstructed by the authorities. For instance, their use of their own office facilities has been severely restricted and in places completely prevented.

The guests informed the Chairwoman how amendment to Article 61bis of the Penal Code poses further restraints on human rights defenders and the critics of the authorities. Additions to Article 61bis prohibit anyone from harming Tunisia’s “economic security” and Justice and Human Rights Minister Lazhar Bououni has explained that “harming Tunisia’s vital interests” included “inciting foreign parties not to grant loans to Tunisia, not to invest in the country, to boycott tourism or to sabotage Tunisia’s efforts to obtain advanced partner status with the European Union.”Amendment to the penal code thus almost exclusively targets the human rights activists who lobby foreign bodies, including the European Union, to press Tunisian authorities to show more commitment to human rights. While no prosecutions under the amendment have taken place, the chilling effect of the new code can already be felt.

The functioning and independence of the judiciary was also discussed in this context. It was noted that the charges presented against activists and journalists are oftentimes not corresponding to the actual reason of the prosecution. Indeed, for instance, investigative journalists and activists have often been accused of harassing a policeman or of having connections to terrorist groups. Similarly, the conduct of such cases at the tribunal suffers from severe shortcomings.

It was also noted that EU could do more to promote human rights in Tunisia. EU delegation in the country could offer better support to the human rights activists and the Member States could do more to insist that the Tunisian authorities seize to block the funding by the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights to Tunisian civil society.

Chairwoman informed the guests of the consistent support the European Parliament and the Subcommittee have given to the promotion of human rights in Tunisia. She furthermore assured them that the Subcommittee shall remain committed to closely monitoring the human rights situation in the country and the related EU policy.