Sabrina Zechmeister, Johns Hopkins SAIS MA candidate and ILAW concentrator, visited Tunisia during spring break, together with a group of fellow SAIS students. During the trip, they had the opportunity to meet representatives of NGOs, the UNHCR and World Bank delegates discussing different topics such as migration, refugee and human rights protection, and exploring the progress on the democratic transition in the country.
This post summarizes some of the most meaningful meetings and insights from Sabrina’s trip that she felt were especially relevant to the Center’s research.
- AL Bawsala,
- President’s advisor for youth affairs,
- World Bank,
- Arab Institute for Human Rights.
A representative of “Al Bawsala”, an NGO established under Tunisian Law, presented the organization’s three main fields of work:
- Monitoring parliamentary activity;
- Serving as an observatory on local authorities;
- Examining the State’s budget, with the specific aim of identifying the use of government funds in the implementation of key policies.
During the meeting, the NGO representative also highlighted the importance of the recently drafted Constitution in the country’s democratization process. In particular, it was pointed out that the drafting was not based on a single model from another nation, but rather drew upon many foreign Constitutions, including the ones of France, Spain, Georgia, and Scandinavian countries. Additionally, it was noted that for the first time, civil society organizations are taking part in the transition process.
Finally, the meeting emphasized some recently passed laws that are contributing positively to the country’s democratization process, such as:
- A law granting amnesty to economic agents that had transferred money abroad if the funds were transferred back to Tunisia and reinvested in the national economy,
- A law imposing stiffer penalties for violent crimes against women.
The group also met with the President’s advisor for youth affairs, who also underscored the importance of engaging civil society members in Tunisia’s transition process. In particular, it was pointed out that the implementation of the constitution is a lengthy process and that engaging youth is of paramount importance. To this extent, it was noted that the youngest member on constitutional assembly was 23 years old, and that several policies are being put into place to ensure diversity and youth participation in the country’s political lists. It is mandated that the first 3 candidates on the list, for instance, should be 35 years old or younger and that, among the first 10, at least one should have a disability.
The President’s advisor again pointed out a few recently passed laws that were deemed particularly worth mentioning in detailing the progress of the transition:
- The law on violence against women was mentioned again. This time, it was highlighted that the law broadened the definition of violence, raised the age of consent from 13 to 16 years old and also abrogated the law that allowed rapists to be pardoned if they married their victim. During the meeting, Tunisia was also presented as the first Arab country to achieve gender equality.
- Tunisia’s “Start-up Act” was instead considered of particular importance in facilitating entrepreneurs to set up their business in the country, which before proved a cumbersome and lengthy process due to the heavy presence of red tape. The implementation of this law, however, was also noted to have been going rather slowly, due to recent economic imbalances in the country.
Finally, the students had the opportunity to meet with representatives from the World Bank and the Arab Institute for Human Rights.
The meeting with the World Bank’s representative noted that Tunisia is a socially stable country that so far has been fairly successful in transitioning to democracy. Some economic hardship, however, has recently hit the country, leading some segments of the population to start questioning the benefits of the revolution.
As such, the meeting pointed out three key issues that the country needs to address:
- Political instability of the country, which makes it hard to attract foreign investments, ultimately hindering the local economy.
- Massive brain drain, with 100’000 PhDs leaving the country every year to move primarily to Europe (80%) and the Gulf region (20%).
- Government expenditure is currently too high and needs to be curbed to ensure the well-being of the national economy.
During the meeting with the Arab Institute for Human Rights, finally, the organization presented its work, primarily focused on capacity building and training to promote a culture recognizing universal human rights. Necessary steps to be taken in Tunisia, according to the organization’s view, involve working with traditional civil society organizations and institutions for capacity building and to establish a generalized rights-based approach, as well as reforming the security and school sectors. On this last point, the Institute also explained that extensive work is done with children in school to instill in them the notion of Human Rights and teach them the value of their protection.