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Counter-terrorism: UN human rights expert concludes follow up mission to Tunisia

GENEVA (26 May 2011) – At the conclusion of his official follow-up visit to Tunisia from 22 to 26 May the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Martin Scheinin, gave the following statement: 

“I would like to extend my gratitude to the Transitional Government of Tunisia for having invited me to the country for a second visit to assess first hand the progress made in the implementation of the recommendations contained in my report on the mission of January 2010* and to identify areas where reforms need to be done. I would like to express my appreciation to the Government for the open and fruitful discussions with many officials I have met, including on the highest level. I stress the need to carry out necessary reforms within the counter-terrorism framework, in compliance with international human rights law. I call for measures against impunity to secure accountability for crimes and human rights violations committed in the name of counter-terrorism. 

During this visit, I had productive meetings with the Minister of Justice and Human Rights, the Minister of the Interior and Local Development, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the Prosecutor-General for the Administration of Justice, the President of the fact-finding commission established to investigate human rights abuses since 17 December 2010, the spokesperson of the High Council for the realization of the objectives of the revolution, political reform, and democratic transition, and with law enforcement officials. Another important part of my mission formed the discussions I had with representatives of the civil society, including lawyers. I also visited the detention centre at Bouchoucha and Al Mornaguia Prison, where I was able to interview in private suspects of terrorism crimes. 

Since my last visit to Tunisia in early 2010, the world has witnessed how the negation of human rights by oppressive regimes, including under the pretext of countering terrorism, can bring together a critical mass of people from very different walks of life to pursue their aspirations for a free and democratic society and a Government that respects human rights. Tunisia has become a symbol of this lesson. 

My mandate focuses on the protection of human rights while countering terrorism. In this context I have seen initial steps that indicate a break with Tunisia’s past. I was pleased to hear that many of my interlocutors confirm that the abusive anti-terrorism law of 2003 has not been used since the events of 14 January, including against the Tunisian people that demanded change. However, in Al Mornaguia Prison I learned that individual judges sometimes still order persons detained under the 2003 law. This now mostly dormant law did not do what it was supposed to do. It did not provide more security to the Tunisian people, but was used as a tool of oppression against any form of political or other dissent. The Transitional Government has acknowledged this by adopting an amnesty law covering those who were convicted or held under this law. In order to provide the Tunisian people with the security they deserve, I offer the assistance of my mandate to replace the 2003 law with a proper legislative framework which regulates Tunisia’s anti-terrorism efforts in line with international conventions and protocols on countering terrorism, while fully respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms. The global threat of terrorism is real and can only be responded to through properly targeted and lawful measures, instead of using the notion of terrorism to suppress dissent. 

In my previous report I expressed grave concern about the activities of various entities of the security apparatus, and the secrecy and impunity in which they operated. My report singled out the Directorate for State Security as a crucial entity that was responsible for activities of torture and arbitrary and even secret detention. I commend therefore the abolishment of this entity by the Transitional Government. However, in my previous report I also highlighted the lack of publicly available information on several security organs of the Tunisian State. This secrecy was an important element that contributed to the shield of impunity under which these actors could operate. All security organs’ functions and powers must be regulated by publicly available laws. Such transparency avoids not only the creation of myths about what these agencies do, but also ensures accountability of these agencies if they commit illegal acts. In this context I have noted statements that the ‘political police’ in Tunisia has been abolished. Such a ‘police’ did not exist in the law, but it was used as term by the public, and now also by officials, to describe those elements in the security organs related to the Ministry of the Interior that were responsible for cracking down on political and human rights activists and other dissent. 

Changes in the way Tunisia’s security organs operate should not be limited to slogans, but should result in concrete measures. The first steps have been taken to establish accountability for those who attacked the demonstrators in January of this year. I welcome this positive development, but want to stress that in order to look truly forward towards a new Tunisia, it has to come to terms with dark remnants of its past. During my first visit in 2010 the existence of secret facilities in the premises of the Ministry of the Interior was flatly denied. This time officials at the Ministry of the Interior agreed to show me the former secret detention facilities. However, some officials still denied the use of Ministry offices as interrogation and torture rooms. I learned that until now 60 security officials have been arrested, 7 persons in the highest ranks prosecuted, and 42 officials forced to retire, or went into retirement voluntarily. Tunisia should continue to investigate ex officio allegations of torture and illegal detention, often committed under the pretext of the fight against terrorism. Investigating, prosecuting and trying those responsible for the crimes in question can also help rebuilding trust between the population and the security forces in the country. 

While I commend Tunisia’s decision to ratify the International Convention against Disappearances, the Optional Protocols to the Convention against Torture and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, I must emphasize that these promises turn into real rights only when implemented by depositing the international instrument of accession. Further, I call for rapid measures to strengthen the independence of the judiciary which as of today has not lived up to its task to secure compliance with the law, including human rights. I was also disappointed to learn that the most important safeguard against abuse in police custody, effective access to a lawyer of one’s own choice from the moment of arrest, including presence in every interrogation, is not yet in place. 

These are the preliminary findings of my follow-up mission. A full report will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2012. Please allow me to thank the United Nations Country Team, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in Tunisia, and the members of my delegation.”

 (*)  Check the report on the Special Rapporteur’s previous mission to Tunisia: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/terrorism/rapporteur/visits.htm  


Martin Scheinin was appointed Special Rapporteur by the former United Nations Commission on Human Rights in August 2005. The mandate was renewed by the Human Rights Council in October 2010. As Special Rapporteur, he is independent from any Government and serves in his individual capacity. He is Professor of Public International Law at the European University Institute in Florence.

Learn more about the mandate and work of the Special Rapporteur: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/terrorism/rapporteur/srchr.htm

OHCHR Country Page – Tunisia: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/MENARegion/Pages/TNIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests please contact: Mr. Nikolaus Schultz (phone: +41 79 444 43 55 / email: nschultz@ohchr.org) or Mr. Joseph Schechla (phone: +216 93 308 821 / email: jschechla@ohchr.org) or write to srct@ohchr.org