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Statement by Ms. Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Meeting with civil society in the context of the Opening of the OHCHR Country Office in Tunisia

Tunis, 13 July 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear Colleagues,

          I am very pleased to be here with you today and to open the OHCHR Country Office for Tunisia. My Office plans to work closely with all actors in Government and civil society in order to help them safeguard and enhance the gains in human rights of all Tunisians.  

          Let me reiterate that human rights abuses were at the heart of Tunisia’s problems, and therefore human rights must be at the forefront of the solutions to those problems.

          Civil society has played a crucial role in Tunisian history and will continue to be a key vector of change.  The first Human Rights League in Africa and the Arab world was established in this country. Tunisian civil society was at the forefront of resistance against colonialism, oppression, inequality and injustice.  It has been a leading player in carrying out the groundwork for the transition that the country is now experiencing, and it spearheads the ongoing process of political and institutional reform.  Indeed, a strong and free civil society is key to the protection of human rights.

          I am aware, however, of the multiplicity of challenges that Tunisian civil society has faced over the last decades.  Human rights defenders have been imprisoned routinely for their work, and some have faced torture and other cruel treatment as forms of punishment for their legitimate activities. NGOs also have been refused registration. Freedom of expression, association and assembly has been curtailed as a matter of government practice. Tunisian civil society, thus, needs to be strengthened after decades of attacks. My Office stands ready to assist you in your vital reforms.

          I wish to take the opportunity to acknowledge the many civil society initiatives that have already been undertaken since February. Last May, for the first time, civil society was able to celebrate openly the World Press Freedom Day. Seminars and workshops are only the beginning of a movement that undoubtedly will grow stronger. I also understand that the Interim Government has been responding positively to requests for registration of associations and publications, which was previously prohibited. These are all steps in the right direction.

          The Transitional Government of Tunisia has also extended a standing invitation to all Special procedures of the Human Rights Council.  The Special Rapporteur on torture and the Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism have already conducted missions in the month of May. Visits by Special Rapporteurs present excellent opportunities for civil society to engage with experts in the field of human rights and exchange information and bring concerns to their attention. I encourage civil society to continue to make good use of the international human rights protection system.

          My Office’s cooperation with civil society is crucial, because it bolsters the implementation of OHCHR’s mandate.  My Office is here to listen to civil society’s needs and learn from its experience and expertise as much as it is here to support you.  Moreover, we will facilitate Tunisian civil society’s engagement with the numerous and specialized human rights mechanisms, and human rights treaty procedures, which are designed to complement your human rights objectives. Rest assured that we will spare no effort to assist you to the best of our abilities.

          It is my practice, as High Commissioner for Human Rights, to hold periodic meetings with civil society both in Geneva and in the course of my visits.  Our representatives in Tunisia seek to facilitate Tunisian civil society consultations, especially to ensure that the human rights mechanisms in Geneva and the international community here properly respond to the human rights priorities articulated by Tunisian civil society.

          Both the members of my delegation and I stand ready to respond to your questions. I particularly would like to invite you to share your reflections on the human rights issues that are important to you and that you feel merit close attention by my Office for Tunisia. 

          Thank you.