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The people of Tunisia cast their votes

The people of Tunisia will achieve their most significant milestone yet, in the transition to democracy, when they go to the polls to elect a Constituent Assembly on Sunday 23 October.

In January this year, a nationwide protest movement, the Jasmine revolution as it became known, forced the incumbent President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from office and into exile after 23 years in power.

Commenting on the upcoming poll, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay described Tunisia as a “regional pioneer as it holds the first post-revolution elections in the country’s history”.

“It is our greatest hope that Tunisia will once again act as an inspirational role model for other countries in the region, and elsewhere in the world, in the conduct of these elections “, she said.

In the ten months since it assumed office, the Interim Government has introduced a number of significant reforms including the creation of the country’s first independent National Electoral Commission to oversee the electoral process.

More than 80 parties with ideologies that reach across the political spectrum have registered for the poll, compared to seven before the uprising.

Civil society organizations in Tunisia have been very active in working to organize support for their issues and the various parties and candidates, and along with a number of international organisations, are also gearing to monitor the vote.

“Free and fair elections are just the first step.  The new Constituent Assembly will assume the difficult task of translating demands for freedom, dignity and human rights into a new constitution. The new authorities will face multiple political, institutional, economic and social challenges, and the new State that is emerging will need a crystal clear and solid human rights foundation in order to tackle them,” Pillay said.

In its 10 months in office, the Transitional Government has ratified a number of key international Conventions, including the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It has also established three domestic institutions to oversee transitional justice processes and to ensure accountability for past human rights violations.

Nonetheless opinion surveys are showing that there is still a widespread perception in the general community that key sectors are corrupt and lack integrity, notably the police and private sectors.

“Emerging from decades of what Tunisians described to me… as “denial of dignity”, it is understandable that they have high expectations that the country’s institutions will be dramatically transformed, with a positive impact on their enjoyment of their fundamental rights. Lack of progress on various fronts can lead to disillusionment that “nothing has changed””, Pillay said.

However, the High Commissioner cautioned against “cynicism, apathy and disillusionment” saying change can only be achieved when people own their futures.

The UN Human Rights office in Tunisia was opened in July.  Its major focus is to assist with the implementation of transitional justice programmes, cooperating with the Tunisian authorities and civil society in building institutions to enact rule of law and ensure accountability for past abuses.

As a priority the office is providing support for judicial reform and has provided training to thousands of new police recruits and officers over the past few months emphasizing the role of law enforcement agencies in securing fair and free elections.

20 October 2011

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