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Tunisia: “Rights defenders must be involved in the drafting of the Constitution” – UN and African experts

TUNIS (5 October 2012) – Two international human rights experts called today on the Tunisian authorities to ensure full participation of rights defenders in the drafting of the new Constitution, and to guarantee that the final draft respects the work of human rights defenders both “in content and in process.”

“Tunisia finds itself at a historical juncture with the on-going drafting of the new Constitution. Human rights defenders must be allowed to participate in this process,” urged Margaret Sekaggya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, and her counterpart of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Reine Alapini-Gansou, at the end of their joint visit* to Tunisia.

The two rights experts commended Tunisia’s consensus-based and participatory approach to the drafting process, but noted serious concerns about practical implementation. “The Constituent Assembly needs a clear strategy for how to handle submissions from the public. The public needs to be better informed about the process and how the Assembly is handling the drafting process,” they stressed.

General Situation
“The situation of human rights defenders in Tunisia has improved compared to before the Revolution,” the Special Rapporteurs said. “At the same time, the security situation is less predictable than it used to be.”

Women human rights defenders, journalists, artists, academics, trade unionists and NGO workers are among the groups that have been subject to physical attacks, murder attempts, harassment and threats since the Revolution in different parts of the country. “There is a reported lack of responsiveness from the police in these cases, which is underlined by the fact that citizens appear to have little confidence in the police,” they explained.

Right to peaceful assembly and association
Tunisians have continued to demonstrate on various issues after the Revolution, and the Special Rapporteurs applauded the Government for respecting people’s right to assemble peacefully. However, they pointed out to excessive use of force by police and the National Guard, lack of protection against counter protesters and arbitrary arrests continue to be serious concerns in this context, as well as allegations of torture of protesters while in detention.

Freedom of association has seen favourable legislative developments after the Revolution, as confirmed by a proliferation of NGOs in the country. “However, we are concerned about favourable treatment of NGOs perceived as ideologically aligned to the current Government,” they noted. “Freedom of association is dependent upon the right to equality and non-discrimination, so this is important to emphasize.”

Freedom of religion and belief
For the independent experts, certain provisions in the preliminary draft of the Constitution caused some concern. “Tunisia needs to ensure that the Constitution emphasizes its international obligations. Its laws need to be in compliance with international standards.” Furthermore, while protecting freedom of religion and belief, “the Constitution should not criminalize attacks on ‘the sacred.’ It is not clearly defined what constitute such attacks or what ‘the sacred’ is within the law”.

The roles of women and men
Language around complementarity between the roles of women and men has caused huge debate in Tunisia and fear of regression on women’s rights. “This creates confusion about the status of women in society, despite equality being endorsed in other parts of the draft text and could directly impact the environment in which women defenders work” they said.

“Equality should be explicitly endorsed in the draft Constitution and references to complementarity should be removed for sake of clarity around women’s human rights,” recommended the Special Rapporteurs.

Freedom of expression
The experts noted progress on freedom of expression since the Revolution, but stressed that considerable reforms needed to be undertaken in the media sector. Disputes between the Government and media outlets it owns need to be resolved urgently to ensure media’s independence.

“Artistic and academic freedoms have a long-standing tradition of working in favour of human rights in the country. These are under serious threat and require attention from the Government,” urged the Special Rapporteurs.

Independence of the judiciary
“The judiciary is not independent of the Government as of today, and it lacks legitimacy among the population. Reforms are reportedly underway, but this needs to be taken seriously by the Government. A regulatory body for judges which is independent is needed urgently, and the Government has a lot of issues to resolve around appointment of judges,” the experts said.

The Special Rapporteurs paid tribute to those who lost their lives and were wounded during the Revolution for having defended human rights. “To date, most of them have not received an effective remedy,” they recalled, emphasizing the need for fair and adequate compensation, including full means of medical rehabilitation.

The UN Special Rapporteur will present her findings in a report to the Human Rights Council in March 2013. The African Commission Special Rapporteur will present her report to the session of the African Commission in April 2013.

(*) Check the full end-of-mission statement by the Special Rapporteurs: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=12631&LangID=E

Margaret Sekaggya was appointed Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders by the Human Rights Council in March 2008. Ms. Sekaggya is a lawyer from Uganda with over 30 years of experience with justice and human rights issues, including as Chairperson of the Uganda Human Rights Commission, as a judge and as a university lecturer. She is independent from any Government and serves in her individual capacity. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/SRHRDefenders/Pages/SRHRDefendersIndex.aspx

Reine Alapini-Gansou, a lawyer from Benin, was appointed Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in November 2011 for a second term, having previously held the same function from 2005 to 2009. From 2009 to 2011 Ms. Alapini-Gansou served as Chairperson of the ACHPR. For more information, visit: http://www.achpr.org/mechanisms/human-rights-defenders/

UN Human Rights, Country Page – Tunisia: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/MENARegion/Pages/TNIndex.aspx

For further information and media requests, please contact:
In Tunis: Leila Ben Mcharek (+216 71 286 270 / lbenmcharek@ohchr.org).
In Geneva: Dolores Infante-Cañibano (+ 41 22 917 9768 / dinfante@ohchr.org).

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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