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Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to mark the opening of the UN Human Rights Office in Tunisia

14 July 2011

Good morning,

It is a great pleasure to be here in Tunisia. It is an even greater pleasure and honour to be opening a UN human rights office here for the first time in history. And it is not just the first one in Tunisia, but the first UN human rights office in any of the five North African countries bordering the Mediterranean. I would therefore like to thank the people and government of Tunisia for pioneering human rights in this region – and, of course in many more ways than just the establishment of this office.

At the beginning of the year, if anyone had said to me that in seven months time I would be opening an office in Tunisia – indeed in any North African country, with the exception of Mauritania where we established one last year – I would have thought it impossible. High Commissioners for Human Rights have been trying to set up an office in this region for years. Most countries were careful not to say an outright “No.” But none of them was remotely close to an outright “Yes,” until the people of Tunisia decided to radically alter the priorities.

All that changed in December and January, when the people of Tunisia said, in effect: “Enough. We deserve our rights, we want our rights and we are going to have our rights.” All of a sudden, with astonishing speed, we were treading on fertile ground.

The whole world watched with amazement and growing respect as Tunisians kept demanding your rights, refusing to be cowed by the repression, the arrests, the torture and all the injuries and tragic loss of life that occurred as Ben Ali’s regime fought unsuccessfully for its survival.

The impact of these actions, on Tunisia itself, on the wider region, and indeed all across the world is hard to measure and is far from completed. But it has unquestionably been enormous and truly inspirational. Just ask the people of Egypt.

Here in Tunisia, the transition is also far from over and there are still many major hurdles to overcome before you can claim unequivocal success. But great strides have already been made.

In the past three weeks alone, Tunisia has ratified no fewer than four extremely important treaties, including three in a single day: these were the first Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, which make those two key human rights treaties much easier to monitor and enforce; and the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances. All three of these were ratified on 29 June.

A week earlier, on 24 June, Tunisia became the 116th state to ratify the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court, and the first in North Africa. This represents a powerful commitment by the new authorities that no future serious violations of human rights will take place with impunity. Ratifying the Rome Statute is one of the best deterrents to serious crimes.

We have now reached the moment when that idea that was not even on our radar on the first of January this year has become a reality.

Needless to say, we did not wait until now to begin helping the authorities with concrete and constructive projects. We have, for example, already been providing advice on how to reform the national Human Rights Institution, so that it can attain conformity with the international standards known as the Paris Principles. We have also been working closely with the Ministry of Justice’s Human Rights Coordination Unit, and have been holding a series of consultations with Tunisian judges with the aim of strengthening judicial independence and helping them navigate the current and forthcoming challenges relating to transitional justice.

We have also, just a few days ago, reached an agreement with the Ministry of Interior on a programme of human rights capacity-building in the security sector, including training of police.

Transitions are not easy, especially seismic transitions such as the one Tunisia is going through. I know that personally from my own experience in South Africa, where we went from being an apartheid state with international pariah status, to a thriving democracy. Transitions are long, difficult and often disappointingly slow and bumpy processes. They are never perfect.

Significant advances have been made in areas such as freedom of expression and freedom of association – two of the key demands of those first brave protestors. There have also been advances in the areas of accountability and political reform, including the establishment of the first ever independent National Electoral Commission with the power to supervise and monitor the entire electoral process. There are now more than 80 officially registered political parties, compared to only seven before the revolution, and Tunisia is the first country in the Arab world to legally enshrine gender parity in the electoral rolls for the upcoming election.

Women played an important role in the protests that took place. And whether or not they achieve true parity with men in the new Tunisia will be an important factor in the development of society, especially economic and social development. No country can become a mature democracy if half its population has its rights circumscribed in law or in practice. It is also vital that Tunisian youth are given hope for the future. They played an absolutely key role in the protest movement, and their full involvement in the evolution of the new state is essential if it is to remain forward-thinking and dynamic.

I would like to thank the donors who have made the setting up of this office possible, and request them and others to continue to give their full support to Tunisia over the difficult years ahead. There is a great deal at stake.

Tunisia has become a common reference for all human rights defenders, as human dignity and human rights form the heart of the lesson delivered through Tunisia’s revolution. No clearer expression of that can be found than in the essential message of the Tunisian poet, Abū al-Qāsim al-Shābi:

“If, one day, a people desires to live, surely fate shall heed their call.
And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall.”

I have marked the occasion of the opening of the first UN human rights office in this region by planting an olive tree, a simple symbolic act which I believe encompasses all the hopes we all have for the new Tunisia.

Olive trees are a potent symbol in all Mediterranean countries. They symbolize peace, and are renowned for their endurance. They can take as many as 20 years to bear fruit, but once established, they thrive in both fertile and stony ground. They survive hot summers and cold winters. Like human rights, they are virtually indestructible. Even when they are cut down, or burned, new shoots sprout from the roots. They can live for thousands of years. I therefore hope that the olive tree I am going to plant here today will reflect the advent of a new era of human rights and democracy in Tunisia. And that, 2,000 years from now both this tree and Tunisia can look back on 2011 as the magical year when it all began.

Thank you.

END

Learn more about the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/AboutUs/Pages/HighCommissioner.aspx

For more information or media requests, please contact spokesperson Rupert Colville (+41 22 917 9767 / rcolville@ohchr.org) or press officers Ravina Shamdasani (+ 41 22 917 9310 / rshamdasani@ohchr.org) and Xabier Celaya (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org).

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