The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Tunisia’s historic truth commission accomplished — and what went wrong

Relatives of abuse victims react in Tunis as they watch a live broadcast of testimony before the Truth and Dignity Commission in Tunisia on Nov. 17, 2016. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

Tunisia established the first independent truth-seeking commission in the Arab world four years ago. Last month, its president, Sihem Bensedrine, announced the commission’s closure.

To many, its mandate and mission symbolized the most important and final pillar of demands made by the 2011 Revolution, which ended decades of dictatorship and single-party rule. But today, few feel that it has lived up to that promise. What went wrong?

What the commission accomplished

The Truth and Dignity Commission (Instance Vérité et Dignité, or IVD, in French) was authorized to investigate state-led abuses from 1955 — a year before Tunisia’s 1956 independence from France — to 2013, two years after the revolution. During its four-year mandate, the IVD received 63,000 files of violations, held 12 public hearings broadcast on prime-time television, began referring cases to specialized human rights courts, recommended a set of nonmaterial and material reparations for victims, and prepared a report with findings and recommendations — though Tunisia’s prime minister has not officially recognized the report.

The work of the commission aligns with the expectations set by Tunisia’s transitional justice law at its onset. And yet the work of the commission has been criticized and vilified by actors across the political spectrum. Even victims of state-led crimes, as well as individuals involved early on in the construction of the process, have complained of the IVD’s efforts. Why?

What went wrong with the IVD

The transitional justice process was established by the immediate post-revolution government and was always viewed as a revolutionary project. The commission ranked low on the government’s priority list relative to more-pressing economic and security needs. Neither the ruling Nidaa Tounes party — which includes former political elites of the Ben Ali and Bourguiba eras — nor President Beji Caid Essebsi paid the IVD particular attention. Both held that Tunisia’s economic and security problems took precedence and that society needed to “turn the page” rather than encourage what they hinted was a culture of vengeance.

This lofty critique took on a distinct meaning for members and close allies of the former authoritarian regime who aligned with the Nidaa Tounes party after the revolution, as almost one-third of documented crimes were crimes of economic corruption.

The IVD did not squarely fit into the post-2014 political environment of consensus-building between enemies-cum-allies Nidaa Tounes and Islamist party Ennahda. The ruling Nidaa Tounes-Ennahda coalition was not necessarily interested in revisiting all of the past, and the coalition gave the commission short shrift. Ennahda, members of which constituted the largest group of victims of state-led human rights violations before 2011, supported the IVD from the onset, but its position within the coalition government made it perhaps more publicly lukewarm on transitional justice than expected.

Inside the IVD, leadership infighting led to high-profile resignations and dismissals. Tunisia’s mainstream media covered the commission with sensationalist and critical coverage. Bensedrine, the IVD president, was the target of a particularly virulent media smear campaign attacking not only her management of the commission, but also her personal character.

From its onset, the IVD faced barriers in entrenched government bureaucracy. The commission did not receive adequate files from the government, hampering complete investigations.

Lessons for the future

Several deeper problems with the IVD mandate and approach offer broader lessons for transitional justice processes. The commission was given an ambitious set of goals: first, to identify the systems of repression on which various post-independence governments were erected. Second, to identify and protect victims of state-led abuse. And finally, to ensure that Tunisians would never again allow such systems to take hold.

Transitional justice is by definition a painful experience, forcing victims to relive their abuse and predators to admit their crimes. And it is necessarily, as Bensedrine repeatedly remarked, both political and contentious. The commission was tasked with two painful missions of untangling the workings of repression. First, it was to collect testimonies of gross human rights violations against political and ideological opponents and noncompliant citizens. Second, it was to reveal structures of inequalities in the form of a politics of collective punishment against entire regions.

The mismatch between these goals and its limited resources and time frame suggest that the IVD process was set up to fail.

Exposing structural violence

The IVD characterized victimhood broadly, grouping victims into three categories — individual (human rights violations against individuals) collective (persecution of entire groups on grounds of political, ideological and religious beliefs) and regional victims (exclusion and punishment of entire regions who demonstrated resistance to the political status quo).

This conflated many notions of victimhood, watering down — if not invalidating — very legitimate claims. Separating victimhood from the omnipresent logic of dictatorship became a challenging endeavor.

The courageously expansive inclusion of structural violence opened the possibility to examine how repression worked. It is precisely this ambitious task, to understand state-led violations at multiple scales, that set the Tunisian transitional justice process apart from efforts elsewhere. The inclusion and examination of structural violence served to uncover the repressive mechanisms of the state and also locate where these mechanisms were most heavily employed through the testimony of individual cases.

This was especially pronounced during the televised public hearings, during which victims not only recounted harrowing experiences of torture but also the shame and exclusion experienced during years of administrative control after release. Exposing how state violence operated, something researched by scholars of state-building especially in the Middle East and Africa, uncovered how individual violations and structural violence, combined in the form of marginalization and exclusion, had erected the elements of repressive state practices on which the regime depended. Perhaps this task was simply too large, complex and contentious for the work of a truth commission.

While some see the IVD as a failed experiment, it nevertheless began an important series of conversations in Tunisia on how state violence is possible and what it means to society as a whole. While the IVD has closed its doors, many initiatives outside of the official transitional justice mandates continue its work — including film documentaries, various memorialization efforts, art and photo exhibitions, human rights trials and documentation, and educational curriculums. These extensions and initiatives will help people understand the past and make sense of the forms of violence that occurred in Tunisia’s modern history.

Laryssa Chomiak is a political scientist, director of the Centre d’Etudes Maghrébines à Tunis and an associate fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House in London. She has conducted more than 10 years of research in Tunisia and drafted the Tunisia case study for a project on comparative transitional justice experiences in Africa. She is the author of a forthcoming monograph on Tunisian politics.