Tunisia: achieving equality through legal means and lawyers’ support
By Silvia Quattrini, North Africa Manager
In 2018, the Tunisian parliament passed a ground-breaking law. A landmark first in the region, the law (organic law no.2018-50) criminalizes racial discrimination and allows victims to seek justice in the courts for it. However, the law’s potential was limited by the government’s failure to follow through on any of the practical steps foreseen in the law, and to create public awareness and understanding of it.
If victims aren’t aware of avenues to justice, how can they pursue them?
The lack of awareness is partially responsible for the fact that in the first year since its passing, only one publicly known case was adjudicated, with a disappointing result. The aggressor was handed a lenient penalty: a suspended sentence of three months of jail and a fine of 300 TND [approximately US$94].
The awareness-raising requirements of the law were comprehensive, although ignored so far: training programs in all public and private organizations and establishments were not initiated, while proposed public policies in collaboration with ministries, including health, education, media and sports went undeveloped. A National Commission for the Fight against Racial Discrimination was also foreseen in the law, and its creation was passed by a governmental decree in 2021. Due to political reshuffles and instability in the last year, like the awareness-raising strategies of law 2018-50, it too has yet to see the light of day.
This pushed MRG to reflect with our local Tunisian partners about ways to improve access to justice for victims of racial discrimination. In collaboration with the OHCHR office in Tunisia, we issued a call for lawyers who wanted training on the new law and on the international legal framework on racial discrimination. Within a matter of months, between November 2019 and July 2020, we delivered five trainings to 150 lawyers from across the country.
At the time, MRG was implementing the project Anti-Discrimination Points, where a network of civil society organisations (CSOs) documented cases of discrimination throughout Tunisia and provided the victims with support. As CSOs working against discrimination struggled to provide legal support to the dozens of victims who contacted them, we used the trainings as an opportunity to link the lawyers with CSO representatives working against all forms of discrimination and their beneficiaries.
In 2020, MRG established a network of Tunisian lawyers, whose objective was to support all victims of discrimination, regardless of the ground or reason, throughout the country. To do so, we had to ensure that the lawyers received equal training on all forms of discrimination to serve all communities. Not all lawyers we trained decided to join the network and complete the whole cycle of training; more work is needed to engage lawyers in the fight against discrimination.
In March 2021, we started training on discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, thanks to the expertise of our partner in the Anti-Discrimination Points project, Damj. A participant of this round highlighted that thanks to this training, she developed a critical approach towards national legislation (it must be mentioned that consensual same-sex relationships are criminalised under Article 230 of the Tunisia Penal Code) and stressed the need for Tunisia’s legal system to refer to UN international standards on the matter.
We completed this cycle in October 2021 and, in December of the same year, we moved to a round of trainings on disability, religious minorities and freedom of religion or belief. In this video, I briefly explain the importance of those trainings, as well as some key concepts on freedom or religion or belief from an international human rights perspective.
Over the summer, we delivered our last training on human trafficking. Although human trafficking is not a ground of discrimination per se, we found that many sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia contacted us for legal support and were unfortunately subjected to this phenomenon. It was therefore important to share some key concepts with the lawyers’ network. Tunisia specifically criminalizes human trafficking (law no.2016-61), and has a national body dealing with human trafficking).
Since January 2020, we supported more than 100 cases of discrimination (some of which represented multiple people) through free consultations, filing complaints, visits to police stations and prisons, administrative procedures and urgent appeals (here you can find details on a historic win dealing with the legacy of slavery).
In the current moment of political instability in Tunisia, where human rights gains achieved over the process of democratic transition since 2011 are being challenged, it is more important than ever to strengthen the role of lawyers in the fight against all forms of discrimination and ensure that the justice system is equally accessible to all. The government must ensure that law enforcement officials are trained on the existing laws that contribute to the fight against discrimination, and public policies created and implemented to guarantee the promotion of a human rights culture, as well as ensure that discriminatory laws that still exist are repealed as soon as possible. Steps must be taken to ensure that Tunisia’s internal legal framework aligns with its international commitments to human rights.
Main photo: Saadia Mosbah, president of Mnemty and partner of MRG, attends a training for Tunisian lawyers on the fight against human trafficking. Tunis, May 2022.
Intext photo: MRG delivers a training for Tunisian lawyers on the fight against human trafficking. Tunis, May 2022.