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Human rights between conflicts and responsibilities

January 27, 2014 at 10:07 am

Strange circumstances led to the appointment of the former president of the Tunisian League and the Arab Commission for Human Rights as the head of the state in post-Arab Spring Tunis. What do the current problems look like to the human rights activist who is faced with the daily task of defending his principles in a very delicate situation characterised by the escalation of the ideological, political and social conflict which can so easily lead to multilateral violations?

There are multiple problems; some are present and urgent, while others are medium-term, such as structuring the human rights movement in the light of the new situation. Others are long-term, such as instilling some values that are still used as slogans by the elites.

On a short-term level, the first concern of the head of state is security, which is now being threatened by the chaos of the counter-revolution and the violence of armed groups. For me, everything related to security is a source of concern, fear and hate because I witnessed the meaning of security in what was essentially an aggressive state with a poor president and organised gangs trained to steal at the highest level. As head of state I see a clear and urgent need to establish the stability of the country, as well as its investments and economic activity.

Security of the person is, in any case, the basic requirement of life and so the security issue imposes itself on the president as the number one human rights priority. This shift in vision does not prevent us from realising that we can see the trees but not the forest.

My definition of security is a state of tranquillity in which every woman feels safe walking alone at night in any city or village. But it is also a tranquil state when the people know that their political, economic and social system is providing them with the utmost level of independence with regards to water, energy, seeds and basic medication. This guarantees that the state is able to confront the internal and external crises and maintain its structure.

It is also self-evident that part of this psychological tranquillity is established on the belief that a disciplined army is stationed on the border to protect the people and that the police are enforcing the law without fear or favour.

As the head of state, I can reassure you that over the past few months, the Tunisian security forces and the army have had more than enough officers killed and wounded (as well as made other sacrifices that we do not hear about) for them to deserve the gratitude of the state and the people. However, this does not prevent me from stressing that harsh police officers who act beyond the law and good practice are a danger to themselves and the security of the country.

As such, we have called and continued to call on the men and women of our security forces to be a source of reassurance within the community by acting courteously towards all citizens; by being firm but not violent with those who break the law, regardless of who they are, so that they will be able to contribute to establishing a deeper sense of safety in society.

I have not changed my position regarding the end not justifying the means; noble goals are not achieved by ignoble means. Nor have I changed my views regarding human rights, of which no violations are acceptable. This is a crucial issue in a democratic state which cannot be overlooked or allowed to fester.

Some remnants of the former regime have likened the suppression of the Islamists in the early nineties to the confrontation with Salafi militants this year. That’s a mistake. The suppression of the Islamists was illegal and was executed by a dictatorial regime that made torture a normal practice to defend its corruption and plundering of the country’s resources. However, what we are experiencing today is confrontation between a legitimate, democratically-elected government that respects human rights and personal freedoms, and armed groups who refuse to engage in the peaceful, democratic transition. The state is determined to fight these groups within the boundaries of the law and democratic values that put the government in power.

I have asked the Minister of the Interior to track each violation and follow it up. More surprise visits to prisons and detention centres will take place to ensure that standards are maintained. Furthermore, I have asked all human rights organisations in Tunisia to be the watchful eye that never sleeps, to teach the corrupt minority within the good majority that we will not allow the corrupt to commit mortal sins that soil our reputation.

Unfortunately, as we know through experience, old habits don’t suddenly disappear just because there has been a change in the laws and institutions, or even with the presence of activists who have endured severe abuse in the state’s highest positions, such as my friend, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh.

These habits are embedded in our culture, traditions and perceptions of the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. They are like weeds, which continue to grow even after they are pulled out, and we will inevitably have to continue to pull them out whenever they grow. This is exactly what our young democratic state will do until the violations reach the minimum acceptable level in a civilised society and democratic state.

The second urgent issue facing me as president, and as a former prisoner, is the condition of the prisons. I have always said that the level of a society’s preparedness is measured by how they treat those who are less fortunate in life, whether they have special needs or have been taken-in by crime and imprisoned.

Obviously, in these difficult economic times it is not possible to consider prison improvements, in terms of infrastructure and staff training, to be a priority. Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of the need for such a sacrifice sooner or later if we do not want barbaric hotbeds to exist on the margins of society, which would be a disgrace to a community that wants to be humane.

One way to “humanise” our prisons is to relieve overcrowding, and I will continue to employ pardons as a means to ease the burden. Such pardons will be granted according to the conditions set out by specialised committees, despite all the criticism and outright lies about the percentage of those who go on to reoffend.

The most important factor to relieve overcrowding is a radical revision of the penal code in order for us to stop punishing the simplest of infractions with prison. We must find other ways to make the offender repay the community for their deeds, such as community service or fines.

The third urgent issue on my mind, as well as the minds of all Tunisians, is the way that some people exercise their freedom of opinion and expression.

We were very naive when we fought for this freedom and believed that it would lead automatically to raising the level of the collective consciousness and that it would be a key element in creating a refined and responsible media that contributes to the construction of a sound collective mind. The experience over the past two years has proven that a part of the media today is in the hands of the counter-revolution, and that it poses a threat to national unity and to civil peace. It is also a blatant violation of the values of objectivity, integrity and respect for the truth that we are fighting for.

We have always socialised with those defending freedom of opinion and expression and were all brought up with the saying “facts are sacred but comment is free”. Today, we have some sections of the media whose slogan is “facts are free and comments are sacred”. Ironically, when you confront this media, they shout that freedom of opinion in Tunisia is at risk, when the truth is that there is no other country in the world with such flagrant violations of the simplest rules of professional ethics.

It an abnormal and unprecedented situation, as freedom of opinion and expression is not being threatened by the state, but rather groups whose reports have, consciously or unconsciously, sunk their teeth into the branch that we are all sitting on and are threatening to break it; national unity and civil peace are at stake here.

I am absolutely convinced that it is impossible to hold free and fair elections in the light of this media, although we should organise these elections before the summer. One of the most important conditions for their success is to have a professional, neutral and objective media.

That is the duty of the media professionals and the High Independent Board of Audiovisual Communication. They should carry out their responsibilities with courage to enforce the right of all Tunisians to good media services. It is also worth noting that the state’s duty nowadays, more than ever, is not to fall into the trap of prevention and repression, as the largest violations in the name of freedom of the press are a thousand times better than a policy of grouping the good and the bad together and clamping down on both. We must be patient during the long transition period that will lead to some sort of balance sooner or later.

In addition to the current and urgent issues, there is also the strategic problem concerning the role of the human rights movement in a very different political and social situation than that in which I grew up. The revolution has shaken every old system that was based on the existence of a corrupt state that represses freedoms and the civil society organisations resisting and fighting it, as well as struggling to survive.

The situation has totally changed, as the source of the violations is no longer the state; or, should I say, the state alone, as we have seen in the case of the media. The state really wants a genuine partnership with civil society organisations but the latter are in an unenviable position.

There are organisations which have not changed their members for 20 years; there are organisations that have become extinct or on the verge of extinction due to the fact that the reason for their existence is long gone, such as associations for the defence of political prisoners. There is also a funding issue that is still unresolved but which must be done locally, legitimately and transparently to end dependency and all the possibilities of the mandate.

Therefore, there must be dialogue between all the parties in which to offer suggestions regarding priorities, financial support, legal reforms, the organisation of a national network and ways to communicate on a central and regional level between the state and civil society. With such a plan in place, we can gather our energy together and focus them on effective work within the framework of cooperation and independence.

There is also the issue of setting priorities, planning and long-term work, in order to protect, develop and instil human rights in our country. Let’s look at women’s rights as an example.

In the sixties and seventies, the advanced state imposed the Code of Personal Status on its conservative people, which dealt with women purely as a separate gender. In the eighties and nineties, the advanced society imposed women’s rights on the state in order to treat women as citizens who, like men, need democracy and human rights. Today we are at the stage where there is no debate over a woman’s rights as a citizen and as a female, but there is debate with regards to the violation of women’s rights, as they are the most prone to illiteracy, poverty and disease. Therefore, human rights discourse must be revived and it must not be concerned with the minor issues such as the hijab and niqab, and instead focus on the right of millions of women not to live in destitution, which is undignified.

What is the role of the network of human rights organisations in such a process? They can participate in the research, for example, into the conditions of domestic workers, violence against women, equal pay and so on, and to be the thorn in the side of the state and the private sector.

The network can also be involved in health awareness campaigns and the fight against illiteracy, as any state aspiring to build democracy must have the largest possible number of citizens participating in public affairs in terms of protest and demand; they must condemn the concept of taking part of the responsibility for the action instead of reacting.

This is what brings me to a long-term problem that we face; how to confront the mentality of “the right is mine and the duty is yours”, which has spread amongst the people and may kill the idea of human rights in its infancy.

In order not to be accused of changing after being in power, and putting the concept of duty first, in place of the concept of rights, as done by dictatorships, I will refer to my book “Sacred People… A Reading of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, published before the revolution.

In this, I showed that the declaration, including its thirty articles, is the most accurate description of the real situation most humans are in. They do not have freedom, dignity or any other of the basic needs which are essential in order to be a human being. This is a list of the major objectives that we must work to achieve; it is a list of duties. In short, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is in fact the Universal Declaration of Human Duties.

It is obvious that I will not be able to exercise my right of opinion unless it is not objected to by any other, so my right to an opinion requires the other side to respect that opinion and my right to express it.

It is also obvious that my right to health is not possible if the state, doctors, pharmaceutical companies and all concerned parties are unable to do their duty in affording me this right. It is not hard to prove that every right is a reflected duty, and that rights and duties are two sides of the same coin.

This idea must be present in our culture of human rights, and we must spread it within the community and culture, or else our understanding will be incomplete and will only increase our culture’s tendency towards demand, dependency and negativity. All of these attitudes and behaviour are destructive and do not build a nation that is perseverant, sacrificing and creative, which we all want and could be proud of.

Therefore, there is a deeper and more dangerous issue, in addition to the urgent problems concerning the issues of security, prisons, media and restructuring of the Tunisian human rights movement; implanting ideas and values that, along with our Arab-Islamic values, contribute to the creation of an interdependent society that is mature and responsible.

I have adopted the conviction that has grown stronger with my experience in power; it is that one has to change ideas like changing undergarments, because all ideas wear out and get dirty. However, one needs to preserve their values like they preserve their skin, as they are the beacons that guide us.

There is no fear of harming oneself or others if we promote these values as reality, and do not disguise them with any other name.

The author is the President of Tunisia. This is a translation of the Arabic text published by Al Jazeera on 10 December, 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.