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United Nations

The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression visited Tunisia in April 1999 and issued his report on February 25, 2000. The report concluded that Tunisia "still has a long way to go to take full advantage of its favourable economic context and adopt measures designed to strengthen the protection of human rights and, in particular, the right to freedom of opinion and expression." Itexpressed particular concern over the reported punishment and harassment of families of persons under arrest, state control of broadcasting and major print media, and "inadequate" government efforts to remove "unnecessary constraints" on journalists. The special rapporteur recommended revision and amendment of laws governing the press, political parties, and associations, and called on the government to abolish "all direct and indirect forms of censorship" and "to put an end to the alleged intimidation and harassment of persons seeking to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression." The report also called on the government to respond positively to the standing requests of the special rapporteur on torture and the special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers to visit the country.

European Union

The confrontation between the Tunisian government and human rights groups received considerable media coverage in France and other E.U. countries, especially the hunger strike of journalist Taoufik Ben Brik (see above). Swiss Foreign Minister Joseph Deiss said in Tunis on May 2 that he had handed his Tunisian counterpart a memorandum "that contains Switzerland's hope for a solution to this question in accordance with the principles of law that are defended by our two countries." French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, in a speech the same day to the French National Assembly, said that "we attach a great value to press freedom" and that "we have asked the Tunisian authorities a number of times and in different ways to find a humane and rapid end to this deplorable situation." Ben Brik continued his hunger strike in Paris after the Tunisian government returned his passport on May 1.

The European Parliament on June 15 adopted an emergency resolution urging Tunisia to "establish a true multiparty system" and "guarantee the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms." The resolution called on the E.U.-Tunisian Association Council, set up by the E.U.'s Association Agreement with Tunisia, to conduct a "joint evaluation of respect for human rights in Tunisia," and asked the European Commission to report to parliament "on the evolution of the human rights situation in Tunisia."

United States

A visit by President Ben Ali to Washington, D.C., scheduled for mid-July was postponed because of President Clinton's engagement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Camp David and was not subsequently rescheduled.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Harold Koh, made a three-day visit to Tunisia in June, where he met with human rights advocates, journalists, and government officials. At a press conference on June 14, Koh commended the government's record on social and economic progress and said that "this is an important moment to match those steps with steps in the area of civil and political rights." He identified greater political pluralism, judicial transparency and independence, and media censorship as key concerns. He also said that "further progress would be welcomed" in government steps "to ensure the ability of all Tunisians to travel freely, to speak openly, and to gather together independent associations, including human rights organizations."

Assistant Secretary Koh's candid assessment of Tunisia's human rights record was not matched elsewhere in U.S. public diplomacy over the year. In the State Department's official Congressional Budget Justification released on March 15, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edwin S. Walker, Jr. characterized Tunisia, without qualification, as "a stable, democratic country." The administration requested U.S. $2.5 million in military aid and almost U.S. $1 million for military training for Tunisia for fiscal year 2001. Tunisia was invited to participate in the Community of Democracies ministerial conference in Warsaw, Poland, in late June, a meeting that enjoyed high-level U.S. support. The Tunisia chapter in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1999 provided a comprehensive overview of the human rights situation, but the introductory paragraphs muted this criticism by characterizing the government's human rights performance as "uneven," a term it appeared to justify by referring to the October presidential and legislative elections as "mark[ing] a modest step toward democratic development." Assistant Secretary Koh's introduction to the Country Reports was inappropriately indulgent to Tunisia. It failed to mention that country in discussing repression of dissidents and human rights defenders by Middle Eastern governments, and went on to commend the government for releasing on early parole Tunisian Human Rights League Vice-President Khemais Ksila, repeating uncritically and without qualification the government's bogus charges that kept Ksila in jail for two years in the first place.

Relevant Human Rights Watch


The Administration of Justice in Tunisia: Torture, Trumped-Up Charges and a Tainted Trial, 2/00

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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