Dear Members of the U.N. Human Rights Committee and Member States of the U.N. Human Rights Council,

I wish to bring you up-to-date with respect to the announcement made by Tunisia before the U.N. Human Rights Committee on March 18, 2008 and the Working Group of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on April 8, 2008 that it would invite Human Rights Watch to visit its prisons.

This came three years after Tunisian authorities first informed Human Rights Watch it could visit prisons, an engagement that we announced at a press conference in Tunis on April 19, 2005. The government subsequently postponed implementing this pledge, stating that it wanted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit first.

Shortly after Justice Minister Béchir Tekkari reiterated Tunisia's pledge during consideration on March 18, 2008 of Tunisia's report to the Human Rights Committee in compliance with its obligations under the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights, Human Rights Watch began negotiations with the Justice Ministry on the modalities of prison visits. During the UPR session in April, Minister Tekkari confirmed to the Working Group that Tunisia had initiated contacts with us.

Four years since Tunisia's original promise to grant us access to its prisons, Human Rights Watch continues to negotiate in the hope of reaching an agreement that would allow us to conduct methodologically rigorous visits to penal institutions and to publicly report its findings. 

Tunisian authorities, however, have so far held to terms that would make it impossible for us to attain a full and accurate picture of prison conditions. Notably, they have insisted that the delegation reach the prisoners it interviews via a "sampling" methodology, that is, by entering a prison and inviting members of the inmate population to step forward to be interviewed by the delegation. Human Rights Watch has accepted this form of sampling as one component of its methodology, but also insists on seeing specific prisoners selected on the basis of its ongoing external monitoring of prison conditions, provided those prisoners agree to speak with us.

This two-pronged methodology would ensure that the delegation can access a broad range of prisoners, check the information provided by prisoners it reached through the sampling method against the information provided by pre-selected prisoners, investigate cases where there have been allegations of abuse, and safeguard against the possible relocation by the administration of specific inmates to keep them away from the delegation.

Since the program of visits under negotiation would entail a single round of visits to a limited number of prisons, the subsequent Human Rights Watch report would lack credibility if the only current prisoners we interviewed were those reached via a method of sampling as the authorities define it. Human Rights Watch explained this to Tunisian authorities in a round of negotiations conducted in October 2008. The negotiations have not tangibly progressed since then.

I wish to note that Human Rights Watch is not alone in waiting for Tunisia to make good on a pledge for access.  Justice Minister Tekkari, at the same March 2008 session of the U.N. Human Rights Committee announcing the invitation to Human Rights Watch, said Tunisia also would invite the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment to visit the country, but as far as we aware an actual invitation has still not been sent.  The Special Rapporteur on Torture first requested to visit Tunisia in 1998 and reiterated the request in 2008. The Special Rapporteurs on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers and on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders made requests to visit Tunisia, in 1997 and 2008 respectively, both of which are still pending. Tunisia recently agreed only to a visit of the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism, although the dates have not yet been confirmed.

While the ICRC's program of regular visits to Tunisian prisons since June 2005 is a significant and positive step, it is not a substitute for granting prison access to human rights organizations that, in contrast to the ICRC, make public the results of its investigations. Tunisia has not allowed such access since 1991, when it allowed two prison visits by the independent Tunisian League for Human Rights.

Fulfillment of its pledge to allow Human Rights Watch to visit prisons would constitute a major advance by Tunisia toward human rights transparency - but only if it agrees to a methodology for those visits that ensures the credibility and integrity of the reports on prison conditions emanating from those visits.

We therefore urge Tunisian authorities to follow through on an engagement it made publicly before the United Nations, by dropping conditions that amount to a refusal of a program of Human Rights Watch prison visits that would be methodically rigorous.

I thank you for your consideration and welcome your questions and observations.

Sincerely yours,

Sarah Leah Whitson

Executive Director

Middle East and North Africa Division