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A Hopeful Speech, but Will Tunisia’s President Deliver?

Kais Saied Should Back Words with Action on Key Rights Issues

Kais Saied during the sworn ceremony in Bardo, Tunis, Tunisia on October 23, 2019. © 2019 Nicolas Fauque/Images de Tunisie/Abaca/Sipa USA via AP Images

In his inaugural speech on October 23, Tunisia’s new president, Kais Saied, pledged to “honor Tunisia’s obligations under international law.” This was an unexpected turn, given his hostility towards human rights treaties during his campaign.

As a candidate, Saied opposed gender equality in inheritance, citing Sharia law. He also favored the criminalization of homosexuality, referring to gay people as “deviants.” And he defended the use of the death penalty.

But President Saied, as a professor of constitutional law, should know that the international conventions he pledged to respect, which include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, require the government to ensure full equality for its citizens and to ban any form of discrimination, including on the basis of status such as sexual orientation.

If Saied is serious about his commitment to Tunisia’s human rights treaty obligations, he should endorse the recommendations contained in a report by the Commission on Individual Freedoms and Equality, appointed by his predecessor Beji Caid Essebsi, which called for decriminalizing homosexuality, ensuring gender equality in inheritance, and abolishing the death penalty.

Two draft laws based on these recommendations were introduced in the previous parliament. The first would amend the 1956 Code of Personal Status to provide gender equality in inheritance as the default, except when the person whose inheritance is involved formally opts out during their lifetime. The second is a code on individual freedoms, which incorporated several proposals from the commission, including to abolish the death penalty and the penal code article punishing homosexuality.

The new parliament elected on October 6 should take up both of these draft laws, and Saied should invest some of the political capital he earned from his crushing electoral victory to lead efforts to adopt them fully. This would genuinely honor Tunisia’s obligations under international law and help reaffirm the country’s democratic path.

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