The 2000 lawsuit is not the first time that the League's future was jeopardized by legal actions at a moment when its leadership showed independence and assertiveness.
In 1991-1992, when the government was engaged in an all-out crackdown against Islamists, the League was the only legal organization in the country to decry the massive human rights violations occurring as part of the crackdown. The government responded by rushing into law amendments to the Law on Associations designed to tame the League. After fiery internal debates and a war of communiqués with the government, the League dissolved itself rather than comply.
In 1992, as now, the pressures on the League included a smear campaign in the pro-government media against its leadership. The justice minister at the time was Abderrahim Zouari who, eight years later was the first official to denounce the LTDH election (see above).
The amendments adopted into law in 1992 empowered the Ministry of Interior to classify associations into eight categories. For associations "of a general character," the amendments undercut their prerogative to refuse applicants for membership and to choose as office-holders persons who simultaneously occupied senior positions within political parties. The ministry put the LTDH into this category.
Amended Article 1 of the Law on Associations states that associations "of a general character...may not deny membership to any person who is committed to its principles and decisions unless the said person does not enjoy full civic and political rights, or if the said person engages in activities or practices incompatible with the objectives of the association." A person rejected for membership can sue the association.
Amended Article 2 states, "individuals assuming functions or responsibilities in the central governing bodies of political parties may not become directors of associations of a general nature. These provisions apply to the steering committee of the aforementioned associations as well as to subsidiary sections or authorities..."
The government presented the reforms as intended to democratize civil society and "not directed against the League or any other specific association of a general nature." It said the amendment to Article 2 aimed "to protect associations, precisely those of a general nature, from the danger of being used for political aims, something which has already happened, crippling some of them and deflecting others from their original aims."44
But the measures were widely perceived as an assault on the autonomy of the League, stripping it of its right freely to choose its steering committee-which at the time did contain senior members of various political parties-and to screen potential members.45 The LTDH feared that the amendment to Article 1 would leave the League unable to fend off a flood of applications from persons belonging to the ruling party or close to the security services.
In criticizing the League's decision to dissolve itself in 1992 rather than comply with the new law, the official Tunisian Information Office blamed the League's trouble on what it said were stubborn extremists on the steering committee who were opposed to compromise. It said, "the defense of human rights in Tunisia cannot be the monopoly of the three or so individuals whose attitude pushed the 24-member executive board of the Human Rights League to undermine the very existence of their own organization."46
Later in 1992, following behind-the-scene negotiations to break the impasse, authorities signaled to the League that it could begin preparing its fourth general assembly, apparently with the expectation it would use the occasion to decide on compliance with the new law. In March 1993, a Tunis administrative court facilitated this course of action for the League by staying the Ministry of Interior's classification of it as an association "of a general character," pending a ruling on the League's appeal of that classification.
The new law and other government pressures-along with personality clashes and differences within the League about relations with the authorities-all contributed to the fourth general assembly electing in February 1994 a steering committee that favored lowering the tone toward the government. The general assembly also narrowly approved a motion to adapt its statutes to comply with the new law.
Two years later, an administrative tribunal overturned the Ministry of Interior's classification of the League as an association "of a general character" subject to the new law. By the time this ruling favorable to its autonomy was handed down, the League had clearly settled on a more cautious approach to addressing violations. The more confrontational old guard that had been ousted in the elections was seeking other outlets for their activism, a search that culminated in the founding of the CNLT in 1998.
The effort in 1992 to change the law to force the LTDH to admit all comers who endorse its tenets was foreshadowed by a similar effort five years earlier. The author was Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who was minister of interior at the time.
In 1987, the government was rounding up Islamists, and the LTDH was regularly denouncing the attendant abuses. In a letter dated April 8, 1987-seven months before he ousted President-for-life Habib Bourguiba- Minister Ben Ali informed the president of the LTDH that its refusal to admit "a category of persons" contradicted the League's statutes and goals, as well as the spirit of the Law on Associations, the Constitution, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Moreover, it "could provoke disturbances that disrupt the public order." Ben Ali demanded that the LTDH provide him, within fifteen days, of "the text of amendments that you plan on adopting" to "Articles 8 and 16 of the statutes of your organization, in the direction of granting automatic membership to all those who desire it and no longer making it conditional on the prior approval of the steering committee."
In the days that followed, government newspapers joined in the attacks on the League. Accusing it of refusing membership to "all those whose political beliefs do not agree with those of the huge majority of the League leaders," La Presse observed that the organization "seems in recent months to have drifted further and further from its original purpose and toward becoming a partisan body."47
The League refused to comply. In a letter to Minister Ben Ali dated April 15, 1987, its then-president, Saâdeddine Zmerli, explained that the political diversity found in the steering committee of the League was a jealously guarded feature of the League that prevented any one party from imposing its views. "We do not wish to see the League become a mass organization because that would be contrary to its nature and mission," he wrote. An amendment permitting "automatic membership" would constitute a key element "for turning [the League] into a satellite of the regime."
44 "A Few Remarks about the Recent Amendment to the Law on Associations," an undated statement faxed to Human Rights Watch on June 2, 1992 by the official Tunisian Information Office in Washington, DC.
45 The United Nations Human Rights Committee noted in 1994, "The Committee is concerned that the Associations Act [i.e., the amendments] may seriously undermine the enjoyment of the freedom of association under Article 22 [of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights], particularly with respect to the independence of human rights non-governmental organizations. In this connection, the Committee notes that the act has already had an adverse impact on the Tunisian League for Human Rights." Consideration of Reports Submitted by States Parties under Article 40 of the Covenant, Comments of the Committee, Fifty-second session, November 23, 1994, CCPR/C/79/Add. 43.
46 Tunisian Information Office, "Tunisian Human Rights League Disbands," June 18, 1992.
47 "Défense des droits de l'Homme ou front politique?" La Presse, April 9, 1987.