Lessons for Syria from Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission
Since the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled in 2011, Tunisia has embarked on the long process of reconciliation and transitional justice. This past week, 8 years after protests first swept through the streets of Tunis, Tunisians marked a major milestone in this effort with the release of the Truth and Dignity Commission’s (IVD) final report. Described as a “2,000-page archive of torture and human rights violations,” this report documents the crimes committed under the Ben Ali and Bourguiba governments and provides recommendations to ensure that they are not repeated in the future.
A monumental effort in truth and memory, the work of the IVD demonstrates how the crimes of autocratic regimes can be publicly uncovered even decades after they occurred. The release of the final report marks not only an important step towards justice for Tunisia, but provides important lessons for Syria as well. SJAC has drawn four main lessons from the last six years of the Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission, which may be helpful in guiding a similar process in Syria in the future.
- In order to succeed, a truth commission must be closely engaged with civil society groups. Throughout its existence the IVD was under near constant attack by politicians and portions of the media, significantly hindering its work. The commission often relied upon the support of a coalition of civil society organizations when it came under fire or was confronted by difficulties. When Tunisian news organizations began to boycott several of the trials brought forth by the commission, for instance, it was human rights activists who took on the role of attending and publicizing the trials. Further, civil society organizations played a crucial role in both connecting victims to the truth commission and assisting the truth commission in supporting victims. The support of civil society organizations will remain necessary now that the IVD’s mandate has ended, as they will bear the burden of continuing the process. If and when Syria begins its own attempt at truth and justice, civil society should be integrated into the process from the very beginning.
- The choice of chairperson can be key to the success of a commission. The scale and intensity of the political attacks against not only the IVD but its head, Sihem Bensedrine, underscore the importance of having any such commission be led by a chairperson with an unassailable reputation. Much like with Desmond Tutu and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a major reason why the IVD was capable of pushing through the slew of criticisms it faced was because of Bensedrine’s leadership. Besedrine, has a long history as a journalist and human rights activist — and even a political prisoner during the Ben Ali regime — giving her an aura of legitimacy. Without her in this role it is questionable as to whether the commission would have lasted long enough to issue a final report. Other countries seeking to replicate the success of the IVD should therefore ensure that they choose a person of similarly high esteem and moral character so as to protect any such commission from efforts to hinder its work.
- Victim participation is integral, but they need appropriate support. It was the testimony of tens of thousands of Tunisians that enabled the commission to carry out its work, and this engagement was able to provide victims a cathartic opportunity to have their stories —their voices — heard. However, the IVD did not go far enough in supporting participating victims. Many victims interviewed, for instance, bemoaned the lack of support services — such as psychological care — provided throughout the process. With this in mind, it is therefore imperative that any similar process recreated in Syria listens not only to what victims have experienced in the past, but what they need in the future.
- Truth commissions must work to advance varying and complementary forms of justice – including reconciliation. As Oula Ben Nejma, the IVD’s Chair of Research and Investigation, noted, the very idea behind the report “is to truly start the process of reconciliation.” In the quest for such reconciliation, the IVD did not limit itself to recommendations for criminal charges. For example, the commission has been paying out compensation to the families of victims. Though the report notes that only about $1.1 million has been disbursed so far, the IVD has raised $250 million, which is expected to be paid out to victims’ families. Additionally, the final report insisted upon a public apology for victims from President Essebsi — who the report implicated in the commission of torture and other crimes against humanity. As Rached Jaïdane, a former political prisoner and torture survivor, remarked, “But for me, the most important [thing] is to have a public apology from the president as chief of state. I need that more than material compensation, I need him to acknowledge in the name of the government what happened to us through those years.” One of the benefits of a truth commission is its flexibility to recommend a wide variety of justice processes, including apologies. Any future Syrian truth commission should keep an open mind about the types of justice that may be most meaningful to Syrian victims.
After six years, the conclusion of the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission marks an important step forward for Tunisia. Yet this by no means marks an end to the country’s transitional justice process. The IVD has referred dozens of cases to the special criminal chambers, reparations allotments are ongoing, and the results of the final report must still be effectively communicated to the general public. Though Tunisia still has more to do, we can begin to look to the successes and failures of the IVD. In doing so, the lessons of Tunisia’s past can be used to drive transitional justice processes in Syria’s future.
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