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Tunisia: A Collective Fight for Individual Rights and Freedoms

Five years following the forced resignation of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, on 14 January 2011, Tunisians continue to face countless violations of their rights and freedoms. At a time of repression of human rights activists, and increasing violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity, a number of civil society organizations decided to mobilize as an informal group for individual freedoms.

Following the Collective for individual freedoms ’s first press conference on 19 January 2016[1] and reflecting on collective power leading up to its 2016 Forum, AWID spoke with Ramy Khouili, Maghreb Policy Advisor with Euromed Rights-Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Nework, one of the organizational members of the collective, to learn more about the collective action for individual rights and freedoms in Tunisia.

AWID: How do you see the rights and freedoms situation in Tunisia since Ben Ali left on 14 January 2011?

Ramy Khouili: No one could deny that there have been significant advances in the last five years in terms of respecting human rights and freedoms, especially collective rights and freedoms. In terms of freedom of expression in particular, the climate before 14 January 2011 was marked by strong repression, human rights weren’t even part of the discussion. 

These advances were formalized in the January 2014 Constitution, which enshrined a set of rights and freedoms and significantly limited the possibility of violating them. However, other laws are not in harmony with the new Constitution, because they haven’t yet been modified. The Penal Code[2] dating back to the colonial era has not been revised for over a century, although some amendments have been made. It is based on the principles of maintaining public order, not protecting human rights; and everything that falls outside of public order is punishable by law, be it political, economic or moral. Even within the laws that guarantee certain rights, there are times these are not respected or implemented in practice. 

AWID: What is the progress in terms of the rights of LGBT people?

RK: Tunisian laws repress the LGBT community.  The biggest issue is the criminalization of homosexuality, carrying a penalty of up to three years in prison, by article 230 of the Penal Code.[3]  Even after 2011, the violations of LGBT rights have not ended, with homophobia, lesbophobia, discrimination, stigmatization, but also the criminalization of homosexual practices. Even if mobilizations among the LGBT community did exist, especially around awareness and intra-community work, criminalization has prevented the consolidation of an LGBT movement based on global human rights standards.

But since last year, members of the LGBT community have started to speak more freely and openly, and are conquering the public space. This has been made possible because of the important support of civil society, intellectuals and artists defending of LGBT people’s rights. On 17 May 2014 for example, one of the first newspaper reports on LGBT people’s fight for their rights in Tunisia excluded public testimony and was written within a broad framework of the defense of minority rights. One year later, the same newspaper published almost the exact same article, but this time all LGBT organizations were included, openly claiming to be part of the LGBT movement and with representatives named. Also, for the first time, all human rights organizations in Tunisia are publicly expressing the need to respect the rights of LGBT people, which constitute human rights.      

Another advancement is the media’s coverage of the issue. For the first time in 2015, we moved away from the medical discourse, saying homosexuality is a sickness.  The discourse is now becoming about the fight for human rights, based on the global understanding that human rights are indivisible, interconnected and universal, a fight for individual rights and the right to bodily autonomy. This was made possible by the strengthened capacity of the LGBT community but also by an opening within the public space to address the issue.     

It is true that more visibility was given to gay than lesbian people, and even less to trans* people, but it has to be said that this prioritization was made collectively by the community because gay people are more likely to be criminalized by article 230, which has always been applied against them. For example, there were recently cases of rape and cruel and inhumane treatment afflicted against gay people through the practice of anal exams. The issue is that they cannot lodge a complaint because they risk going to prison because of their homosexuality. So the priority was given with regard to vulnerability to the law as well as to subsequently allow the LGBT movement to defend people, to talk about stigmatization and to pursue the LGBT fight.

AWID: What are the current challenges faced by the LGBT and human rights movements in defending the rights of people?

RK: Human rights organizations may not have the necessary knowledge and expertise to defend LGBT people, in terms of tools and legal knowledge, public speaking and gender expertise. This challenge also sometimes comes up within the LGBT movements themselves, which use language against the rights of people because without the necessary expertise. It is thus about becoming experts and understanding how to defend the rights of LGBT people through global human rights standards.     

There is a disconnect between new 2014 Constitution and international conventions ratified by Tunisia, and other legislation related to individual liberties in Tunisia.  For example Article 230 of the Penal Code contradicts international conventions related to physical integrity, in respect to privacy, personal information, so there is need to research, document and align contradictory laws.

There is also work to be done in terms of public awareness, which is not easy because the public debate has just begun, so there will be strong resistance, especially because of years of discourse that considered homosexuality a sickness.

Moreover, there is an urgent need for security and protection of human rights defenders in the current climate of aggression against them. But the challenge is ensuring security and protection throughout the country and making the Government responsible vis-à-vis the role of guaranteeing the freedom of expression of activists.   

With the rise in terrorism in Tunisia, many people consider the fight against terrorism a priority over human rights. Many human rights activists are accused of supporting extremist movements and are under surveillance, or repressed. But the climate also draws State attention to the priority of interventions, because rather than suppressing individual freedoms and putting measures in place to control people’s privacy, it would do better to reorient these resources toward the fight against real dangers in society and the full enjoyment of people’s rights and their physical and moral integrity, which include anti-terrorism and the rise of extremisms.    

AWID: How was the Collective for individual freedoms formed and what are its objectives?

RK: A number of legal articles related to the private sphere were always used to suppress human rights activists in the public sphere. The collective thus responded to a spontaneous initiative organized by Euromed Right and the Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates (ATFD) (Tunisian Association of Democratic Women) to address the rise in violations of individual freedoms. During a meeting organized under this theme, one of the LGBT activists said: “Up until when will LGBT organizations remain civil society’s orphans?” To respond to this need, it was decided to create the collective, which brings together organizations working on human rights more broadly, feminist organizations and LGBT organizations. The feminist organizations played a key role in bringing individuals, organizations and members of informal initiatives together around issues related to individual freedoms within a feminist framework, and little by little, the collective was formed. At the moment, it is made up of 28 human rights, feminist and LGBT organizations, both national and international, new and old.     

The informal group seeks to coordinate frontline work against rights violations to increase the impact of our actions. Its main objective is advocacy and awareness-raising around draconian laws among public authorities. To do so, the group mainly researches and documents existing legal arsenal, taking into account laws that are draconian or which could be interpreted as draconian, prioritizing the revision of article 230 and law 52,[4] which deals with imprisonment for drug-use, a law equally exploited to suppress activists.                 

AWID: How do you think the collective strategy is more effective for addressing individual freedoms?

RK: It allows for coordination, optimization and the multiplying of human resources and expertise on the issue from diverse perspectives. LGBT organizations are closer to the community and the informal collectives that work on law 52 are much closer to the people, with more knowledge of their needs from working in the field and in close proximity. Broad-based organizations are for their part more useful at the legal level. Working collectively makes the connection between the ground and policy possible, between the needs and expectations of people and legal texts.        

AWID: How can the international community support the fight for human rights in Tunisia?

RK: Our ask vis-a-vis the international community is to put the excessive enthusiasm over what is happening in Tunisia into perspective. It is true that there has been considerable progress, especially in comparison to other countries in the region that entered into the denationalization process, civil war or returned to a dictatorship following the 2011 uprisings[5]. But, why must we always compare Tunisia to countries in the region that entered into processes contrary to democratization? It is in comparing it to other democratic countries that we could see how we are behind in respect to human rights and freedoms. The simple act of organizing free and democratic elections is not enough to make a country democratic, real reform measures are needed among policy, justice and legislative systems for the respect of human rights and individual and collective freedoms and which guarantee the true foundations of the rule of law. Supporting all these reform processes and civil society pressure and mobilization is needed, all while celebrating progress when it comes, and remaining vigil, because we are not yet a democratic State.  

[3] The Shams association for the decriminalization of homosexuality in Tunisia received a notice on 4 January 2016 ordering the suspension of activities for 30 days.
[4] For more information, see (in French):
[5] As it happened namely in Libya, Syria and Egypt, respectively.