Rights Groups Urge Tunisia to Scrap Planned Crackdown on CSOs

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Amnesty International, as well as 12 other international and Tunisian rights groups, is calling on Tunisia to immediately scrap plans for new restrictions on civil society.

The signatories are Al Bawsala, Amnesty International, Arab Reform Initiative, Euromed Rights, Human Rights Watch, Jamaity, Lawyers Without Borders, Legal Agenda, Mourakiboun, Observatoire International des Associations et Développement Durable, Tunisian Association for the Defence of Individual Liberties and Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.

If those plans are implemented, they would reverse a major step forward for freedom of association after the 2011 revolution. Since President Kais Saied’s July 2021 power grab, these measures would represent another blow to human rights safeguards, Amnesty said.

“Tunisians know from experience the dangers that restrictive laws can pose to civil society and public debate,” Middle Eastern and North African Amnesty deputy regional director Amna Guellali said.

“During the deeply repressive Ben Ali era, the authorities used restrictive regulations on associations and cumbersome administrative procedures as key tools to smother dissent,” Guellali continued.

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According to Amnesty, a leaked draft law reveals plans to interfere with civil society’s funding and freedom of speech, though the Tunisian government has not commented on the draft or released it officially.

With the suspension of parliament by President Kais Saied in 2020, new laws will not be overseen by the legislature.

Recently, a draft law regulating civil society organizations was leaked. Government authorities would be given an overly broad range of powers and discretion to interfere with the way civil society organizations are organised, their functions and operations, their funding, and the ability to share information about their work.

Videotaped comments made by President Saied on February 24 accused civil society organizations of serving foreign interests and meddling in Tunisian politics and vowed to ban foreign funding for such groups.

“In the 10 years since Ben Ali’s ouster, nongovernmental organizations in Tunisia have played a crucial role in providing essential services to the public and holding the government accountable,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Their work should be promoted and protected rather than threatened.”

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Upon enacting Decree-Law 2011-88, Tunisians and foreign residents are both allowed to set up civil society organizations, carry out a number of activities, lobby for laws and policies, speak publicly about their work, and receive foreign funding without government approval.

It remains unclear whether the amended law has been modified since it was leaked, as the authorities have neither confirmed nor denied that they are amending the current law. Since July 25, 2021, when President Saied suspended parliament, Tunisian draft laws have not been made public or subject to formal debate. As a result of a presidential decree issued on September 22, 2021, all laws are currently enacted as decree-laws.

Civil society in Tunisia has flourished since 2011. The government currently registers over 24,000 civil society organizations, although it is unclear how many are currently active.

There are many civil society organizations working in the education and cultural fields. Others provide assistance to the poor, marginalized, or otherwise vulnerable. Furthermore, civil society has played a crucial role in Tunisia’s efforts to transition to a freer, more just society since the revolution by bringing values like human rights and the rule of law into public debate and encouraging policymakers to embed these values into public policy.

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“The authorities should immediately drop any further consideration of the leaked draft law and ensure that any future laws regulating civil society organizations adhere strictly to international human rights law,” said Amine Ghali, Director of the Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center.

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