(Tunis) – Tunisian authorities should immediately drop plans for new restrictions on civil society organizations, 13 Tunisian and international rights groups said today.
These plans, if implemented, would undo a major gain for freedom of association following the country’s 2011 revolution. They would constitute a new blow to the guarantees of human rights by President Kais Saied since he took power in July 2021.
“Tunisians know from experience the dangers that restrictive laws can pose to civil society and public debate,” said Amna Guellali, Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International. “During the deeply repressive era of Ben Ali, authorities used restrictive regulations on associations and cumbersome administrative procedures as key tools to stifle dissent.”
A law Project regulating civil society organizations was recently leaked. This would give government authorities too broad powers and discretion to interfere with how civil society organizations are formed, their functions and operations, their funding, and their ability to speak publicly about their work and voice their opinions.
In one video recorded speech on February 24, President Saied accused civil society organizations of serving foreign interests and trying to meddle in Tunisian politics, and said he intended to ban all funding for these groups from abroad.
“In the 10 years since Ben Ali’s ouster, non-governmental organizations in Tunisia have played a crucial role in delivering essential services to the public and holding government accountable,” said Eric Goldstein, Director Deputy for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. “Their work should be promoted and protected rather than threatened.”
Under Decree Law 2011-88, Tunisians and foreign residents can freely establish civil society organizations, carry out a wide range of activities, lobby authorities regarding laws and policies, speak publicly about their work and their opinions and receive foreign funding without a government. authorisation.
Authorities have not officially confirmed that they are changing the existing law, nor published a draft law, and it remains unclear if it has been changed since the leak. Draft laws in Tunisia have not been made public or subjected to formal debate by parliament since President Saied suspended the body on July 25, 2021. Under a presidential decree issued on September 22, 2021, all laws are currently promulgated in the form of decree-laws issued by the President.
Since 2011, Tunisian civil society has flourished. More than 24,000 civil society organizations are currently registered with government authorities, according to official dataalthough it is unknown how many are active today.
Many civil society organizations work in areas such as education and cultural life. Others seek to help poor, marginalized or otherwise vulnerable people. In addition, civil society has played a vital role in Tunisia’s post-revolution efforts to move towards a freer and fairer society by introducing values such as human rights and the rule of law into public debate and by pushing political decision-makers to integrate them into public policies. .
“Authorities should immediately drop any consideration of the leaked bill and ensure that any future law regulating civil society organizations strictly adheres to international human rights law,” said Amine. Ghali, director of the Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center.
Under current legislation, individuals can form a civil society organization with automatic legal status simply by notifying the relevant authorities. Articles 10 to 12 of the leaked bill would restore the Ben Ali-era requirement for government authorization before an organization can legally operate.
The bill states that associations cannot “threaten the unity of the state or its republican and democratic system” and indicates that their published material must align with “integrity”, “professionalism” and the “legal and scientific regulations”, a broad formulation. this would allow for abusive enforcement by authorities, the groups said.
Under current law, civil society organizations must publish details of all foreign funding. Article 35 of the leaked bill would impose a new requirement that all foreign funding must be approved by the Tunisian Commission for Financial Analysis (CTAF), a unit within the Central Bank of Tunisia responsible for combating money laundering. money and the financing of terrorism.
While the fight against money laundering and terrorism are legitimate objectives, they should not be used as a pretext to control or prohibit foreign funding of civil society organizations by requiring prior authorization. According to a survey of 100 civil society organizations in Tunisia published in 2018, nearly two-fifths said they depended partly or mainly on foreign funding.
Under current law, civil society organizations can only be dissolved by their own members or by the courts in response to a petition filed by the government. The leaked bill would empower authorities within the office of the head of government to summarily dissolve civil society organizations that have remained inactive beyond a certain period of time. It could also allow authorities to disband such groups at will and outside of judicial process, although the relevant provisions are ambiguous.
“Freedom of association – including the right to create and manage civil society organizations without undue government interference – is a fundamental human right guaranteed by international law and the Tunisian constitution,” said Alaa Talbi, executive director of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.
Under Article 38 of the Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa, governments can neither impose blanket bans on foreign funding of civil society organizations nor subject foreign funding to licensing. governmental. The guidelines reflect the provisions of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Tunisia is a state party.
Tunisia is bound to respect, protect, promote and fulfill the right to freedom of association, set out in article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and article 10 of the African Charter on Human Rights. man and peoples. Limitations of this right are only permitted where prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society; that is, by using the least restrictive means possible and by reflecting the fundamental values of pluralism and tolerance. “Necessary” restrictions must also be proportionate; that is, carefully weighed against the specific reason for imposing the restriction and non-discriminatory, including on grounds of national origin or political opinion or belief.
On July 25, Saied dismissed the then head of government, Hichem Mechichi, and suspended parliament. On September 22, he issued Presidential Decree 2021-117, which suspends most of Tunisia’s constitution, grants the president the exclusive right to enact laws by decree, dissolves a temporary body responsible for verifying the constitutionality of laws, and prohibits anyone to cancel the decree-laws. via the Administrative Court of Tunisia.
On February 12, 2022, Saied weakened the independence of the judiciary by issuing a decree dissolving Tunisia’s highest independent judicial body, the Superior Council of the Judiciary – created in 2011 to protect judges from government influence – and granted itself broad powers to intervene in the functioning of the judicial system. .
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