“Never Again”: Activists Put Transitional Justice on Agenda Amid Elections

Main photo: A screenshot from the first short film of the “Laroujou3” [never again] campaign launched  by civil society groups to support transitional justice. The film was screened on October 1, 2019, at Africa Hotel in Tunis.

“Never Again”: Activists Put Transitional Justice on Agenda Amid Elections

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Tunis – Hafawa Rebhi

Activists and artists who conceived and produced a 2-minute video entitled “Laroujou3” [never again] have attempted to distil the continuing indignity, hopelessness, and injustice citizens encounter when requesting or expecting basic services from the state.

The “Laroujou3” video is part of a larger campaign with the same name civil society groups launched on October 1, 2019, shortly before the recent October 6, parliamentary elections. The campaign aims to pursue transitional justice and end impunity for officials who violate the law so that these abuses to do not continue.

The video features a nameless, educated, middle-aged, and middle-class woman played by actress Chekra Rammeh. This protagonist narrates the clip in a poem. She decides to make a change by running for president. But submitting her candidacy turns out to be a struggle, as she has to face overwhelming hurdles.

One theme of the video is corruption. According to the 2019 Tunisia Country Report by the Arab Barometer, “perceptions of corruption in government have grown, with nearly all Tunisians believing this scourge infects state institutions. Yet, fewer now believe that the government is working to tackle corruption than at the time of the revolution.”

In a bureaucratic office, the protagonist of the video encounters officials who look for excuses to be unhelpful. Another citizen waiting beside the protagonist says over the phone “But I made you happy,” a phrase commonly used to mean giving a bribe. When she finally gets to the official, the bureaucrat uses a mix of sexism and regional discrimination to humiliate her.

Discrimination based on which region a person comes from is a widespread phenomenon in Tunisia, despite it being underreported and understudied in academia. Citizens from less-developed and interior regions of the country are particularly affected by this form of discrimination, whether on a personal or a political level.

In the street, Rammeh’s character witnesses police harassing a young man on the street on separate occasions. She finally expresses her indignation at a sort of abuse thought to belong to a bygone era.

“Why are you doing that? Leave him alone. What did he do to you!?” the woman calls from her car to the policeman slapping the young man.

During her journey, she is constantly haunted by a graffiti tag on a wall. This hashtag that she doesn’t seem to understand says “learn to swim.”The graffiti refers to the case when police, according to Amnesty International and testimony by family, chased Omar Laabidi, a 19-year-old football fan to a river after a match in March 2018 and told him “learn to swim” before he drowned.

Against all these obstacles, the protagonist in the end tries to overcome the challenges using two weapons: obstinate optimism and the power of words. Throughout the video, her narration is a sort of poem that begins with the recurrent, morbid hashtag referring to Omar’s case, “learn to swim,” but it ends with the resolute anaphora: “Laroujou3” [never again].

Launching the Campaign Before Elections

The “Laroujou3” campaign was launched at a press conference at the Africa Hotel, in Tunis, by the Tunisian chapter of Lawyers Without Borders (Avocats Sans Frontières or ASF), the NGO Al-Bawsala and the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES by its French acronym) less than a week before the October 6 parliamentary elections. At the press conference, the video clip was also screened.

“When Ahmed Semlali, the director at the production company, and the ASF team contacted me, I did not hesitate.” Chekra Rammeh told Meshkal. “The story and the poem touched me as an artist but also as a citizen.”

The actress said she was happy to associate her image to a cause as important as transitional justice.

“That was my way of contributing, of making a change,” Rammeh said. “I hope I helped deliver the message and move things forward.”

“This is one of many yet to come,” Antonio Manganella, the president of the Tunisia chapter of ASF, told journalists, referring to the short film.

The campaign, as he explained, “aims to put back on the political agenda the underlying issues that led to the revolution and that needed to be addressed not only by transitional justice, but by the political decision-makers after 2011.”

As part of the campaign, the three NGOs conducted a survey to gauge citizens’ comprehension and perception of transitional justice. This included a survey of one thousand people carried out in August 2019.According to the survey, about 67 percent of Tunisians believe truth finding, criminal prosecutions, reparations, and reforms should have been at the top of the political agendas of parliamentary and presidential candidates.

The same survey found that about 70 percent of respondents say the completion of the transitional justice process is a prerequisite for national reconciliation.

Seif Bentili, the coordinator of the transitional justice project at Al-Bawsala, told Meshkal that two other key figures from the survey caught his attention.

Bentili said that 83 percent of Tunisians “want the total truth about human rights abuses perpetrated in the past,” while 84 percent believe that “reforming the state institutions involved in human rights abuses will prevent the recurrence of violations.”

For him, these findings “contradict the ideas promoted over the last five years, according to which Tunisians would be impatient and would like to turn the page of the past and simply open a new chapter.”

According to Khayem Chemli, the campaign’s coordinator at ASF, transitional justice remains a revolutionary and popular demand, despite political challenges and low media coverage.

“We took the opportunity of the elections to advocate for transitional justice, by analyzing the adherence of major electoral lists to the process,” Chemli said at the press conference.

What the “LaRoujou3” campaign did was to categorize the electoral programs of parties and candidates to identify where they stood on issues relating to transitional justice. The format they chose to present their findings was a matrix  on the campaign’s website. According to the matrix, overall there is a weak commitment by candidates to transitional justice and to future reforms of institutions, especially of the security sector and the judiciary.

Political Will, or the Building of it

Many analysts have identified the obstacles that were put in front of transitional justice processes since they began following the 2011 uprising. Much of the focus has been on the disinformation and denigration campaign against the state’s Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC), an independent state body tasked with investigating state abuses going back five decades that began its work in 2014. However, other commissions that worked on transitional justice, including three post-revolution commissions—one on reforms, one on security abuses and one on corruption—also faced resistance from some sectors of the state.

“There was a window of opportunity for justice and accountability in Tunisia right after the 2010-2011 uprisings, which allowed for the development and institutionalization of such a far-reaching transitional justice process,” Mariam Salehi, a researcher at the Center for Conflict Studies at the German University of Marburg wrote in the Washington Post last April. “This window closed relatively quickly, however, and the political climate has since not been particularly favorable toward transitional justice.”

Six months later, Salehi still believes political will is the biggest challenge to transitional justice.

“I don’t see that political actors are willing to take a strong stance on this and to actively push for justice and accountability,” Salehi told Meshkal. “I’m also skeptical that the new government will make it a priority to work on the implementation of TDC recommendations, for which it should present suggestions in spring next year.”

Given this context, where the issue can be swept under the rug, Salehi believes civil society endeavors and pressure, such as the “Laroujou3 campaign”, are very important.

Besides video spots, shared so far mainly on social media, research, archiving, and surveys, “Laroujou3” campaigners are also acting as observers to give coverage to legal cases that are going through 13 of the specialized chambers handling cases of transitional justice. Many of these cases have received no media attention, and nearly all of them have seen those accused of abuses—some as serious as murder and torture—refusing or failing to show up.

“This Thursday [October 10, 2019], we will be in Kasserine in order to cover the case of the martyrs and the wounded during the 2011 revolution,” Seif Bentili told Meshkal. “We will be there in the courtroom and we will be live-tweeting the proceedings.”