By Sihem Bensedrine
The Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) was established in June 2014 by the National Constituent Assembly as an independent mechanism in charge of investigating mass human rights violations committed during half a century of despotism. Its ultimate goal is to restore collective memory.
We started by studying experiences in transitional justice from other countries to draw inspiration from them.
Despite limitations we noted in Morocco’s efforts to establish the truth, and especially in their fight against impunity, their experience contains an indisputable success: the artistic world contributed more to the revelation of the truth than any other classical tool employed by the Equity and Reconciliation Commission, the transitional justice mechanism instituted in Morocco in 2004.
It is only since cinema, arts and literature have started to talk about these painful truths narrated by victims (who are numerous throughout Moroccan history since its independence) that the goals of transitional justice have been reclaimed.
The arts are victims’ victory against oblivion and against the manipulation of memory by politicians.
In Tunisia, the transitional justice process started immediately after the January 2011 revolution with limited and uncoordinated decisions. It took two years institute a mechanism specifically devoted to truth-seeking, with the TDC launching in June 2014.
Since day one the TDC has been the target of a strong campaign aiming to discredit the core of its mandate. “Don’t wake up the dead,” some cried. “Digging into the past might deepen the cracks and divide our society,” or “transitional justice is a potential risk of political destabilization” insisted others. Even worse, some questioned the principle of accountability itself.
In 18 months of work, the TDC has already received more than 33,000 complaints linked to human rights violations during the 60 years covered by its mandate (since Tunisian independence). 90% of the complaints are aggravated violations of human rights; the rest is linked to corruption.
The TDC has conducted more than 4,500 closed victim consultations. I can assure you that it is quite traumatizing for the victims to recount their suffering and for the listeners to hear stories of rapes of women and children, different kind of torture (with blunt tools, fake drownings, etc…), broken lives, forced divorces, children deprived of both their parents and therefore exposed to delinquency… it is this Dantesque hell that the process of transitional justice aims to confront and to exorcize through the revelation of truth.
It is surprising to discover during these consultations that the victims declare themselves ready to forgive as long as the perpetrators recognize their crimes and publicly repent.
It is even more surprising that perpetrators present themselves as “defenders of the state,” who acted in the name of the state and under its authority, who have protected us against “public enemies” and who therefore refuse to ask for forgiveness.
Hannah Arendt has pointed to “the banality of evil” and to how those who commit crimes against humanity are not always conscious of their wrong-doing. Their sense of acting in defense of a system which is supposed to work for the common good imbues them with a sort of political “legitimacy” and seems to operate as an absolution which dehumanizes the opponent and sedates their conscience.
We are definitely facing a systemic crime, a despotic system that smashed everything along the way in the name of the state, a state committed to clan interests rather than to its citizens’ interests.
Victims rightly believe they belong to a lost generation, but insist that everything be done to save their children’s future. Their children, this collateral damage fed with hatred against the state for decades.
A state which was supposed to guarantee rights and freedom but turned out to be the perpetrator of the violence their parents suffered. The impunity of civil servants who have committed crimes often triggers violent protests.
Today, criminal terrorist organizations target these youngsters for recruitment. The challenge is to extract the youth from this influence and offer them a rehabilitating alternative.
Meeting this challenge begins by the public recognition of the human rights violations and must be followed by the state asking for forgiveness. Then, a healing process of social reconstruction can start, one that restores victims their dignity, which has been shredded to pieces.
This process has to go through reconciliation of the state with its citizens and the challenge is to ensure that one day the young generation feels this state to be their own, not their enemy. Accountability is an essential leverage to establish the truth, the only remedy to the evil done. And public remembrance part of the process of accountability. You cannot spoil it or you are literally mortgaging your future.
Without such an approach to the past, it is impossible to end violence, to prevent it and to protect the society from it in the future. Amnesia is the best possible way to facilitate the return of the demons of the past.
Dictatorship always leaves behind a minefield made of pain, tears, humiliations, deep scars and accumulated hatred. It is in these fields of hatred that violence, like a gangrene, attacks our societies and handicaps their development.
The solution lies in the process of remembrance, which can engage the public in a way that offers guarantees of non-recurrence.
The choice of committing to a transitional justice process in order to secure the success of transition has saved Tunisia.
Five years after the revolution, not everything is achieved yet –far from it. But the hope we can heal is palpable thanks to this process of confronting the past and trying to treat it with respect it deserves.
Sihem Bensedrine is a journalist and human rights activist who currently serves as President of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission. She has worked for more than two decades to expose human rights violations in Tunisia and to defend freedom of expression. Bensedrine lobbies for free elections and democracy as spokesperson for the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia and president of the Tunisian Center for Transitional Justice, and remains deeply involved in institutional reforms in Tunisia. She has received several awards for her long fight against human rights abuses.