Tunisian human rights activism in the 1960s: revolutionaries, intellectuals and prisoners of conscience

An opponent of Tunisian President Kais Saied holds the Tunisian constitution during a demonstration against what they call his coup on September 18, 2021. EFE / EPA / MOHAMED MESSARA


At the end of the 1960s, a major political trial took place in Tunisia just as the UN designated 1968 as the International Year of Human Rights. The trial led to the formation of the International Committee for the Protection of Human Rights in Tunisia (ICSHRT).

According to many foreign and Tunisian academics and activists, there is a direct link between the creation of the ICSHRT and the contemporary understanding and recognition of human rights activism in Tunisia. This argument implies that the formation of this committee marked the beginning of a linear process of developing a universal culture of human rights from the 1960s to the present day. However, one should be careful when confusing the current understanding of human rights with that of the past.

Despite having adopted a decidedly liberal constitution in 1959, post-independence Tunisia has developed into a presidential and authoritarian state, albeit within a modernist and socialist framework based on industrialization and state-supported agricultural cooperatives. .

From this context is born a left opposition rooted in the student movement which is organized around a political newspaper called Viewpoints. He denounces class exploitation, attacks on freedoms and the Tunisian president’s support for the American war in Vietnam. Inspired by the Cultural Revolution in China, one faction of the group called for the creation of a vanguard party to lead the revolutionary workers’ struggle for equality and freedom.

After the demonstrations of March 1968, the group was strongly repressed by the regime. Hundreds have been arrested and tortured. After a blatantly unfair trial, the group received heavy sentences for creating an illegal organization and conspiring against state security.

It should be noted that all of this happened as the United Nations system celebrated the 20th anniversary of the UDHR and Tunisia signed the newly adopted International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). to Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) during the first international human rights conference in Tehran.

In response to the unfair trial of the student movement, the parents of the prisoners, French and Tunisian friends, teachers and political affiliates created the International Committee for the Protection of Human Rights in Tunisia (ICSHRT). This effort then extended to lawyers and French student and union representatives from the anti-colonial opposition.

It was perfectly possible for the Committee to refer to the UDHR without comparing its work of solidarity with the principles of the new international human rights framework of the United Nations. What motivated his work was outrage at the injustices committed against political prisoners and compassion for their dire humanitarian situation. These forces prompted them to compromise, put aside ideological differences and make the human situation of prisoners a primary concern.

The committee finally set itself the objectives of improving prison conditions, informing the public about the situation of detainees and obtaining amnesty and full rehabilitation for all. The incarcerated Maoist faction came to the same conclusion through historical materialist reasoning. Fighting repressive legislation and demanding amnesty for all political prisoners has become a tactic to free society from exploitation. The first step towards this goal would be to improve the situation of prisoners.

Fighting repressive legislation and demanding amnesty for all political prisoners has become a tactic to free society from exploitation.

A main activity of ICSHRT was to raise public awareness of the humanitarian situation of prisoners and to raise funds for their support. He further challenged the rhetoric of the Tunisian state on its democratic nature and the need to defend against extremist attacks. This was done by publishing information on state sanctioned torture, unfair trial and inhumane conditions of detention.

The group also issued a legal memorandum to the court. The main argument was that no physical evidence had been found to prove the regime’s plans to overthrow. Writings and pamphlets on class struggles and the destruction of the capitalist state belonged to the realm of free speech just as organizing around political ideas was a matter of freedom of association.

The 1968 memorandum – which will also serve as an inspiration to challenge political trials in Tunisia in the 1970s – cited the notion of “general principles of law recognized by civilized nations” from the Statute of the International Court of Justice. These principles referred to those which were not defined by the two main sources of international law, namely international conventions and customary international law.

It also refers to the principle that the international convention takes precedence over national laws. Freedom of association is guaranteed by the constitution and Tunisia has signed the United Nations Charter obliging members to respect this right. Therefore, Tunisian law which was disrespectful of this right should not apply. The argument, however, was based on constitutional law and not human rights law and made no reference to Tunisia’s recent signing of the two covenants.

Outside the court, the group sought to mobilize public opinion in favor of the detainees. The Committee’s first public statement evoked the outrage of free men at the ongoing attacks on justice in Tunisia and urged that the truth be revealed. In this sense, it echoed Emile Zola’s “J’accuse” from the Dreyfuss affair in the 1890s concerning anti-Semitism and falsified judicial evidence. The Tunisian trial turned into a “case” like the Dreyfuss affair and the torture cases emblematic of the Algerian war. The ICSHRT denounced the state’s reasoning and described the prisoners as intellectuals and opposition figures, not revolutionaries.

Even though ICSHRT has made several references to the UDHR and its 20th anniversary celebrations, the link between the culture of rights in the 1960s and the human rights framework today is much less direct.

ICSHRT has also negotiated relationships with new groups seeking support. The members went to meet the nascent Amnesty International (AI) organization, which had been created to witness the private suffering of innocent non-violent people and to demand their release on the grounds that the suffering was unjust. In 1968, AI defined its statutes and limited its work to four articles of the UDHR relating to torture, detention and freedom of expression and opinion. These objectives coincided with those of the ICSHRT inciting them to carry out campaigns for Tunisians, now presented as prisoners of conscience.

When the prisoners were released in the early 1970s, following dissension at the top of the political system and the collapse of the cooperative system, the ICSHRT ceased its activities. In the 1970s, new political trials took place and the new Tunisian Committee for the Information and Defense of Victims of Repression omitted “human rights” from its name.

Although the ICSHRT has made several references to the UDHR and its 20th anniversary celebrations, the link between the culture of rights in the 1960s and the human rights framework today is much less direct. Several political strategies and objectives were at stake. His actions were based on a multitude of principles for a just society, not necessarily the United Nations human rights system.


This article is one of a series developed in partnership with the Danish Institute for Human Rights. The series explores different approaches to temporalities in human rights history and how this relates to their past, present and future.


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Thelma J. Longworth

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