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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Painful compromise may be the only way forward in Tunisia

As countless other examples have shown, the amnesty given to regime remnants might be necessary during government transitions, argues Sholto Byrnes

Demonstrators in Tunis have held several protests against the reconciliation bill, which grants amnesty to officials accused of corruption during the rule of the former regime. Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters
Demonstrators in Tunis have held several protests against the reconciliation bill, which grants amnesty to officials accused of corruption during the rule of the former regime. Zoubeir Souissi / Reuters

What is the price of reconciliation? This is the question currently vexing many in Tunisia after a new law was passed that gives amnesty to officials who facilitated, or were instructed to facilitate, corruption under the former rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Mr Ben Ali’s flight into exile in early 2011 marked the beginning of the Arab Spring and is the only real success story to emerge from that period of turmoil.

Tunisia has not had an easy path in the years since suffering terrorist attacks and a spluttering economy. But it has had a series of elections (including the first free presidential elections ever in 2014), government administrations have peacefully handed over power and its historically radical group, Ennahda, has appeared to embrace civic politics and “a new identity as a party of Muslim democrats”, as its co-founder, Rached Ghannouchi, put it.

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The region, and the world, has reason to wish Tunisia well. But this new law, say opponents, amounts to a form of “counter-revolution” and a “return of the dictatorial state”. They point to the fact that Beji Caid Essebsi, the country's president, had been president of the chamber of deputies under Mr Ben Ali. This was, they say, all about giving a free pass to those who served in the old regime.

The legislation does not wipe clean the slate of businessmen who benefited from corruption (as a previous draft did). It is also likely to affect only about 2,000 senior officials who “did not receive any bribes”, according to Tunisia’s cabinet director, Slim Azzabi. But no, the move was a “victory for impunity”.

“Tomorrow, those who have committed crimes against you, who have stolen your money, we will find them in the highest positions as if there had been no revolution,” warned one opposition politician.

Any outsider would naturally hesitate before criticising those who may well have suffered grievously under the Ben Ali regime. But while opposition to this new law may well just be a matter of "why, after all, should anyone be allowed to get away with criminal acts?", the amnesty also looks like just the kind of compromise that is necessary during transitions from governments that are deemed illegitimate and repressive to those that represent – and act for the good of – the people.

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In both South Africa and Northern Ireland, for instance, many individuals have been let off terrible crimes, all in the interests of reconciliation. In 2005, seven years after the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace and power-sharing to Northern Ireland, Britain’s Labour government introduced legislation granting an effective amnesty to anyone who may have committed terrorist-related crimes before 1998.

There was outrage at the possibility that both IRA members and rogue security forces would never be called to account for their misdeeds. But as one minister responded, "sometimes, it is necessary to make difficult decisions in the interests of entrenching the benefits of peace."

(The law was later dropped, but 200 “on-the-run” terrorists were sent letters assuring them they would not be prosecuted.)

Similarly, in Colombia, longtime insurgent group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, has just turned itself into a political party. Thousands of its former guerrillas were granted amnesty as part of the peace process.

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In South Africa, the renowned Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Desmond Tutu could and did grant amnesty to many who had committed crimes on political or racial motives – so long as they confessed to their involvements.

As the International Centre for Transitional Justice puts it: “There was a sense that justice was not simply about blame and punishment, but a positive process of restoration, inclusion and healing. There was also a fear that any punitive approach would tip the whole transition into conflict.”

South Africa’s experience is probably one of the best known instances of the compromises necessary for such major changes – and it provides lessons for other countries too. One of the reasons tensions regularly flare up between South Korea and Japan, for instance, is that while the two countries reconciled a long time ago, the truth about the crimes Japan perpetrated both before and during the Second World War is regularly disputed by conservative elements, as well as being hinted at or alluded to at the governmental level in Tokyo.

Tunisia has its own Truth and Dignity Commission, launched in 2014 by president Moncef Marzouki. It began hearings last November after receiving 62,000 submissions and hearing testimony from about 11,000 people and has a mandate that includes investigating human rights violations and corruption, referring cases to the judicial system and providing compensation and rehabilitation to victims.

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There are, however, questions over the political will to support the commission. While former president Mr Marzouki was fully behind it, Mr Essebsi has pointedly not attended any of its hearings so far and his administration is suspected of hindering it. Officials from the Ben Ali era, meanwhile, complain that the commission’s hearings are in danger of being overly one-sided.

Perhaps all parties need to refocus on the importance of what is at stake here. If the new law exonerates government servants who did not benefit from corruption, that hardly constitutes a counter-revolution. “I was only obeying orders” doesn’t excuse crimes against humanity, but it is probably a reasonable excuse when a brutal, authoritarian state orders you to carry out corrupt payments.

At the same time, the government should make clear that all must back the Truth and Dignity Commission and that the president should make a show of attending the next hearing.

Tunisia’s progress depends on a painful reckoning. It need not be punitive, but it cannot be avoided. Cooler heads should remember that compromise – on all sides – is key.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia

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