Is Tunisia Reversing Fabled Human Rights Record?

Government's intolerance of Islamists may one day backfire

IT has been six years since President Zine-al Abidine Ben Ali deposed Tunisian president-for-life Habib Bourguiba. Mr. Ben Ali proclaimed a new era for Tunisia, based on respect for the rule of law, human rights, and democracy.

Since that time, and largely due to the government's touting of its own achievements, Tunisia has gained a reputation as an ``oasis of openness'' in a region beset by political violence. Ben Ali's proclaimed commitment to human rights, however, has foundered on the government's hostility to all manifestations of political Islam.

In the name of saving the country from Islamist rule, the Tunisian government has violated its own legal limits on pre-trial detention to hold thousands of prisoners without charge or trial on suspicion of sympathizing with the government's opponents. Torture has been widespread. At least nine political prisoners have died in custody in circumstances that suggest they were tortured. Still, the government has failed to disclose the outcome of official investigations into allegations of torture; nor has it even identified cases in which investigations have been carried out.

Tunisia's justice system has been undermined by the use of military courts to try political cases. In a July 1992 trial before two military courts, some 279 defendants were accused of involvement in an alleged plot to overthrow the government. International human rights organizations unanimously condemned the trials as unfair. Yet merely for writing a newspaper article that criticized the influence of military courts on the Tunisian legal system, lawyer Mohamed Nouri was imprisoned for over a year.

Other Tunisian lawyers who have tried to represent the government's opponents have been threatened, harassed, and even imprisoned - as a form of deterrent. Activities of the long-established nongovernmental Tunisian League for Human Rights have been paralyzed by governmental interference. Other attempts to form independent human rights groups have been thwarted.

In short, the Tunisian government has behaved no differently from authoritarian regimes the world over when faced with a threat to their monopoly on power. What makes Tunisia different is the extent to which the government has sought to justify its abuses in the name of human rights.

According to the Tunisian government, political Islam is a monolithic hostile force with the proclivity for violence and no respect for the democratic process. By this logic, human rights are defined cynically and expediently as whatever measures are necessary to keep down the ill-defined, catchall threat of Islamic extremism. By deft use of this self-serving argument, the government can portray critics of its human rights record as backers of the Islamist threat and, as such, enemies of human rights. Thus is reality conveniently turned on its head; the ``end'' of keeping Islamists out of power justifies the ``means'' of restricting freedoms and violating human rights.

Some might wonder if this is such a bad thing. If the Tunisian government has successfully kept the Islamists away from power without spilling too much blood, should the world not be grateful?

There are two good answers: First, Tunisia's human rights record since 1987 should be evaluated on the basis of what it has done - not on the basis of what it claims to have done. Certainly it should not be judged on the basis of a comparison with a hypothetical alternative.

Second, the significance of international human rights principles is that they are universal, applicable at all times and in all circumstances. The Tunisian government is not entitled to a special dispensation from its international treaty commitments because of the nature of the threat it claims to be facing.

By taking exceptional measures against its Islamist opposition, the Tunisian government plays into the hands of Islamic extremists who claim that Islamic law is incompatible with and superior to international human rights standards. It sends the dangerous message to Muslims everywhere that human rights are not for them, and even that these rights are intrinsically hostile to Islam. Such a message fuels the type of violent conflict that has taken Tunisia's neighbor, Algeria, to the verge of civil war, and has fostered instability throughout Arab North Africa and the Middle East.

In purging the Islamist threat - real or imagined - from the youthful body of Tunisian civil society, the government has also cast out dangerously large quantities of its protective antibodies. Any government committed to protecting the human rights of its citizens must help these safeguards to grow stronger. But as long as the Tunisian government remains intolerant of institutions that can serve as a counterweight to unfettered state power, its commitments and promises in the field of human rights will remain unfulfilled. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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