Human rights delegation investigates Western complicity in crimes of Ben Ali regime

This article was published first on Mondoweiss.


Mohammed Bouazizi’s desperate act of self-immolation on 17 December 2010 brought down the corrupt and brutal Tunisian despot, Ben Ali, and unwittingly sparked the conflagration that today is still spreading throughout North Africa and the Middle East. As in Tunisia, elsewhere in the region people are bravely tearing down the walls of fear so carefully erected over the years by kelptocratic regimes, often with the support of Western governments.

Though the dramatic events of the last few months have provided much cause for hope in Tunisia, many obstacles remain along the path to constructing a new polity capable of addressing not only Tunisians’ political and individual grievances, but their socio-economic and collective grievances as well.

Much of the attention on the causes of the revolution have focused on longstanding structural issues, including the government’s distorted budget priorities, with too much money invested in repressive security apparatuses and too little in infrastructure and social goods such as healthcare, education, training, job creation, etc. There were also the restrictive labour policies, suffocated public sphere, distortive wealth concentration, and the developmental gap between coastal areas and the interior.

Many Tunisians, especially those on the receiving end of Tunisia’s ‘justice’ system, including trade unionists, leftists, and, in  particular over the last ten years, those with Islamist leanings, expressed anger about the lack of due process, absence of the rule of law, widespread use of torture, and generally dismal prison conditions in Tunisia.

Often overlooked in the western press have been the collective, or one could say nationalist, grievances of the Tunisian people, expressed as frustration at Tunisia’s lack of real sovereignty in a global order enforced by international institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, and under the guise of ‘economic modernization’, ‘democratization’, and, most recently, and perhaps for Tunisians most damaging, the ‘war on terror’.

It was to study these latter grievances that from March 12 to 19, 2011, we joined a group of lawyers, human rights activists, and academics, based in the US, UK and Turkey to visit Tunisia at the invitation of the Tunisian National Bar Association. The report that came out of this visit, ‘Promises and Challenges:  The Tunisian Revolution of 2010-2011,’ discusses Tunisia’s history under the disgraced Ben Ali regime and the conditions and events which led to its downfall in January 2011. In particular, the delegation was interested in understanding the role of the US and EU states in supporting the Ben Ali regime, despite knowledge of its numerous and persistent human rights violations.

Our delegation met with various organizations and individuals including those that had been on the receiving end of Ben Ali’s most brutal and undemocratic policies and practices, those that had been instrumental in contesting and resisting the gross human rights violations of the ancien regime, as well as those, including many from the former two categories, that had been instrumental in bringing down the Ben Ali government. These included heads of NGOs, labour leaders, leaders of oppositional political parties, journalists and bloggers, as well as many former political prisoners and torture victims of the deposed regime.

One grievance that was expressed repeatedly by these various political actors was the perception that western governments had been complicit in the crimes committed by the Ben Ali regime, through their provision over the years of copious amounts of diplomatic, military, and economic support, in particular in the past ten years, in the context of the ‘war on terror’. Not only did many feel that western governments had too often turned a blind eye to the depravities of their Tunisian allies in order to secure their own economic and geo-strategic interests in the region, but, even worse, many felt some of Ben Ali’s most heinous crimes were committed at the behest of these governments.

Tunisia was among several Middle East and North African states that declared its support for the ‘war on terror’ and offered substantial intelligence and strategic cooperation shortly after George W. Bush’s infamous speech of 20 September 2001, in which he warned:  ‘Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbour or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.’

In return for its cooperation in the ‘war on terror’, the US was willing to overlook the well-documented human rights violations of the Ben Ali regime, and indeed, political repression actually increased during this period.

In addition to increased security and intelligence cooperation, many of the lawyers, activists, and former political prisoners we met asserted their belief that the 2003 Anti-Terrorism Law was enacted to curry favour with the US.  Although it is unclear what precise role the US played in the wording or timing of the legislation, it is clear the Bush Administration was happy with its passage. The US State Department called it ‘a comprehensive law to “support the international effort to combat terrorism and money laundering.”’

Yet critics, both domestic and international, claimed that the law heavily violated Tunisians’ civil liberties. According to a December 2010 Report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, the Tunisian legislation is based on a definition of terrorism that ‘is vague and broad, hence deviating from the principle of legality and allowing for wide usage of counter-terrorism measures in practice.’ The law resulted in the arrest and often torture of thousands of innocent men, solely because of their religious and/or political beliefs and practices.

According to former Tunisian Judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui, founding member of the Association for Support of Political Prisoners who was pushed out of his job due to his vocal opposition to judicial interference, the 2003 Anti-Terrorism Law was a direct result of US pressure for greater Tunisian cooperation in the ‘war on terror’. Judge Yahyaoui stated his belief that US military assistance to the Tunisian government was conditioned upon Tunisia’s counter-terror cooperation and accused the Ben Ali regime of ‘selling our sons to the Americans’ as part of this effort.

Though US president Barack Obama has now become a vocal cheerleader for the ‘Arab Spring’, it will be difficult for Tunisians to forget the many years in which successive US administrations, including Obama’s, maintained close relations with the Ben Ali regime despite their knowledge, as documented in numerous State Department Annual Human Rights Reports and confirmed by Wikileaks’ release of statements from the US ambassador to Tunisia, that it was patently corrupt and repressive.

From recent statements made by Obama it is unclear whether any lessons have been learned about the causes of the Tunisian revolution. Particularly worrying were statements made in Obama’s May 24 speech to the British parliament. Despite expressing US support for democratic change in the region, he claimed that Americans ‘must squarely acknowledge that we have enduring interests in the region: to fight terror with partners who may not always be perfect.’ It seems from this statement and others that Obama has either failed to grasp, or has chosen to ignore, the collective grievances expressed by Tunisians, and others in the region, that the repression they experienced for so many years at the hands of brutal tyrants was facilitated, if not enabled, by US/western support.

It is clear that a significant gap exists between the perceptions of US government officials, who believe they were strong critics of the corruption and human rights abuses of the Ben Ali regime, and the Tunisian people, who perceived the US as supporters of that regime, complicit in its human rights abuses.  It is the conclusion of our delegation’s report that the US will fail to gain respect and credibility in this dramatically transformed region unless it recognizes this gap and honestly explores the reasons behind it. Ultimately, it is in the best interests of both Western and North African/Arab states that lessons learned from this exercise inform future relations, based on the strong foundations of equality and mutual respect.

Corinna Mullin is a lecturer in the Politics of the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, andAzadeh Shahshahani is a US human rights lawyer who is the Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia National Security/Immigrants’ Rights Project and serves as Executive Vice President and International Committee Co-Chair for the National Lawyers Guild.


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