Because we can: Dragging out abuse in Tunisia

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Because we can is a series of articles by the author on human rights and political freedoms. 11 years since the turn of the century, how are we doing in the struggle to uphold the concept of  “human rights” across the world? We can ask these questions Because we can.

Much of the news coverage on political unrest and the popular uprising in Tunisia has been focused on holiday makers from the United Kingdom fleeing or trying to escape the country (coverage is especially favourable to those with a long winded story related to airport incompetence, we know how people love a good story on that). More recently however coverage has switched to stories of human rights abuses and violent repression under the deposed dictator and former president Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali.

Since December 17th 2010, political unrest has gripped Tunisia as people protested against the government. Human rights charities and watch dogs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have reported that dozens of protesters have been killed or arrested since the violence started. As accusations go back and forth between the security forces and human rights groups on the number of people arrested or even killed, the shape of the new interim regime coming to power during the violence has yet to decisively set out its pedestal for where it stands in relation to political freedoms. Will it just be more of the same for the people of Tunisia?

Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali took power in Tunisia in 1987 in a bloodless coup. The regime he ran since then has not been very….democratic. Indeed, it was ranked 144 in the Economist’s Democracy Index and could be described as authoritarian. Much of the recent political unrest has said to have been a direct result of the way the regime has run. Since 1987, suppression of the opposition and curtailing of political freedoms has been the norm. The former president Ben Ali, or “Mr 99%” (the first elections he held had him gain 99.4% of the vote) promised economic progress for Tunisians at the expsense of political freedoms. The problem for Mr Ali was such economic progress did not occur for everyday Tunisians, and among allegations of corruption gaining momentum among every day people (despite hard crackdowns) arrived at the situation of having to flee the country himself (more efficiently and quickly than British holiday makers too…).

The interim government is planning to form a coalition to deal in the aftermath of the violence. Positive steps they could take would be to release activists and political prisoners as soon as possible (as called for by human rights organisations) to show the world and everyday Tunisians they are serious about political reform and upholding human rights. There is also the question of what Western countries will do – will we advocate that a fully functioning should emerge from the fires and riots of Tunis or will we continue to just take our holidays there?

Tunisians have known much political repression and curtailment of liberties under Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali. It is time we asked alongside them if it is time to drag out the abuses of the past and cast them aside for something  different.

Photo: Christophe Ena/AP

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