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The Tunisia We Are Hoping For

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We have all been watching anxiously as the historic events triggered by the courageous people of Tunisia have been unfolding, with astonishing speed, over the past few weeks. It is essential that we, the international community, give our full support to their call for freedom and for the full respect of human rights for everyone in Tunisia.

Human rights lie right at the heart of the extraordinary developments which culminated in the departure of former President Ben Ali. We all hope this will be the beginning of a new Tunisia, where people are free to go about their lives without fear of arbitrary arrest, detention, torture or other forms of abuse.

A Tunisia where the press is free and where people can express their opinions without fear. A Tunisia where the government governs for the economic and social benefit of the people, rather than simply to retain power and enrich some of its members and their families.

A Tunisia where individuals can stand for election without fear of reprisals, where people can freely choose their representatives, and where all Tunisians can be confident their ballots are safe.

I believe, given the strong base of educated, resourceful Tunisians living inside the country, as well as the many who have been living in exile overseas, that this new, longed-for Tunisia can become a reality. However, it is by no means a certainty. The situation is still evolving and remains extremely fragile, as yesterday's new protests and ministerial resignations illustrated very clearly.

Human rights abuses were at the heart of Tunisia's problems. Therefore human rights must be right at the forefront of the solutions to those problems. The Tunisian people have today a tremendous opportunity to carve out a better future, based on laws that are fully in line with international standards, and are scrupulously observed by the authorities. In future, those who abuse power in Tunisia - ranging from the President of the Republic to the Judge in the Court and the security officer on the street - must be held accountable.

All of this is now possible, but it will not be easy. It is a matter of great sadness that so many lives had to be lost to bring about this opportunity. My office has received information concerning more than 100 deaths over the last five weeks, as a result of live fire, as well as protest suicides and the deadly prison riots at the weekend. I would like to extend my deepest sympathy to all those who lost family members and friends during the recent violence and brutal repression, as well as those who have suffered from abuses over the previous years and decades.

As High Commissioner for Human Rights, I have been asking myself what my office, and what the international community in general, can do to help the people of Tunisia to take advantage of the opportunity that now exists. While it is still very early days, it is important that the seeds of change are sown wisely and sown now, before former entrenched interests start to reassert themselves, or new threats emerge. We must act quickly, so that when a free and fair election takes place in the near future, the next government is in a position to move forward from Day One.

On Monday, January 17, I met with a group of seven NGOs working on Tunisia and listened to their concerns and proposals. I would like to salute the vital work of both national and international NGOs in Tunisia over the years. My colleagues have also been listening to opinions and taking advice from a number of other key human rights players inside Tunisia. Their contributions will be essential over the coming months.

On Wednesday, January 19, I spoke by phone with the new Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Radhouane Nouicer. I expressed my support to the people of Tunisia and discussed my intention to send a team of highly experienced staff to Tunisia to carry out an assessment of priorities on the human rights front. Mr Nouicer very much welcomed this mission in principle, and we will be working out the details of the mission with the interim government and other interested parties over the next couple of days.

This team should be on the ground by next week. They will meet with the interim authorities, human rights organizations and other key actors. They will go with an open mind, not with a pre-set agenda, but I will expect them - in addition to gathering information about the current and past human rights situation - to come back with a set of concrete proposals for action.

I welcome the fact that the interim government has already announced a number of important measures, including the release of all political detainees, and permission for all political parties to operate freely, and the establishment of freedom of the press. I also welcome the government's announcement that it will address the underlying causes of the unrest by enacting policies to ameliorate economic hardship. Among its other tasks, the OHCHR team will examine whether or not these commitments are being pursued, and we are prepared to make recommendations to help them reach fruition.

I also welcome the fact that the interim government has announced the setting up of three Commissions: two Commissions of Inquiry into human rights abuses and corruption, as well as a Commission on political reform. All three are headed by people known for their engagement in human rights. This is an important step, and the government must now ensure that these commissions enjoy total independence, have an appropriate budget, are able to access all relevant sources, and can publish the results of their investigations. It is also important that these and subsequent reform processes are transparent and inclusive. There must be no window-dressing when it comes to accountability.

There are a range of other issues that will need to be examined over the coming weeks and months, including accountability mechanisms for human rights abuses over the past decades, as well as for what happened over the past weeks. There are a number of possible ways to approach this issue of transitional justice. It is important that the international community does what it can to support the clear desire of the Tunisian people to see that justice is done.

It is equally important that, in the meantime, people do not take the law into their own hands. Issues relating to justice and fair trials need to be strengthened, not undermined by further acts of violence.

There will also need to be a thorough review of Tunisia's laws, as well as its security systems and institutions. I also believe a reform of the judiciary should be prioritized so that it can perform its crucial role in a truly independent fashion.

In the meantime, it is essential that the interim authorities act with scrupulous regard to international standards governing the imposition of a state of emergency. Importantly, the authorities cannot suspend basic rights - notably the right to life, the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment - or fundamental principles of fair trial and freedom from arbitrary detention.

I will continue to closely watch the situation in Tunisia, and do all I can to ensure that the human rights aspirations of the Tunisian people are finally achieved, and their sacrifices are not in vain.

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