Tunisia passes landmark anti-racism law

The law builds off of Tunisia’s status as a force for progress in the Arab world.
Thursday 11/10/2018
Tunisians hold a placard reading in French "We are all Children of Earth" as they take part in a demonstration against racism on March 21, 2014 in the capital Tunis. (AFP)
Tunisians hold a placard reading in French "We are all Children of Earth" as they take part in a demonstration against racism on March 21, 2014 in the capital Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia has become one of the first African or Arab countries to make racial discrimination punishable by jail time after its parliament overwhelmingly voted in a new anti-racism law.

The legislation reflects shifting attitudes in a country that has long been at the crossroads of different religions, cultures and ideas and where a growing number of people believe protecting racial minorities should be a priority.

“This law elevates Tunisia to the rung of civilised and developed countries as it becomes one of the first countries in the world and the first state in Africa to penalise racism,” Parliament Speaker Mohamed Ennaceur said after the vote on October 9.

Eleven civil society organisations and governmental bodies, including the Human Rights Ministry’s anti-racism committee, will join forces to monitor the implementation of the law. They have also been tasked with writing a report each year on its enforcement.

The new law stipulates that “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour (or) ancestry” is prohibited, as is any other form of discrimination that leads to “disturbances, an obstruction or privation.”

Under its provisions, those convicted of using racist language can face one month in prison and a $350 fine, while those convicted of inciting hatred, making racist threats, spreading and advocating racism or belonging to an organisation that supports discrimination could be imprisoned 1-3 years or fined as much as $1,050

The landmark law builds off of Tunisia’s status as a force for progress in the Arab world.

In January 1846, Tunisia became the first Arab country to formally abolish slavery.

However, rights groups have long advocated for an anti-discrimination provision that would protect racial minorities, especially Tunisians of darker skin tones and sub-Saharan Africans, from abuse or mistreatment.

The call for such legislation grew in recent years after a number of highly publicised, racially motivated assaults

In 2016, Jamel Ksiksi, a customs agent, was beaten by a hotel worker in the coastal town of Mahdia. Authorities, however, said they found no legal ground to prosecute the case as a form of racial discrimination, prompting a street protest in his native Medenine.

Later that year, three black African students were injured in a knife attack on Christmas Eve at a train station in Tunis. The incident fuelled protests.

The government had begun drafting the new law following an incident in 2016 in which a black Tunisian girl was publicly berated in the capital, Tunis, said Mehdi Ben Gharbia, who stepped down as human rights minister in July after submitting the blueprint law to parliament.

“When (the) Tunisian girl Sabrina was verbally abused on the main Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis in 2016 and went to the police to complain, and she was turned back because of the lack of specific law, I invited her to my office to apologise on behalf of the government,” Gharbia told The Arab Weekly. “The process of drafting and discussing it began after Sabrina’s incident.”

“Today, many Tunisians, most of them with good intentions and good faith, say that we have no problem with racism but the first act to tackle the issue of racism is to recognise it,”said Ben Gharbia, adding that some people continue to carry deep-rooted prejudice as a result of the country’s history of slavery.

In Tunisia, the pejorative terms “kahlouch” (blackish) and  “wassif,” (servant), are commonly used to refer to black people in the country.

Activists say cite the absence of black politicians, businessmen or celebrities in public life as another indication of pervasive even if undeclared racism.

Apart from protecting the rights of minorities within the country, promoting racial equality is likely to help Tunisia  expand ties with other countries in the continent.

Tunisia joined the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as part of its efforts to extend economic ties in Africa.

Tunisia is eying African markets to ship goods and services worth $4 billion by the end of 2020, an ambitious goal for a country whose total exports stood at $14 billion in 2017.

Tunisia has turned to the rest of Africa for trade and business opportunities because Libya, its main market in Africa, continues to present challenges due to its 7-year conflict.

The Maghreb Union, a grouping that includes Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Mauritania and Tunisia, has been paralysed by regional rivalry and division.

And with the European Union accounting for two-thirds of Tunisia’s exports, diversifying the country’s trade market is even more critical.

Tunisia was among the first countries to join the broader African Continental Free Trade Area, a trade bloc that aims to expand to 55 countries with a combined GDP of more than $3 trillion.