Tunisian commission puts forward bold human rights blueprint

Among the proposed reforms are equal inheritance rights for women, decriminalising homosexuality and abolishing the death penalty.
Sunday 24/06/2018
President of the Committee on Human Rights and Individual Freedoms Bochra Belhaj Hmida (R) speaks with jurist Saloua Hamrouni, on June 20. (AFP)
Challenging traditions. President of the Committee on Human Rights and Individual Freedoms Bochra Belhaj Hmida (R) speaks with jurist Saloua Hamrouni, on June 20. (AFP)

TUNIS - A Tunisian presidential commission has proposed human rights reforms to protect individual freedoms, drawing the ire of Islamists and conservatives who say the changes would go against religious precepts.

Progressives hailed the recommendations, aimed at bringing the country’s law into step with its 2014 Constitution, as a step forward in Tunisia’s democratic transition.

“It is a great precedent for Tunisia as it launches a project of reforms for individual rights and equality,” said the commission’s report. “It is a precedent for Tunisia in its geographic and civilisational environment that has no equivalent in the countries that share with it the same cultural and civilisational identity and background.”

The 200-page document recommends changing all laws that do not protect citizens equally, regardless of religion, social status, gender or sexual orientation. Among the proposed reforms are equal inheritance rights for women, decriminalising homosexuality and abolishing the death penalty.

“Our work is completed. It belongs now to the Tunisian people and Tunisian society. It is up to the president of the republic to select from its proposals or add other ideas to advance the process of reforms in Tunisia,” said Bochra Belhaj Hmida, a women’s rights activist and parliament member who was chairwoman of the committee.

The group was set up by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi last August after he proposed groundbreaking women’s rights reforms. Caid Essebsi was the first Arab leader to publicly advocate equal inheritance rights for women.

This provoked a strong backlash from Islamic clerics and traditionalists who say such a provision would violate Islamic law as defined in the Quran.

Rights activists and progressives, however, said Tunisia’s inheritance law should no longer favour men, given that women contribute significantly to the country’s economy and family earnings. They cite instances of women who are their family’s breadwinners and support their ageing parents and younger siblings.

“Tunisia is today living a watershed moment in history,” presidential spokeswoman Saida Garrach said at a news conference. “We had developed general and collective freedoms as we are building a democracy. Now we turn to the rights of individuals and equality.

“These are the new milestones to complete the Tunisian national project. The report will be the subject of a broad debate in the society without Takfir [charges of apostasy] and anarchy.”

The commission’s proposals are predicated on the belief that individual rights and freedoms should be absolute. “The individual freedom is a right of the individual per se,” said the commission’s report. “That means the right enjoyed by the individual to express his singularity without restoring to another person.”

However, this goes against conservative norms, including the view that religious precepts should help inform the law. The committee, mindful of such views, cited Quranic verses to support its positions but said the constitution and international human rights laws were the basis for its recommendation.

The report focused on portions of the constitution, including Article 2, which states: “Tunisia is a state of a civil character based on citizenship, the will of the people and the rule of law.” However, the panel appeared to shy away from an article that affirms “the state is the guardian of the religion.”

That article says: “The state commits itself to the dissemination of the values of moderation and tolerance and to the protection of the sacred and the prohibition of any offence thereto. It commits itself, equally, to the prohibition of, and the fight against, appeals to Takfir and incitement to violence and hatred.”

Abdelmajid Charfi, an expert in Islamic studies who was a member of the committee, said: “We are inspired by the Islamic reformation in Tunisia that goes back to 19th century. We want to pursue such a reformist path.

“Islamic societies do not need religious intermediaries to tell them what to do. We are of the view that a society has to continually reassess to adapt to the needs of change in the framework of Maqasid al Islam (the underlying purposes of Islamic laws and tenets).”

“Our approach was progressive,” said committee member Slaheddine Jourchi, a noted liberal Islamic intellectual. “We went step-by-step, stage-by-stage out of respect for the Tunisian society.”

He said the commission met with Islamic scholars to ensure there was “respect for the principle of dialogue” and that more than 80 rounds of discussions and workshops took place with civil society representatives, experts and government officials.

Despite its reform-minded vision, the committee appeared open to compromising with more conservative factions. For example, the report’s authors proposed a law that would ensure equality in inheritance between men and women but left room for a provision that would allow those who oppose the rule to divide their wealth as they see fit.

12