Tunisian NGOs face conflicting challenges of accountability and preserving freedom

Official sources say there are about 19,000 active and licensed associations in Tunisia.
Monday 06/08/2018
A young Tunisian activist waves her national flag during a forum in Tunis. (AFP) 
Who is pulling the strings? A young Tunisian activist waves her national flag during a forum in Tunis. (AFP) 

TUNIS - Tunisia’s government is adamant about holding nongovernmental organisations accountable to transparency standards within the framework of Tunis’s war on corruption.

The Tunisian Ministry for Relations with the Constitutional Institutions, Civil Society and Human Rights is preparing amendments to the fundamental law regulating civil society organisations. The Tunisian Parliament passed a bill creating a National Registry of Enterprises, based on a draft bill submitted by the Ministry of Justice, which covers NGOs. The government said it aims to reinforce transparency and the fight against terrorism and money laundering.

Even before its adoption, the measure angered NGOs and civil society organisations. More than 20 associations signed a declaration calling the new law unconstitutional and expressing their refusal to accept it.

The NGOs said the law violates provisions of Chapter 65 of the Tunisian Constitution, which stipulates that NGOs should be regulated by fundamental laws rather than executive orders. They spoke of a “profound concern about the restraining character of the law, which goes against the spirit of freedom guaranteed by the constitution and international conventions signed by Tunisia.”

The NGOs called on the parliament to pay closer attention to recommendations by the Financial Action Task Force and international partners that expressed concern about the restrictive nature of the new law and charge it limits freedoms in the name of combating money laundering and terrorism.

They said they fear the law would discourage people from becoming involved in civil society work and would negatively affect the balancing role of NGOs. They expressed their strong anxiety about “the growing number of legislative initiatives by various ministries to limit the role of NGOs and bring them under [government] control.”

The NGOs had opposed other efforts by the Tunisian Ministry for Relations with the Constitutional Institutions, Civil Society and Human Rights to change the legal framework for associative work in Tunisia, which was introduced in 2011. The ministry argued that its goals were “to better manage public funding of NGOs and strengthen the transparency of their finances and management.”

Before it was adopted, some political circles in Tunisia considered the NGOs’ petition as a form of lobbying to escape oversight.

Nidaa Tounes party member Oussama Khlifi said on his Facebook page that “the new thing in the law is the inclusion of NGOs among the economic entities which are subject to oversight and accountability. Those mechanisms weren’t in place before and that had given the opportunity to many associations to serve as fronts for tax evasion and money laundering while many others have become spying rings with access to state institutions under different guises.”

About a year ago, the Tunisian government began an anti-corruption campaign, arresting several businessmen on smuggling charges, among them was the well-known business figure Chafik Jarraya. Addressing parliament during a special session July 27, Tunisian Minister of Justice Ghazi Jribi said the National Registry of Enterprises Bill would serve the efforts in the war on corruption, implement transparency and counter terrorism and money laundering.

Many charities and religious associations were created after the fall of the Ben Ali regime. A few years later, those NGOs were accused of being fronts for financing extremist organisations and for recruiting thousands of young Tunisians to fight in wars in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

Official sources say there are about 19,000 active and licensed associations in Tunisia. Last year, the Tunisian authorities declared that 175 associations were suspected of terrorist connections. At the time, Secretary-General of the Government Ahmed Zarrouk said his department had requested in December 2015 the suspension of many associations because of “numerous irregularities related essentially to their finances and the donations they had received.”

Observers pointed out that the National Registry of Enterprises Bill was part of Tunisia’s efforts to be taken off the European Union’s blacklist. Last February, the European Parliament voted to include Tunisia in a roster of countries accused of being tax havens or likely sites of money laundering and financing terrorism.