On January 23, Tunisia celebrated the 172nd anniversary of the abolition of slavery, reminding many people that it was the first Arab society to do so. The country is making history again with a draft law that, if passed, would criminalize racial prejudice, the first law of its kind in North Africa.
The work behind Tunisia’s pioneering law against racial discrimination began after the uprising in 2010–2011, which inspired black Tunisians, sub-Saharan African migrants, and their allies in civil society to push for legislation to end almost two centuries of de facto social and economic racial discrimination.
Race has long been a challenging issue in Tunisia, with the country’s pre-2011 leaders—Habib Bourguiba and Zine al-Abidine ben Ali—largely ignoring the matter in the name of national unity. Under Bourguiba, the model of universal education, secularization, and a move toward Arabization and nationalism was hailed in Western countries as a success. However, it hid an ugly reality of systemic discrimination against minorities—including indigenous Berbers.
In 2011, emboldened by the Tunisian uprising’s promises of restoring dignity and equality to the victims of the previous regimes, black Tunisians came out into the public sphere, seeking fair treatment and an end to racism. A movement began in social media to draw attention to the reality of racism against blacks, before traditional media outlets also started shedding light on the phenomenon.
In the years after the uprising, protests were held to denounce racism and attacks against both black Tunisians and Sub-Saharan Africans residing in Tunisia. Black Tunisians began publicly asking for an end to what they called the “silent racism” of which they had been the victims for decades. However, this was met with strong opposition from the mainstream population, who denounced the fight against racism as deflecting attention away from more pressing issues, above all Tunisia’s economic problems. Party activists from the far-left, particularly those with Arab nationalist leanings, accused the protesters of sowing discord in society. Some Tunisians issued a flat denial that racism against blacks existed. Only then did blacks realize that their battle for full citizenship and equality would need to move from the streets to parliament.
At the time, several organizations opposed to racial discrimination had been established in the country, such as the Association for Equality and Development (ADAM) and Minorités in 2011 and M’nemty in 2013. These organizations participated in marches, events, and seminars, with the collaboration of other human rights organizations and international nongovernmental organizations, as well as the United Nations. Their efforts bore fruit when, on December 26, 2016, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, at the National Conference Against Racial Discrimination, authorized the preparation of a draft law criminalizing racial discrimination and protecting its victims. This was the first time that a senior Tunisian official had expressed such support.
Although there are no provisions in the 2014 Constitution explicitly prohibiting racial discrimination, the draft law prepared by civil society organizations expanded upon several of its chapters, including Chapter 21 on equality before the law, Chapter 23 on human dignity and physical integrity, and Chapter 47 on state protection of all children without distinction.
In addition to defining, and criminalizing, a discriminatory act as any act of discrimination based on race, color, or descent as stipulated in ratified international treaties, the draft law includes measures to eliminate racial discrimination in education, culture, and media. It imposes penalties of one to three years in prison and a fine of between TND1,000 ($416) and TND3,000 ($1,250) for anyone who commits an act or makes a statement with the aim of expressing contempt for or degrading a person’s dignity.
The state is mandated to adopt policies to prevent and respond to practices of racial discrimination. This is particularly important given the recurring incidents of race-based attacks against blacks in Tunisia. Civil society has thus called for more positive portrayals of blacks in media, and an increased presence of blacks in educational institutions and decisionmaking positions.
The state is also required to take measures that facilitate the victims’ recourse to justice. It must also combat impunity in the case of racist attacks and provide the necessary training for members of the judiciary, as well as penitentiary officers, in implementing the law. The draft emphasizes the right of victims to have access to legal protection and health, psychological, and social services, as well as their right to just and proportionate compensation for acts of discrimination. It also provides for the establishment of a national committee against racial discrimination to collect relevant data and propose strategies.
The draft law, which was transferred to parliament on January 23, is currently being debated and is expected to pass, according to Jamila Debbech Kskisi, a parliamentarian who has endorsed it. The minister in charge of human rights, Mehdi Ben Gharbia, was more specific, saying he hoped the draft law would be approved before March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Passage would represent a big victory for black Tunisians and Sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia. They have worked hand in hand with Tunisian civil society organizations, including M’nemty, Minorités, and the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (Forum Tunisien des Droits Économiques et Sociaux). The aim has been to highlight the law’s importance and draw attention to students who have been facing administrative hurdles, particularly in obtaining residency permits, as well as discrimination and physical abuse.
Through its work on campaigning against race-based discrimination, Tunisian civil society, policymakers, and international organizations have laid the cornerstone for a legal text that will consolidate the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, which Tunisia signed in 1967 but failed to implement because of official reluctance at the time to acknowledge discrimination. Additionally, there is hope that the law to criminalize racial discrimination will reverberate regionally, with social, political, and rights-based implications across the Arab world.
The draft law is only the latest of several pieces of progressive legislation being discussed today and that address social taboos. Included in this legislation are draft laws fighting gender-based violence, pushing for equal inheritance rights, and allowing Tunisian women to marry non-Muslims. While such pioneering legislation represents an important step forward, Tunisian society still faces other challenges. These include the acceptance of the rights of other minority groups, such as the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community or Tunisian converts to Christianity. Criminalizing discrimination against these groups could be the next legal battle for Tunisian rights groups and civil society organizations.