One of the greatest challenges for transformative change in times of political transition is the addressing not only of histories of acts of violence, but also those of structural violence, where power relations are manifest through the systematic and collective violation of social and economic rights. In many contexts, we see marginalised populations being systematically excluded from development and often denied full participation in social, economic and political life. Transitional justice as a discourse and practice has always struggled to address such impacts, challenged by violations that don’t fit into a framework that is driven by the identification of individual victims and perpetrators, and mechanisms promising truth, accountability and reparations.
The recently formed Instance de la Vérité et Dignité (IVD, Commission for Truth and Dignity) in Tunisia will have to confront exactly such challenges. Whilst the Commission itself is formed very much in the tradition of previous commissions of ‘truth and reconciliation’, in the Tunisian context it has to seek to address the broad range of demands that the revolution made, including not just truth but the threats to dignity including issues such as the lack of graduate jobs and the often extreme geographical inequalities that came to define Tunisia under the Ben Ali regime. In this sense, any justice that the political transition delivers must include not just accountability for the violations of political oppression, but also a social, economic and geographical justice. To address the issue of the collective and structural violence of social exclusion, the IVD has a unique weapon: for the first time in the history of truth commissions, the concept of a collective victim has been defined:
The term “victim” means any person who suffered harm following a violation as stipulated by this Act, be they individuals, groups of individuals or a corporation. […] This definition includes any area that has been marginalized or excluded methodically. (Organic law on Transitional Justice; translation by author)
What exactly this means in terms of both the work of the Commission and – more importantly – its transformative potential for regions and populations that have been systematically marginalised is unclear. The implication is that the way other truth commissions have interacted with victims – receiving testimony, writing histories of victimization, and recommending reparative approaches – can be replicated, with the community as a collective victim. The potential that such a process can catalyse transformation is clear. In contexts where transitional justice processes have failed to address structural violence, transitional politics have focused on processes of democratization, emphasising elections, and institutional processes of truth and trials. The Tunisian revolution has seen new issues put centre stage, including that of corruption, use (and abuse) of natural resources, and how national income is distributed across the nation.
In Gafsa, where phosphate mining has destroyed the environment and the health of local populations and yet seen little infrastructure built in the region, the diagnostic lens of the IVD applied to the substantial resources found in the region can potentially provide the foundation for a new relationship between the Tunisian state and residents. In the north-west, where armed Islamists are exploiting the poverty and hopelessness of a population who see themselves as second class citizens, the results of uneven development are clear to see. Writing the histories of such regions in a way that permits consideration of alternative approaches is essential. More than this, the reporting of the IVD can provide a foundation for a policy of transformative reparations, with the role of acknowledging past exclusion, committing the state to non-repetition, and instituting development that reverses such violations. The socio-political role of reparations is to challenge the denial of past crimes and demonstrate that a new regime both recognises violations of the past and is committed to the respect of human rights in the future. The idea of reparations as restitution is however troubling to those from the poorest communities who do not seek a return to the poverty and inequality that preceded the revolution. Transformative reparation offers the prospect of distributive justice additional to the rectificatory focus of transitional justice.
To maximize their impact requires that reparations look at harms done and the structures underpinning such harms, and understand that the role of reparations in unequal societies is to transform the circumstances of poor and marginalised victims and in so doing address injustice. Among the challenges facing reparations to the collective victims identified in Tunisia’s Transitional Justice Law is to define the difference between reparations and the requirement that a state deliver basic services. Whilst communities may not care what label infrastructure spending comes with, reparative project funding cannot occur in the absence of a comprehensive development policy, but must accompany and shape it. This demonstrates how the needs of communities for reparation can serve to drive progressive transformation of the Tunisian state, addressing not just what enabled violations, but to change the social relations and exclusion that resulted from the Ben Ali years. In this sense reparation, particularly at the community level apparently envisaged in the organic law, can serve a broader socio-political role.
To use the Transitional Justice law’s definition of collective victims to transform both the state’s approach to traditionally disadvantaged regions and the lives of those who live in them faces huge challenges. But the acknowledgement of such collective violations is already a step further than has been seen in other states in political transition. Tunisia’s IVD has the opportunity to create a precedent that could be a model for efforts to ensure that truth commissions have a role to play in addressing legacies of social and economic exclusion.