Tunisians forbidden to contact EU

Al-bab says that Tunisia’s parliament has approved a law which will criminalise human rights activists and others who make contact with “foreign organisations” with the aim of harming the country’s “vital interests and its economic security”. Offenders face up to five years’ jail in peacetime or 12 years in wartime.

The new measure – in the form of an amendment to Article 61a of the penal code – seems to be directed at one “foreign organisation” in particular: the EU. Tunisia is currently seeking “advanced status” with the EU, which among other things would give it preferential trade terms. Various local and international groups have been lobbying against this, on the grounds that Tunisia should improve its human rights performance first. Towards the end of April, representatives from several independent Tunisian NGOs (LTDH, ATFD, CNLT, CRLDHT, FTCR and OLPEC) visited Madrid to lobby to the Spanish presidency:

The purpose of our advocacy mission was to show EU officials that the advanced status claimed by Tunisia in its partnership with the EU should not be given as a reward for dictatorship. Tunisia should devote its efforts to making real progress on its human rights performance and respect for the rule of law, which have seen serious setbacks recently. The lobby was a routine activity, one that followed similar efforts within the Euromed partnership, as enshrined in the Association Agreements signed between the EU and Tunisia in 1998.

The EU, of course, was not unaware of the problem. Responding to Tunisia’s “advanced status” application last March, the EU commissioner responsible for the Tunisia file wrote:

Clearly, the very concept of “advanced status” implies a higher level of ambition in setting common objectives. This level of ambition must apply to all areas: political relations, economic development, trade and investment, social reform, cooperation in justice and freedom, and sectoral cooperation on the economy, energy, and elsewhere. But it must also apply to human rights and the rule of law.

On 11 May, the EU-Tunisia Association Council met in Brussels to explore the application further and issued a statement urging the Tunisian government “to intensify its efforts towards reforms, particularly in terms of pluralism and democratic participation, independence of justice, freedom of expression and association and protection of human rights defenders”.

Apparently infuriated by this, just over a week later, the Tunisian cabinet decided to rush through an amendment to the penal code aimed at preventing any further lobbying by Tunisians. The activists who made representations to the EU have been denounced locally as “traitors” and the regime has hinted that it will hold them responsible if the “advanced status” talks fail.

In remarks quoted by Human Rights Watch, the Tunisian justice minister, Lazhar Bououni, said the prohibition against “harming Tunisia’s vital interests” will be interpreted to include “inciting foreign parties not to grant loans to Tunisia, not to invest in the country, to boycott tourism or to sabotage Tunisia’s efforts to obtain advanced partner status with the European Union”.

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