Tunisia's truth commission is working through human rights abuses. But given disputes among members and a skeptical media, it’s a challenging task. Consultations are helping the commission overcome hurdles.
The Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission, officially known by its French title, Instance Vérité et Dignité, was launched in December 2014 as an independent institution to guide the country during its transition to democracy. The commission's mandate is to investigate crimes committed under the former dictatorship, hold perpetrators to account and rehabilitate those who were imprisoned, mistreated or tortured. It's an enormous task in itself but the commission's working environment is equally challenging. The media often chooses to focus on disputes within the commission, fighting among political opponents and personal animosities rather than on the commission's task at hand.
Klaudia Pape is DW Akademie'e project manager for media training in Tunisia. She is part of a DW Akademie team of consultants and trainers that has been coaching and advising commission members since early 2016. The project is being carried out on behalf on Germany's Federal Foreign Office.
DW Akademie: What role does the commission play for ordinary Tunisians?
Klaudia Pape: The commission has a huge task, especially because it's still not clear whether the country will manage the transition to a constitutional democracy. Those who suffered under the dictatorship expect justice and compensation and not just in the material sense. More than anything, they want their suffering to be recognized, their dignity restored and light shed on Tunisia's past. The commission is in the spotlight and people have high expectations. Our job is to guide commission members as they face the challenges.
What type of support are you offering?
We conduct training and consulting sessions that range from classic TV media training to how to develop a communications strategy. We advise members on how to appear in public as a team with clear messages supported by everyone at the commission. We are also working with commission members on how to professionally handle queries from the media and civil society and how to optimize procedures.
Trust is a crucial factor here but how do you develop that trust?
Continuity is important but this has been a problem for the [commission]. Some members have left the commission, others have joined and communication is patchy, so it's difficult to establish trust. But if the commission is to carry out its mandate, it needs to gain acceptance and support. It can do this if it offers clear and consistent messages in order for the public to understand the importance of the commission's mandate. Communication is crucial to do this.
How would you describe the relationship between the commission vis à vis the press and the public?
The commission needs to overcome a number of obstacles. There are political and financial groups, for example, that are not at all interested in bringing to light previous atrocities. For its part, Tunisia's media tends to zero in on topics like conflicts between commission members, which means that the commission's press conferences focus more on the difficulties than on coming to terms with the past and reconciliation. This has a negative effect on the public.
How does one prevent this?
We're advising the commission on how to resolve internal disputes as quickly as possible so that they do not distract from the commission's overall goal. We're also advising them on how to position their topics at press conferences, issue press releases and write statements so that they can put their work on the media’s agenda.
This has been quite successful in the past several weeks. At a recent book fair, for example, the commission organized an event where victims' stories were discussed at length.
The commission has a four-year mandate and is now at the halfway point. What has it achieved so far and what still needs to be done?
The commission has taken on more than 62,000 case files. Victims of the dictatorship were all asked to come forward and recount the injustices they had suffered. Commission members often used mobile offices because they were the only way to reach people living in rural areas. Members traveled throughout the country, introducing the commission's task and encouraging people to file their complaints. Many were hesitant to talk, especially women who had been raped and tortured. The fact that they did talk, were listened to and taken seriously was an important step. Getting financial compensation for the victims was another aspect, as well.
The commission is currently focusing on public hearings. Members say that if Tunisia is to become a democratic society, people first need to understand how the dictatorship functioned in order for this never to happen again.