NAIROBI, Kenya, 28 January 2007
In the white tent of the African Forum, I run into Souhayr Belhassen. Souhayr is vice-president for the Tunisian Human Rights League, and also serves as vice-president of the FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights).
During the preparations leading up to the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS) held in Tunis in November 2005, and at the Summit itself, the Tunisian government targeted non-governmental organisations (NGOs) time and again.
Access to many websites was blocked, and freedom of expression repressed both in the physical and virtual space. So I am curious to hear how the situation has been since the Summit closed down, and the international community left the country.
In a press release dated January 23 2007, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEXs) monitoring group on Tunisia, which was set up during the WSIS process, states that things have not improved in the past year. The group is asking the new UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, to remind the Tunisian government of its international human rights obligations. Not least the obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Tunisia is a party.
One of the well-known Tunisian internet cases concerns the Tunisian writer and lawyer, Mohammed Abbou, who has been in prison since 2005 serving a three-and-a-half year sentence for writing critically about president Ben Ali in an article posted online. A number of international media and human rights groups have continuously called for his unconditional release, but so far without any success.
“The situation has gotten worse and worse, since the Summit. I think we are being punished for WSIS. It’s hardly possible for us to work anymore. A large number of sites are being blocked, email is not working, phones are cut off, NGOs are harassed, and meetings are prevented from taking place. How can you work under these circumstances?” asks Souhayr.
“The Tunisian Human Rights League tried to hold its Annual General Assembly a few weeks back, but it was not possible. When we arrived for the meeting, there was police all over. They blocked the office and forced us away. They are basically destroying all our means of communication, and neither national nor local offices are able to carry out basic tasks anymore,” explains the outspoken human rights advocate.
Souhayr is loosing hope that change will ever happen in Tunisia. And the fact that hope is dying is actually the worst part, she stresses. “I don’t believe much in change anymore, and much of the NGO activity and critical opposition, which was vocal during the WSIS process, is now silent.”
I ask whether she thinks that the international NGOs (and the international community more generally) have failed to follow up on post-WSIS Tunisia.
”I understand that there are many human rights issues to address around the world, and Tunisia is just one country. I would like to have more cooperation with the many friends and organisations we worked with during WSIS, but at this moment, it will have to be outside Tunisia. It’s not possible to work there now. Not on human rights issues,” Souhayr concludes.
In April of this year, Souhayr is running for the FIDH presidency against a Columbian candidate. If she wins, it will be the first time the FIDH has a female president.