Documents on Democracy

Issue Date July 2001
Volume 12
Issue 3
Page Numbers 183-88
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On March 20, a remarkably eloquent statement calling for a transition to democracy in Tunisia was issued by 93 leading Tunisian intellectuals. Entitled “Tunisia 2004: Manifesto of Progressive Tunisian Democrats,” the document was distributed through direct contact and e-mail. Copies were also sent to all the major newspapers in Tunisia, but none published it. Portions of the document appeared in two Arab newspapers printed in London, Al-Hayat and Al-Sharq al-Awsat. Excerpts, translated from the French, appear below:

1. In the past few years, Tunisia has fallen into a grave political and moral crisis characterized by two main features: the negation of politics and the privatization of the state. . . .

2. Politics, the high art of regulating the conflict and consensus that are part of living together, is now prohibited. The current regime is undergoing an unprecedented drift toward absolute personal power taken to the extreme; demagogic populism that infantilizes the masses and the elite; the stripping away of all substance from constitutional, political, and professional institutions to the point where they become docile instruments of the power of one man; and the stifling of civil society. These are all harbingers of extreme danger.

The expression of disagreement is banished, freedoms are confiscated, radio and television are monopolized, and political commentary is muzzled. The government press, a propaganda machine aimed at glorifying the leader, is increasingly used to support the vilification of opponents and dissidents. Recognized political parties are made into satellites or marginalized, and any others are systematically repressed. The few associations that represent civil society are targeted for perpetual harassment. Political activists and especially human rights advocates regularly wind up in court. They are imprisoned and, at times, physically attacked. Their houses are broken into, their goods ransacked, and their telephone lines cut. In certain cases, repression even strikes members of [End Page 183] their families. Some are forced into exile. Torture is routinely practiced in police stations, the premises of the Ministry of the Interior, and prisons.

As for citizens, they are consumed by fear and terror. They find themselves caught in the net of a vast surveillance apparatus: police sting operations, “units of the R.C.D.,” “district committees,” phone-tappings, and postal controls. If they refuse to succumb, they run the risk of unemployment (if salaried) and of abusive tax reprisals if they are industrialists, artisans, merchants, or members of the professions. . . .

This inexorable drift toward the rule of lawlessness is dramatic. The new “rules” that govern in the place of politics lie deep within the fortress-regime. At the helm of the state, docile bureaucrats with no point of view other than that of the president are being recruited. The only prevailing rule in dealing with all other political tendencies is “He who is not with me is against me.” And the only means of settling political disagreements alternate between psychological pressure, physical coercion, and financial punishment. Opposition to the regime is considered treason, signifying the confusion between the general interest of the nation and the personal interests of the rulers.

Under such conditions, rational public debate based on freedom and mutual respect is nonexistent.

3. Today, the rule of lawlessness is extending its influence to all fields. Its institutions, whether they attend to the maintenance of “order” (administration, police, and justice) or circulate its propaganda in the guise of “information,” are enlisted and implicated on a grand scale in a vast enterprise of private appropriation, the privatization of the state.

The confusion between the function of the head of state and the person holding the office originated with the charismatic rule of Habib Bourguiba, a leader who could claim a historic legitimacy, overestimated but nonetheless real. Unfortunately, in complete contradiction to the republican spirit, it led to a paternalistic management of political power. Today, another shift has occurred: paternalistic power has been replaced by patrimonial power; a father jealously guarding his children has been succeeded by a son jealously guarding his property–Tunisia. This “privatization” of the state has meant that the public sphere has gone from being governed by authoritarian but institutional management to being governed by the whims, moods, influence, and interests of private and informal circles linked to the Palace.

It is high time we restore to politics its dignity and to the state its public and impersonal character. In short, it is time to return the state to the state. . . .

5. . . . The drafters of the Constitution instituted a clear separation of powers. In practice, however, the president controls parliament through his party. The candidates of the ruling party, whose regional administration guarantees their election with a majority of 99 percent of the vote, are chosen by the political bureau chaired by the head of state. [End Page 184]

The judiciary is not independent either. First of all, the principle that protects magistrates from dismissal has never been upheld. Judges can be silenced at any time. Moreover, their career is determined by a higher board within the magistrature, the majority of whose members are appointed by the executive. As a result, although the Constitution proclaims that justice is independent, this assertion does not correspond to reality.

The Constitution guarantees all the fundamental public liberties, and the law ostensibly does nothing more than determine how they are to be exercised. Thus in theory we are free to publish books and newspapers and import them from abroad. They are not subject either to censorship or to prior authorization, but simply to a registration of copyright. This applies to all printed matter, even a simple election poster. The same goes for public meetings and the establishment of associations and political parties. Yet the political authorities have invented administrative obstacles that succeed in blocking the exercise of all these liberties.

7. . . . There is no freedom anymore. The police, whose manpower has been substantially increased, are all-powerful and omnipresent.

8. A radical change is necessary. Restoring dignity to politics and returning to the rule of law imply a modification in our vision of politics and a genuine reform of the functioning of the state and its institutions. Tunisia is in urgent need of such a change for three fundamental reasons.

The first, which needs to be emphatically reaffirmed, is that the country for whose independence many of its best children sacrificed their lives is for all our people to share. In this spirit, no one (however ingenious), no party (whatever its legitimacy or past history), no clan (however powerful), and a fortiori no family has the right to turn this common property, bequeathed by the dead to the living, into a private inheritance. Thus the future of Tunisia, for which it is our duty to be concerned, is a collective responsibility for which we will all be held accountable by future generations.

The second reason is to remind us all that political conflicts should be resolved peacefully, through political means. It is unacceptable to continue resolving them through courts, imprisonment, torture, insults, harassment, and coercion. Since independence, our leaders have adopted the unfortunate habit of settling political conflicts by illegitimate force. In the past, the targets were the Youssefites, the left, and the trade unionists. Today, they are the Islamists and the democrats.

The third reason is that, now more than ever, legitimacy cannot be acquired by force, by manipulating the rules of the game, or by contempt for the people; it can be acquired only by free and transparent elections. The world has changed. It is time to quench our people’s thirst for democracy, pluralism, liberty, and justice. Anchored in its millennial history, Tunisia, just as the founders of the Republic had envisaged, is now a modern country and is open to the world. These are the basic [End Page 185] conditions for its progress and well-being. The founders relied on a real patriotic legitimacy in order to take more power than was necessary. Today, this legitimacy has been worn out and used up, despite the ritual of invoking their heroic struggle. Unanimity in politics is a hoax invented by tyranny and contrary to human nature, which is intrinsically free, diverse, and resistant to all forms of permanent allegiance.

9. Tunisia is a country whose people are open and tolerant. It possesses a large middle class, and thanks to the efforts of its citizens, it is undergoing significant economic expansion, but it is in urgent need of a democratic transition. We hope that such a transition will be peacefully negotiated, as this is the only way to deliver us from the current impasse and to save the country, which has run out of patience, from desperately falling into a state of uncontrollable violence that would destroy all its gains. Endowed with a highly educated elite, Tunisia possesses the social structure and intellectual resources necessary to remain faithful to its tradition of openness, reform, and constitutionalism.

11. . . . There are moments of great significance in the history of nations, and a people that is not able to seize and take advantage of them enters a long period of regression. Today, Tunisia, which is witnessing the final constitutional term of the sitting president, stands at a crossroads. If the heavy hand of repression is not lifted, we will move toward an additional presidential term, which will in effect open the way to a presidency for life, something that Tunisia has already experienced and that will surely lead it into more painful and dramatic circumstances. If, on the other hand, under the pressure of patriotic forces, reason ultimately prevails, Tunisians will be in a position to offer their children a country in which they will be delivered from fear and from tyranny, a country where they will be able to give free rein to their generosity and their creative energies.

The Americas

On April 21-22 in Quebec City, Canada, 34 leaders of the Western Hemisphere assembled for the third Summit of the Americas meeting. At the close of the summit, the leaders signed the Declaration of Quebec City, which includes a commitment not only to free trade but also to democracy in the region. Excerpts appear below:

1. We, the democratically elected Heads of State and Government of the Americas, have met in Quebec City at our Third Summit, to renew our commitment to hemispheric integration and national and collective responsibility for improving the economic well-being and security of our people. We have adopted a Plan of Action to strengthen representative democracy, promote good governance and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. We seek to create greater prosperity and expand [End Page 186] economic opportunities while fostering social justice and the realization of human potential. . . .

5. We acknowledge that the values and practices of democracy are fundamental to the advancement of all our objectives. The maintenance and strengthening of the rule of law and strict respect for the democratic system are, at the same time, a goal and a shared commitment and are an essential condition of our presence at this and future Summits. Consequently, any unconstitutional alteration or interruption of the democratic order in a state of the Hemisphere constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to the participation of that state’s government in the Summit of the Americas process. Having due regard for existing hemispheric, regional and subregional mechanisms, we agree to conduct consultations in the event of a disruption of the democratic system of a country that participates in the Summit process. . . .

19. Democracy and economic and social development are interdependent and mutually reinforcing as fundamental conditions to combat poverty and inequality. We will spare no effort to free our fellow citizens from the dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty. We commit to further efforts to reach international development goals, especially the reduction by 50% by the year 2015 of the proportion of people living in extreme poverty.


On March 20, Jorge Castañeda, Mexico’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, presented his country’s new human rights agenda to the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. The following are excerpts from his address:

I have come to this forum with the mandate of my government and of the Mexican people to express Mexico’s new commitment to respecting and . . . ensuring the respect for human rights throughout the world. . . . I am here on behalf of a new Mexico. . . .

For Mexico, the protection of human rights is a universal value, and both an individual and collective obligation of States. As such, we do not share any views which attempt to justify its nonobservance. I would like to briefly mention some such views, and to state our reasons for rejecting them.

It has been said that the defense and furtherance of human rights are a matter pertinent to the internal affairs of each country, which should not be subject to outside scrutiny. Mexico does not share this opinion and categorically asserts that human rights constitute values that are both absolute and universal. By virtue of being absolute, they cannot be conditioned by anyone. They are neither internal nor external–they are human. We are firmly convinced that the exercise of sovereignty cannot [End Page 187] be used as an excuse to justify any violation of rights which, owing to their fundamental and transcendental nature, take precedence over it. Under no circumstances whatsoever can sovereignty ever be used to inhumane ends, therefore, neither can it be utilised by a State against the fundamental rights of its citizens or of any individual within the boundaries of that sovereignty. . . .

We likewise discard the view that human rights reflect western values and, as such, should not be enforced in societies with different traditions and cultures. Human rights are as much the result of history as they are universal. Though conceived in the western world, they are nonetheless universal values because they recognize every individual as a full-fledged and rightful member of the human race. As a country of cultures both diverse and ancient, Mexico is no stranger to the complex coexistence of the different ways of life and thinking that exist in any plural society. Although we acknowledge the influence of historical, cultural, and religious conditions, as well as political differences, in the day-to-day lives of each particular society, this does not justify the violation of rights which are fundamental.

Pacific Islands

In October 2000, the 16 nations and territories composing the Pacific Islands Forum (formerly the South Pacific Forum) adopted the Biketawa Declaration, which provides guidelines for managing political and security crises in the region and protecting democratic processes and institutions. Excerpts appear below:

In the interests of regional cooperation, Forum Leaders while respecting the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of another member state, committed themselves and their countries to a number of guiding principles and courses of actions:

(i) Commitment to a good governance which is the exercise of authority (leadership) and interactions in a manner that is open, transparent, accountable, participatory, consultive and decisive but fair and equitable.

(ii) Belief in the liberty of the individual under the law, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender, race, colour, creed or political belief and in the individual’s inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political process in framing the society in which he or she lives.

(iii) Upholding democratic processes and institutions which reflect national and local circumstances, including the peaceful transfer of power, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, just and honest government.