Academic community concerned over human rights violations

The student community in Tunisia is calling on all “national and progressive forces” to unite their efforts to confront police repression and the violation of citizens’ dignity, freedom and social justice.

Houssem Bougherra, the secretary general of the General Union of Tunisian Students (GUTS), made the call in a statement issued on 8 September.

Bougherra said: “GUTS is following with great concern the recent violations … in an economic and social context marked by severe crisis and the deterioration of living standards. This statement is in line with recent reports published by Amnesty International and the World Bank.”

Tunisian President Kais Saied has been accused of weakening safeguards for human rights since consolidating power on 25 July 2021 and Tunisian authorities have targeted prominent critics and perceived enemies of the president, according to Amnesty International’s July 2022 report, Tunisia: A year of human rights regression since President’s power-grab.

As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, the war in Ukraine, and the lack of economic reforms, Tunisia suffers from high inflation, a trade and budget deficit and public debt alongside a lack of foreign exchange reserves, according to a 7 September World Bank Tunisia Economic Monitor titled ‘Navigating the Crisis during Uncertain Times’.

In August 2022, the Tunisian government and the main trade unions, led by the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), reached an agreement to begin negotiations on the economic reforms requested by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in exchange for its support and the release of a new loan of €4 billion (US$3.9 billion), according to press news.

Youth ready for change

“As the student movement is an integral part of the popular movement, GUTS is expressing concern about the seriousness of the tense social situation,” Bougherra said.

“GUTS is also condemning the arbitrary arrest of researcher and journalist Ghassan bin Khalifa in flagrant violation of the procedural and formal conditions imposed by law, and demanding his immediate release and holding the current authority, headed by the president of the Republic, responsible for his physical and psychological safety and what will happen to him,” Bougherra pointed out.

According to the 2022 report titled Tunisia: Youth take a stand for or against the president’s decisions and watch in limbo, regardless of what the future holds for the country in Saied’s new system, Tunisian youth have proved, like in 2011, that they want real change and can spearhead grassroots engagement to push for it.

Youth, including students, were instrumental in the Tunisian uprising, also known as the ‘Jasmine Revolution’, for which social and economic difficulties were key drivers and which resulted in the overthrow of long-time Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and unleashed the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 across North Africa, including in Egypt and Libya.

Declarations on freedom

Professor Kwadwo Appiagyei-Atua of the School of Law at the University of Ghana, told University World News, the events in Tunisia are reminiscent of the late 1980s and early 1990s when Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) were introduced in many African countries, which led to tension between the IMF and the state, on the one hand, and the citizenry, including academics and students, on the other.

“Until then, academics and students felt insulated on the campus and had a weak connection to the sufferings in the larger society,” Appiagyei-Atua said.

“However, the harsh economic measures captured in the SAP and applied through the denial of basic rights and freedoms by the state led to double-stroke violations against the citizenry, finally resulting in the adoption of the 1990 Dar es Salaam Declaration on Academic Freedom and Social Responsibility of Academics and the 1990 Kampala Declaration on Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility,” Appiagyei-Atua added.

Both declarations condemned the harsh economic policies and the accompanying human rights violations and invited academics to take gown to town to fight on the side of the masses for their rights and democracy, said Appiagyei-Atua.

From gown to town

Appiagyei-Atua pointed out that students have to act. He said that is what he also postulated in his “articles ‘The composite theory: An African contribution to the academic freedom discourse’ and ‘Students’ academic freedom in African universities and democratic enhancement’.

“Thus, an important ingredient of academic freedom in the African context is how members of the academic community, which includes students, can utilise their freedoms on the campus, which are relatively better than what [one] obtains in the society, to spread larger freedoms in the larger society for the greater good of society,” Appiagyei-Atua added.