By Navi Pillay
The Tunisian revolution, begun just 10 months ago by young people determined to take the future of their country into their own hands, has inspired both young and old throughout the region — and beyond — to become aware of, and call for, their rights.
We are still in the very early stages of this wider regional ‘revolution,’ whose future is uncertain and may take many years to fully unfold. But, on Sunday, Tunisia will once again be the regional pioneer as it holds the first post-revolution democratic election in a dramatically altered landscape.
Tunisians will be taking to the polls in what are the most important elections in the country’s history. For many, this will be their first opportunity to cast a meaningful vote.
Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections.” Human rights were at the root of the revolution and it is now crucial for Tunisians to ensure that human rights remain at the core of the new Tunisia.
Free and fair elections are just the first step. The new Constituent Assembly will assume the difficult task of translating demands for freedom, dignity and human rights into a new constitution. The new authorities will face multiple political, institutional, economic and social challenges, and the new State that is emerging will need a crystal clear and solid human rights foundation in order to tackle them.
The principles of rule of law, of accountability, of non-discrimination and gender equality, the principles of freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief – these rights are also laid down in the Universal Declaration and the desire to see them realized was a driving force behind the Tunisian revolution. These rights, and all the others laid down in this visionary document, and subsequently enshrined in a wide range of international treaties, must permeate any legal or policy response to the challenges Tunisia is facing. A successful rights-based revolution must be followed by a new rights-based social, legal, political and economic order.
Article 28 of the Universal Declaration says “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.”
That, in a nutshell, is really what this election is all about.
The state must be at the service of all its people. The democratic transformation of Tunisia will require a new legal framework that ensures clear separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
By taking to the polls, I am confident Tunisians will be vigilant and united in their response to any attempts to undermine their hard-earned gains. Democracy, human rights and development go hand in hand. Inevitably there will be setbacks, there will be delays, there will be disappointments. But if the will is there, a new free, fair and prosperous Tunisia can soon begin to emerge.
The UN human rights office in Tunisia is working on the ground to support the people and Government of Tunisia move towards this national transformation into an open and democratic society. We are working with Tunisian civil society, authorities and donors on an integrated plan to support transitional justice processes, an independent judiciary, institutional and legal reforms, reparation for victims, the establishment of an independent national human rights institution and the implementation of economic, social and cultural rights.
Emerging from decades of what Tunisians described to me, when I met them on 14 July in Tunis, as “denial of dignity,” it is understandable that they have high expectations that the country’s institutions will be dramatically transformed, with a positive impact on their enjoyment of their fundamental human rights. Lack of progress on various fronts can lead to disillusionment that “nothing has changed.”
We are at a critical juncture and successful elections will be key to keeping the momentum going. For the first time in Tunisia’s history, an election is being supervised by an independent authority rather than by the Ministry of Interior.
A successful election means there will be losers as well as winners, on the political level. But accepting defeat and working with the new administration for the benefit of the whole country will help ensure everyone is a winner.
Change is possible, but cannot be achieved through cynicism, apathy and disillusionment. Change can be achieved when the people take ownership of the future of their homeland and participate in the important decisions that will determine the course it takes. That is why it is important that Tunisians — young and old, women and men — make their voices heard once again, this time by casting their votes.
Many millions of people around the world, including myself, will be watching Sunday’s vote with goodwill and optimism — but also some trepidation. Our greatest hope is that Tunisia will once again act as an inspirational role model for other countries in the region, and elsewhere in the world, in the conduct of these elections and in the new social and political landscape they can help to shape.
Navi Pillay is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.